by Sheila Maffay-Tuthill, Education and Volunteer Coordinator, Greenbelt Museum
The utopian planned community of Greenbelt has had a complicated history with “man’s best friend.” When families were first moving into the town, it was decided that pets of any kind were not allowed. Some of the thinking that went into the decision is worth considering. In this time period, the Great Depression era, many people may have had the habit of keeping food animals in their yards. Chickens and rabbits were especially popular. The planners of the community were building a clean and modern place for families. There were to be no fences between row houses, and close quarters were clearly in play. Dogs are not farm animals, but they are hard to keep without a fenced area.
From the beginning, the early ban on dogs was controversial. One family that had been accepted into Greenbelt decided against moving in. The husband/father had recently passed away, and the mother felt that the children couldn’t deal with another loss. Another family, before moving in, found new owners living nearby on a farm to take the family dog. They planned to visit occasionally. As dogs sometimes do, the crafty canine found a way to visit his former owners in Greenbelt. The timing was most unfortunate, however, as a ladies’ tea was scheduled that afternoon. Mother told the children to keep the dog upstairs during the gathering, but the gambit failed spectacularly with the hound escaping to the downstairs, upending teacups and certainly the dignity of the event.
Pioneer child Lee Shields tells a story of his family working around the pet prohibition. His family took in a baby blue jay in distress. They named him Jay. The bird was attached to his family, and they loved him, clandestinely. Jay did cause problems in the neighborhood, as he had a propensity to dive bomb bald men walking by and occasionally stole silky undergarments hanging out on the (service side) clothes-line to dry.
Protests about the pet ban would bubble up with some frequency, and referendums and surveys were utilized to take measure of community support for the ban. The local newspaper published many letters from citizens passionately arguing their own viewpoint on the issue. Hydrophobia danger was invoked; poems were written in praise of dog ownership. One letter to the editor was written by the Tugwells of 119 Northway, suggesting a compromise on the issue. Yes, that Tugwell! Residents argued about it and some ignored the prohibition for years. A former Mayor of Greenbelt admitted to keeping a dog until the authorities gave him a warning. A group of Greenbelt children 40 strong protested at the police station in favor of dogs being allowed. This was an important issue for such a long time!
In 1957, the dog issue in the cooperative homes came to a pivotal moment. GHI decided to crack down on unauthorized dog ownership. Warnings were given, and proceedings to terminate non-complying members began. Members argued that as property owners and citizens they had the right to own dogs and other pets. A lawsuit was filed and the courts decided in favor of the pet owners.
Greenbelt is filled with canine residents and cats today. A dog park was established in 1996, and a City of Greenbelt Pet Expo is an early summer fixture. Labor Day features a Pet Show. Residents in Greenbelt enjoy walking with their dogs on the lake path and throughout the city. Still no chickens allowed, though!
Originally published on the Greenbelt Museum Blog.