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Jun 6, 201110:49 AMResident Tourist

America’s First Experiment with City Planning

Jun 6, 2011 - 10:49 AM
America’s First Experiment with City Planning

The New Deal Café is one of Greenbelt's most popular hangouts, offering live music six nights a week.

After a recent drive through historic Greenbelt, I found out what makes this town stand out from other small towns in Maryland—its history and impact on hundreds of families during the Great Depression. Greenbelt was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997, 60 years after its construction, and knowing more about its history adds a little color back into the sun-bleached signs.

Things were not going so well in the U.S. in 1935 and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had ideas to reinvigorate the post-agricultural job market. The government purchased some land as part of the New Deal, and a new Maryland town was planned to provide out-of-work laborers construction jobs to build it. The town would offer the workers, who were leaving farming for industry, places to live and eventually a place for their families to attend school, open businesses and live comfortably. Thus, Greenbelt became the first planned community, “built from scratch”—a model suburban and garden community.

The dwellings were rental apartments or semi-detached houses, equipped with modern appliances and designed to include things like cross ventilation, picture molding and even made-to-scale furniture (more jobs for more craftsmen!) to fit the modest spaces. You can visit and tour a historic house, furnished and staged just as it would have been for original tenants in 1937 (get a closer look here). The apartment facades—with their original glass block windows—are like the village square, a bit weathered after time, but stand as prime examples of art deco design.

Come for the history and the architecture, but stay for a movie at the Old Greenbelt Theatre and for a cold beer at the New Deal Café. You can toast to FDR and his bold idea.

Greenbelt, Md.

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