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A Love Letter to Greenbelt from Danielle Towers

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Introduction: Midwest Suburban Girl Walks into Greenbelt (with a Camera)

I grew up in a suburb north of Chicago and I spent my whole young life wanting to get as far away from it as possible. So it’s funny, but also fitting, that I would return to the suburbs for my senior thesis project at George Washington University. It’s an experience that has taught me about the nuances of both urban and suburban life as well as living on my own. 

I first came to Greenbelt during the Labor Day festival in 2022 for an assignment in my photography class. I had decided the suburbs of DC were ideal for the Labor Day experience I wanted to document, in a place that resembled my hometown. But what I discovered in Greenbelt was nothing like the cliquey, stuck-up and painfully stereotypical suburb I grew up in. To the contrary, Greenbelt was a community in every sense of the word.

On that fateful first day in Greenbelt I witnessed strangers mingling as neighbors,  from young children and teens to parents and elders. People were eating corndogs and ice cream on blankets in the grass and in small clusters in the town square. It felt like something pulled right out of the Gilmore Girls set. I was intrigued by Greenbelt’s simple charm and its diverse population.

I decided to learn more about the city. What I discovered was an extensive archive of literature, newspapers, maps, images and resources about Greenbelt and its unique conception as a government-funded planned community. At that point I decided to make Greenbelt the subject of my senior thesis. 

Here’s a journal entry, dated October, 1st, 2023, from one of my early visits, rumbling through some of the questions that were going through my head:

The built environment is fascinating. I grew up looking at strip malls and feeling an emptiness at their disuse, their abandonment. When I see a high-rise apartment building placed in the middle of a suburban community, it’s as if someone plunked down a Lego piece in the wrong spot. It’s like no one is reading the landscape. How does the way we build where we live wind up altering the course of our lives? Who becomes our neighbors? Will we ever know them? What are the physically imposed barriers to human interaction? What are designs that take down these structures? Is it even about design? Is it something more?

In the months that followed, I would spend most of my time outside of class researching and visiting Greenbelt, trying to answer questions like these. In the end, the project wasn’t about suburbs or architecture; those elements merely set the stage for a project about people and their community. 

Now that my project is completed, and was on display as part of student show at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC, I want to reflect on some of the wonderful people I met, who shaped my experience and understanding of Greenbelt.

Susan Harris  

The first person I reached out to in Greenbelt was Susan Harris, founder of Greenbelt Online. It was Susan whom I met on my first-ever journey to Greenbelt, a camera slung over my shoulder, as I took pictures of the Labor Day parade.

I had stopped along the sidewalk and spotted her sitting and chatting with a few friends, who turned out to be her neighbors. I approached Susan because she seemed positively in her element. She was talking to every person she saw, shaking hands with city council members as they walked through the parade route, and even stepped into the street to dance alongside some friends as they passed.

She seemed to be what we photographers call a “gatekeeper,” someone who knew a lot and was willing to share. When I emailed her months after meeting her that Labor Day and told her about my project, she was more than willing to help, offering to publish my work here, on this blog. This was the start of a wonderful and collaborative relationship with Susan that deeply contributed to my knowledge of the historic city and its key community players. 

I remember meeting with Susan at her home in Greenbelt. I was thrilled because I would finally be able to see the inside of one of the homes. She showed me around her unit and her gardens, which are her pride and joy.

She then took me into town where we found the Greenbelt Honk! Situation having a practice in Roosevelt Center. Susan introduced me to everyone we ran into that day and told them why I was in Greenbelt. It was a major step for me, and after that I felt far more comfortable navigating this new place with a friend who could help spread my name.

We stopped at the New Deal Café to hear some music and then we headed over to Greenbelt National Park to watch the drum circle that was being hosted there. It was a lovely evening. Susan also offered me a ride back to the Greenbelt Metro station, something that became a bit of a ritual over the following months, as various residents offered to do the same during my many visits. When we parted that day at the Metro station, I knew I had made my first real connection to Greenbelt.

Margaret Poore 

I met Margaret Poore on a beautiful fall day sitting on the steps of the Greenbelt Museum. We entered the museum and watched the introductory film about Greenbelt and together went on a tour of the historic home, which was decorated with all sorts of vintage Halloween items.

After the tour, I talked to Margaret outside, getting to know her a bit and learning that she was a “pioneer” resident of Greenbelt, growing up in the “defense housing,” an additional section of homes made to accommodate families of the military. While her father was serving in the Army during World War II, Margaret, her sister and their mother resided in Greenbelt. She grew up in an era defined by war and the conservative lifestyle of a post-Depression America.

Margaret recalled the simple pleasure of having a piece of gum and playing with the silver foil of the wrapper. It was these stories and our shared interest in Greenbelt that brought us together, but I think we found a kindred spirit in each other’s eyes…

After the museum visit, we walked down to the pedestrian underpass, a staple of Greenbelt’s design, and a feature that constituted one of Margaret’s fondest memories of growing up, enjoying hearing her echo in the tunnels. Margaret instructed me to stand on the inside of the tunnel and yell, as she once did. As I stepped inside the cool shade of the tunnel and looked back at Margaret, standing in the bright sunlight on the other side, I opened my mouth to yell. 

As the sound of my voice bounced off the concrete walls back to me, in this moment of shared experience, I couldn’t help but think of the poignance of the passage of time. How this very tunnel, how Greenbelt has borne witness to so many invisible moments, traces of which appear when one looks closely enough.

This was the day I decided on the title of the project, “Invisible City,” inspired by the 1974 book Invisible Cities by Italian journalist Italo Calvino in which fictitious cities are discussed and defined by their relation to culture, time, memory, desire and death. One line in particular brought me again and again back to the essence of Greenbelt:

“The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand…” Calvino, Italo, William, Weaver. “Cities and Memory .” Essay. In Invisible Cities, 11. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974.

This is something I love about Greenbelt’s persistence; it allows one to feel the residue of a place, it’s what makes it feel like a home. It’s been lived in.

A few weeks later I met with Margaret again, this time to see her collection of family photographs from her childhood in Greenbelt. Her mom, she said, was quite the photographer. This was abundantly clear from the quantity and quality of the images she had. Margaret and I sat in the New Deal Café for a few hours looking at these pictures together. In her collection were images of days spent in the snow, Halloween costumes, groups of friends playing games outside, and the occasional stiff but ever-revealing gestures of family portraits.

I found myself as invested in these images as if they had been the archives of my own family. In many ways, what I saw felt both unique to Margaret’s experience while simultaneously speaking more broadly to realities of a time past. One image in particular stood out to me: an image of Margaret standing in the kitchen with her sister, her wide eyes the same ones I saw before me that first afternoon we met at the Greenbelt Museum and I asked to take her photo. 

Margaret jokes about how the portrait I took of her that day is one of her favorites, how it will be the picture that her family uses for her funeral. This joke is characteristic of Margaret’s humor; wry and twinged with the brutal honesty of a woman who feels content with her life and who doesn’t have to take things too seriously. 

Later that evening I sit in my studio and stare at her photo on the wall. Margaret is not an “old lady” in this image, or in life; rather, much like Greenbelt, she is a woman who has lived, has changed, has adapted. What she has seen, she is sharing with me as a friend.

The Greenbelt News Review

One of the first pieces of advice I was given in my research process was to find out about the local paper in Greenbelt. To my pleasant surprise, Greenbelt still has a print newspaper staffed with locals whose quality and commitment to local journalism is truly inspiring. I was connected with the lovely Anna Bedford-Dillow, who gave me a tour of the newsroom and offered me opportunities to photograph local events. Next thing I knew, I was attending the election night watch party for the Greenbelt City Council.

The results were set to come in on a Tuesday night in November, 2023. Tuesday happened to be the worst day in my class schedule, starting at 7am and having class through 5:30pm. But I knew I couldn’t miss this. I hopped on the Metro around 6pm and took a power nap on the way.

When I arrived at the station, I was groggy but ready to witness local democracy in action. The party, held at the fire station, was a perfect example of what makes Greenbelt so unique. The room was something to behold; the knotty pine walls, the pale green checkered linoleum floors and the small TVs which were set up to see the livestream of the vote count over at the Municipal Building. I’m still not sure how they got those TVs to work and produce a livestream.

As I stood in the firehouse, watching friends and families of City Council incumbents and new candidates fraternize as neighbors, the “big leagues” of government playing in their pristine, glorified halls back in D.C. have never appeared less practical. “This is how it ought to be,” I remember thinking. These people care.  This election matters. 

When the results finally started to trickle in, after a two-hour delay and between many handfuls of goldfish from the snack table, I poised myself below the projector and waited. My clunky medium-format camera was no help in the situation as my hand started to cramp waiting for the exact moment when the final outcome would be announced, making sure to get as many faces in one frame as I could.

When the moment finally came, it instantly became one of my favorite images from the project. The suspense, the anticipation, the level of care, the intensity. It was all there. This was a community brought together by a sense of civic duty, not fame or power. These weren’t “politicians” gathered, they were more than that. These were activists and leaders. I saw this as a group of people with hope. 

John Henry Jones

I was introduced to John Henry Jones at the Greenbelt Museum, where his reputation as “honorary Mayor of Greenbelt” preceded him. Margaret Poore, who was sitting alongside me as John Henry appeared in the museum’s introductory film, is an old friend of his. She tells me about his nickname as mayor, and before I can ask why he was given such a name, the film answers for me. On the screen in front of us John Henry is featured in an interview. He is talking passionately about how the Co-op grocery store functions more like a “social hall.” It was clear to me from that comment alone that John Henry was a special person. When I go to the grocery store at home, I normally have one mission: get my food and get out. His was to socialize. I knew I had to meet him. 

The first time I went to met John Henry, I couldn’t seem to find his house. As I walked along the path, I saw a woman outside on her lawn and inquired if I was nearby the house of John Henry. Giving me a smile and a nod, as if a young stranger visiting John Henry couldn’t be more commonplace, she pointed across the way at his home. 

Here is what I wrote about John Henry that afternoon as I caught the bus to the Metro station: 

I’m sitting in the house of Greenbelt resident John Henry, I’ve been told he is known as the ‘mayor of Greenbelt.’ He is 94 years old, so when I arrived I hoped I was not disturbing his afternoon. What I find is an old man with a youthful soul.

His daughter Corita gets us coffee as we sit and discuss what it is I’m doing in Greenbelt. To be honest, I still don’t know what I’m doing in Greenbelt. I don’t say this, but it crosses my mind.

John Henry tells me about himself, his family, his wife, his friends. I can’t stop looking at his clear blue eyes, so worn with memory, so touched by experience. What intrigued me most about Mr. Henry was not only his wonderfully eclectic home, each object representative of a memory, but his path and chosen career.

His life motto proudly inked on the back of his business cards reads “Spread love wherever you go, and watch the love continue to grow.” Mr. Jones spent his professional life as a social worker, helping people with mental illness. He told me people warned him not to get too close to his patients, but he said he couldn’t help it, though. He cared about them.”

The Waters Family

I was introduced to the Waters family through my meeting with John Henry. I had been determined to get to know a family in Greenbelt and when I met Corita, John Henry’s daughter, and learned that she and her family lived in Greenbelt, I asked if there were interested in being part of the project. When she and her wife Andrea said they were on board, I was thrilled. 

I came over to the Waters family on a Saturday morning in January when the unseasonably warm temperatures put a wrench in their plans to go skiing. Already this is a family unlike anything I grew up with. Family sporting activities never went well when I was growing up. But not for the ever- energetic Waters family.

When I arrive the first member of the family I get to know is 11-year-old Maeve. I can’t help but admire her. Not only was she athletic, preferring anything with wheels underneath her feet to the boring old ground, but she was also a fellow artist, with the maturities and sensibilities of a girl well beyond her age. I talked to her about school and her many after-school activities. It seems Maeve may just be the busiest 11-year-old I have ever met!

Next, 16-year-old Kai is summoned from his teenage slumber, and rather than being totally weirded out by the random stranger in his home wielding an over-sized camera in his kitchen, he politely introduced himself and sits down at table where breakfast has begun. Much like Meave, he is involved in more activities than I can count. 

Breakfast is followed by what I can only describe as one of the most absurd card games I have seen. Something to do with a foam burrito that gets tossed about. By the looks of the thing, taped together by the peeling and feeble strands of masking tape that connect its burrito face to its bottom, this game is a household favorite. Everyone offers me the chance to play. I say I’ll take a back seat on the first round to see if I can get the hang of it.

What commences before my camera is a bustle of playful competition, foam burrito-throwing and laughing that is best summed up in the resulting frames. All the while the game was being played, I couldn’t help but think: “what a cool family.” 

After the game concludes, we start a walk in the nearby woods, Maeve on her unicycle as we follow behind. At one juncture in the walk, Kai, Maeve and Corita all proceed to climb the trees ahead, effortlessly attaching themselves to their skinny trunks while I stared up in amazement. This appears to be an average morning for the Waters family. 

I also had the opportunity to spend an evening with the family a few weeks later. On this night, I joined Andrea and Maeve as she decorated her pinewood derby car with her Girl Scout troop. Maeve’s car was a pickle sandwich, a true testament to both her culinary imagination and artistic finesse.

The car, however, was too heavy for the competition. That evening some minor surgery was completed on the wooden vehicle, an event which merited much suspense. I’m happy to report the car’s aesthetic attributes were conserved in the process.

After the derby, Andrea, Corita and I walked over to Andrea’s mother Carolyn’s home. I had been interested in meeting her after having met Corina’s dad, who happens to be “across the way” neighbors with Andrea’s mom. I thought that was something very “Greenbelt”-coded.

Andrea noted after we departed that evening that I hadn’t taken any photos of her mother and inquired why. After all, I am a photographer. I told Andrea I had felt it was more important in that moment simply to meet her mother, observe her surroundings, just to add a piece to the mental picture I was forming. It’s funny, looking back, that I did in fact take a photo of both Carolyn and John Henry’s refrigerators, side by side, the two photos have an interesting visual conversation.

I couldn’t be more thankful for the mornings and evenings I was able to spend with the Waters. To me they represented a crucial missing piece in the work and in my experience of Greenbelt as a whole. I wanted to feel what a family experience was like in Greenbelt. They shared their lives with me and my project and made me feel like I was part of a larger Greenbelt family. I think that may be what I was after all along. 

A Suburban Girl, back home; a Conclusion

As I sit in my backyard at home in the suburbs of Chicago, listing to the symphony of cicadas buzz in the trees, I wrap up this chapter of my story with Greenbelt. As Susan Harris is well aware, I have promised this blog for months. I think my procrastination is due to the fact that finishing this blog post means accepting a sort of goodbye, if only momentarily, from Greenbelt, from D.C., and from my adventures as an undergraduate in college. In many ways, the images I took in Greenbelt express a personal fantasy as much as the reality that I captured.

Yes, my project contains images of real people, people who let me into their lives with openness and trust and for whom I have come to care deeply. But the larger picture isn’t a picture at all: it’s a dream. In my dream all the best parts of Greenbelt, past and present, exist in a perfect harmony: the moment where a group of children and elders and dancers and musicians all gather in the town square to celebrate because they can. It’s a moment. I feel lucky to have seen my dream in the reflection of my camera for a few seconds and capture it.

2 Responses

    | Reply

    What a lovely tribute and connection with us. My neighbor Carolyn introduced me to John Henry during my first week here just a year ago.

  2. Dan Gillotte
    | Reply

    What an amazing project crafted so wonderfully and told with insight and heart! I’m so glad to have crossed paths with you and that Greenbelt became part of your work and your life!

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