Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Utopia in the DC Suburbs - Greenbelt, Md

This city was created in 1937, in the midst of the Depression, as a federal project to provide housing for low income families. Two other greenbelt cities were built in the 30s - Greendale, WI and Greenhills, OH. The plan was ambitious - a complete city where people would have affordable homes, work together for the community good, and have ready access to green spaces. The two main streets formed a crescent, with stores, the school, and community buildings nestled between them. Around them were homes, grouped so that residents could walk into the center of town without crossing a major street. There were lots of pedestrian pathways, with tunnels or overpasses to safely get pedestrians across major roads. Surrounding it all was forested land, the green belt for which the town was named. Nearly 6000 families applied for the original 885 homes.

So, what did Utopia look like in 1937? Well, it had art deco buildings, simple Scandinavian style furniture, and lots of inspirational sculptures showing people working together to make a better community. The houses were designed very small to minimize costs - just under 700 square feet for a two story, 3 bedroom house. Ordinary furniture would not have fit, and so special furniture was designed for these homes. Pieces were designed to be small, simply designed, and multipurpose, and then production was contracted to a family owned Danish furniture factory. Although it was affordable furniture designed for low income homeowners, it became sought after for its sleek, modern style. The company went on to become SCAN furniture, a chain which still sells Scandinavian style furniture in the DC area.

Greenbelt residents were very big on community life. Local groups formed to provide babysitting, publish a newspaper, and start a hospital, fire department, and rescue squad. A co-op was formed to operate stores in the community, and in the 1950s when the federal government wanted to get out of the housing business in Greenbelt, another co-op formed to buy the homes. Nowadays a typical suburban community has grown up around the historic original city, with high rises, McMansions sitting on cul de sacs, and an Ikea. Today, in this city founded for low income families, the median household income is $46,000.

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