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“Radical Suburbs” is Greenbelt History through a Big-Picture Lens

posted in: History, Ideas
Photo by Greenbelt Museum

 

The latest in the Greenbelt Museum’s terrific lecture series was a talk and book signing by Amanda Kolson Hurley,  author of Radical Suburbs: Experimental Living on the Fringes of the American City. As the Museum wrote, “The book includes a chapter on Greenbelt and its history, placing our experimental community in the context of a variety of other suburban experiments. The book is receiving excellent press, including on WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi show,” which you can listen to here. And you can buy the book here.

Hurley, a senior editor at CityLab and an expert on suburbs, had things to say about our charmed city I’d never heard before, so I got a copy as soon as possible and devoured it.

Anyone interested in Greenbelt, urban planning or just fascinating stories will, I predict, love this thought-provoking book, as I did.

Greenbelt History in Context 

Hurley’s talk first covered the history of the suburbs from “Leave it to Beaver” to the suburban horror movie “Get Out” and the current “revulsion” felt toward the conformity of Levittowns.

Featured in the book are six suburbs, all communes and “nonconformist suburbs,” but she told us that Greenbelt is the “heart of the book.” Plus, it’s on the cover!

Greenbelt embodied Ebenezer Howard’s vision of “Garden Cities,” new towns on the outskirts of cities, with moderate housing density and surrounded by a green belt. Instead of suburban sprawl, they used Modern-style mid-rise apartments and rowhouses, which were unheard-of in suburbia.

The chapter about Greenbelt includes some terrific quotes from pioneers, one of whom described moving to a new place with so much yet to be completed, a challenge that hadn’t occurred to me in the city’s history. He went on:

We would be engaging in an untried experiment which gave no assurance of success. We would be letting the whole world know that we were a so-called low-income family.

But when he got to the things that attracted him to this experiment, it was pretty moving: “a community dedicated to progress,” and being part of a “classless society where we could grow in the soil dedicated to democratic citizenship.”

In today’s political climate it’s downright weird to read about the day he and his wife “bought some some pieces of furniture from our government” and that their kids attended an “elementary school run by the federal government with a progressive curriculum.” Yeah, hard to see that happening again soon.

Another pioneer wrote that “There was no hierarchy here, no rich people looking down on the peasants.” I’m so glad we still have that, especially in the historic housing.

Rex the Red

My strongest take-away from the talk and the book may be my newfound fanship for the man most responsible for making Greenbelt happen –  Rex Tugwell, a/k/a “Rex the Red.” Hurley describes him as “the most far-left member of FDR’s administration, and a “debonair, left-wing economist” with an “academic air and move-star looks.” So what’s not to like?

Tugwell’s goal was for the federal government to build garden cities across the U.S. because he considered them the model for how cities should expand. (And don’t many of us Greenbelters agree?)

Surprisingly, to me at least, he was fired from his job before Greenbelt was actually built, but later lived here.

I had to find out more about this guy, and Wiki had the goods:

“The RA’s suburban resettlement program earned him condemnation as Communist and un-American because of its social planning aspects. Historians agree he was at all times a loyal American and was never affiliated in any way with the Communist Party.”

After his shortened stint with the Resettlement Administration, he was appointed governor of Puerto Rico. Then “Tugwell returned to teaching at a variety of institutions. He had years of service at the University of Chicago, where he helped develop their planning program. He later moved to Greenbelt, Maryland.

I wondered exactly where in Greenbelt and blog readers provided the answer for this update: Tugwell and his wife Grace lived at 119 Northway from 1957 to 1961.

So why was he fired? The Greenbelt plan had lots of critics, vocal and powerful ones. The Washington Post and others called the town “Tugwell’s Folly” and “a waste of money.” (Here Hurley agrees that maybe it was a “boondoggle,” but that it was not intended to demonstrate cost-effectiveness in construction; its purpose was to put a lot of men to work.)

The home-building industry fought it, naturally wanting their industry to stay private, not government-run.

So after the first three green belt towns, there were no more and this city “never became more than a one-off demonstration,” in Hurley’s words. In the book she calls it “the most potent symbol of the path not taken in suburban development in the United States.”

She asserts that when Greenbelt passed out of federal hands, “the vision of dignified, egalitarian public housing withered.”

Hurley concludes, however, with plenty of good things to say about this place. “Nevertheless, in many ways, Greenbelt is still worth emulating 75 years after its unlikely birth.” Examples include its surprising affordability for this region, and its “far-sighted” Art Deco school building and swimming pool. Oh, and she calls the New  Deal  Cafe “a venerable and much-loved coop.”

In addition to Greenbelt, Radical Suburbs features these fascinating experiments in suburban Utopia:

  • Old Economy in Ambridge, PA, where members were religious celibates, and private property wasn’t allowed. Yet, it’s a popular tourist attraction today!
  • Stelton Colony in NJ. 1910, a tiny-house Anarchist community of people escaping persecution in New York City.
  • Moon Hill and Five Fields in Lexington MA with its Modernist homes and lots of commons. The homes are so nice, they’re now going for $1.5 million or so each.
  • Concord Park in Trevose PA outside Philadelphia, similar to Levittown but built by a socialist organizer, so it’s integrated.
  • Reston, VA, founded in 1964, architecturally daring, very progressive for its day, and a successful example of New Urbanism – a suburb that’s more like a town.

Lessons for Today 

Hurley concluded her talk and her book with some big prescriptions for the American suburb.

  • We need zoning reform because so much of suburbia currently requires single family homes. “800-square foot townhouses should be okay.” Hear, hear!
  • Legalize accessory dwelling units and apartments (like tiny houses).
  • Make communities walkable.
  • Include a mix of uses and housing types.
  • Prioritize renters, co-op members and subsidized housing by removing the current bias toward home-ownership in our tax code.
  • Gotta have good public transit.

Great Stuff by Hurley Online

I found 2 great articles by Hurley on the CityLab website.

 

Follow Susan Harris:
Susan started blogging about Greenbelt soon after moving here in 2012. Retired from garden writing and teaching, she continues to blog at GardenRant.com and direct Good Gardening Videos.org, a nonprofit, ad-free educational campaign.

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