A Walk in Old Greenbelt
On New Year’s Day, I take a morning walk in Old Greenbelt, the center part of the city built in the 1930s and 40s.
Southway is the front entrance of the city, and a Maryland historical marker greets visitors:
“Greenbelt was the first of three planned garden towns built and owned by the U.S. Government during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.”
The other two are Greendale, Wisconsin, near Milwaukee and Greenhills, Ohio, near Cincinnati.
“It was a ‘New Deal’ experiment in community planning, of note to urban planners throughout the world. The 885 original homes were built in a series of clusters, joined by interior walks, and circling central business, civic and recreation facilities.”
The 885 original homes included 574 attached row houses, 306 apartments, and 5 prefabricated detached houses.
“Greenbelt was incorporated June 1, 1937 as the first Maryland city with council-manager government.”
The first weekend in June is now recognized in the city as Greenbelt Day Weekend, with numerous activities celebrating the creation of the city charter. This year Greenbelt will celebrate the 75th anniversary of its founding.
“In 1952 the residents of the community formed a cooperative and purchased most of the government built houses. By 1954, the U.S. Government had sold all developed property and most vacant land.”
The cooperative was called Greenbelt Veterans Housing Corporation (GVHC). The public law which authorized the sale of greenbelt towns gave preference to veterans’ groups.
“While many new neighborhoods are also included in the present city, the original planned community continues as a cooperative.”
In 1957 GVHC changed its name to Greenbelt Homes, Incorporated (GHI), and this is the cooperative that today owns the original townhouses of 1937.
According to Cathy D. Knepper’s book “Greenbelt, Maryland—A Living Legacy of the New Deal,” this marker was placed “at the Southway entrance to town during the 1975 Fourth of July celebrations” (page 190).
This plaque, on a stone wall next to the historical marker, was placed in 1997 when the city celebrated its 60th birthday: “Greenbelt Historic District has been designated a National Historic Landmark. The original town of Greenbelt was the first government sponsored planned community built on garden city principles and possesses national significance in commemorating the history of the United States of America.”
The protective cover of the welcome map has been damaged, and the latest, December 29, 2011 issue of Greenbelt News Review, the city’s free weekly newspaper, reported that the City Council has approved refurbishing this sign: “Council agreed to have staff move forward with work on the Southway sign and to schedule a worksession on city signage. Council also wanted to address other city signage soon. In the interim they asked that the Southway sign be taken down” (Barbara Hopkins).
In the Southway median strip, by the historical marker, winter jasmine flowers are already blooming on this New Year’s Day. This shrub is native to China, and its Chinese name is Ying Chun which means “Welcome Spring.”
As one walks north on Southway toward city center, one sees rows of frame houses (the original 1937 townhouses used cinder blocks or bricks). These frame houses were built in 1941 for defense workers as the U.S. was entering into WWII and have thus been known as “defense houses.” About 1,000 of them were built here along Southway and at the north end of the town, and they are now owned by GHI.
As one comes to Ridge Road, one sees some of the original 1937 cinder block row houses. Most of these are two-story structures with two or three bedrooms on the upper level, and each unit has about 1,100 square feet. (The frame houses are smaller; a two-level, three-bedroom frame house has about 920 square feet.)
Further north on Southway, this is one of the original 1937 brick row houses. These brick houses are about the same size as cinder block ones but are nowadays slightly more desirable for various reasons (more aesthetically pleasing perhaps, having an attic under the gable roof for storage and more breathable walls, etc).
As one crosses Crescent Road, one comes to the heart of Greenbelt, and here is the city’s Municipal Building. First opened in 1963, this is where the seven-member City Council meets. On this sign NLC stands for National League of Cities, and Greenbelt is a member of the NLC-supported Partnership for Working Toward Inclusive Communities.
Roosevelt Center is the commercial center of Old Greenbelt, and today it includes a theater (whose marquee is visible here), a co-op supermarket, a convenience store, a barber shop, a dry cleaning store, several restaurants and offices. It was completed in 1937 and named after Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1982 on the 100th anniversary of his birth to honor his contribution to the founding of Greenbelt.
Joseph Natoli Sr., known as “Golden Joe,” a long-time operator of Generous Joe’s Deli in Roosevelt Center, passed away a few weeks ago after a stroke. Here a photograph has been taped to the glass window of the restaurant. Mr Natoli came to Greenbelt in 1964 and had operated a family restaurant in the city since 1966 for 45 years.
In front of the theater, a plaque commemorates one of the “pioneer” families. Those who moved to Greenbelt when the town was founded have been known as “pioneers” and held in high esteem. In those early years, Greenbelt was in the middle of a forest, very much like a frontier town.
The New Deal Café in Roosevelt Center is one of the seven cooperatives still active in Greenbelt. The other six are Greenbelt Homes, Inc., Greenbelt Federal Credit Union, Co-op Supermarket, Greenbelt News Review, Greenbelt Nursery School, and Rapidan Camps (a vacation retreat in the Blue Ridge mountains). The café offers Lebanese food and desserts, hosts art exhibits, and maintains an active live entertainment schedule. The window poster here is based on a bas-relief panel at the city’s Community Center (which I will pass later in this walk).
This 1939 sculpture titled Mother and Child is at the north end of the Roosevelt Center mall. It is by the WPA (Works Progress Administration, a New Deal public works agency) artist Lenore Thomas (1909-88) and shows a mother giving her child a drink of water. The blue-roof building in the distance houses the Greenbelt Aquatic and Fitness Center.
A poster of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt is displayed at one of the north windows of the New Deal Café. Under her photograph is this line: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Mrs. Roosevelt visited Greenbelt several times and helped the young city behind the scenes. In 1976, after petition by the people of Greenbelt, the city’s new high school was named Eleanor Roosevelt High School.
Just west of Roosevelt Center is Greenbelt Community Center which has been the center of community life since the beginning: it housed the city’s first public school (Center School) and hosted townhall meetings, club activities, and religious services (before separated houses of worship were built elsewhere); today, the school has moved out but a full range of community activities still take place daily here. This is also one of the best known art deco buildings in the United States, and here the south façade features four curving, fluted buttresses, five large bands of windows, and a series of bas-relief panels. The tree on the left is a star magnolia.
The bas-relief panels were by Lenore Thomas, the sculptor of the Mother and Child statue at Roosevelt Center. The panels illustrate the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, and this is the one used at the New Deal Café poster, with the caption “Insure Domestic Tranquility.” It shows a farmer on the left holding a sheaf of wheat talking to a factory worker with a lunch box.
A block west of the Community Center is the Greenbelt Museum, at 10B Crescent Road. This is an original 1937 two-level, two-bedroom cinder block row house with an attached garage (this row has two houses only). It was purchased by the city from GHI and dedicated as a museum in 1987 as part of the city’s 50th anniversary celebration.
The Greenbelt Museum house faces a playground, one of the many in the planned community. This one, because of its central location, is the meeting place of the Greenbelt Mamas and Papas group every Wednesday morning. (When the weather is not nice to play outside, the group meets in the Youth Center.)
This is one of the underpasses in Greenbelt’s original design that separate vehicular traffic from pedestrian traffic. This one under Crescent Road connects the Community Center and the Public Library to the playground.
Another integral feature of the Greenbelt design is a system of inner walkways within blocks of row houses. Thus pedestrians need not walk along busy roads and can enjoy a view of gardens, common areas, and playgrounds on their way to school, community center, and stores.
The name Greenbelt comes from the belt of green forestland surrounding the town, and the citizens of Greenbelt have guarded these natural areas assiduously. This is a wooded area just south of 4 Ridge Road, with a path leading to Greenbelt Lake.
Greenbelt, with its New Deal history, has generally been a progressive community with a long tradition of citizen activism.
Greenbelt Lake is a 23 acre man-made lake and was one of the first projects undertaken by the city’s builders in 1935. The 1.3-mile loop path along the lake is a popular trail all year around for walkers, joggers, and their animal companions.
A flock of gulls rests on the calm lake. It is 50 degrees on this New Year’s Day with no ice in sight.
A pair of mallard ducks
A path leads from the lake back to the city center, passing the tennis courts and this skate park. The skate park was dedicated on June 2, 2007, and a nearby marker quotes Eleanor Roosevelt: “Life was meant to be lived.”
Here the Greenbelt flag flies above Greenbelt Aquatic and Fitness Center. “Greenbelt, History of a New Town,” edited by Mary Lou Williamson, has this to say about the flag: “In spring 1938 council initiated a contest to design a community flag and seal. Out of sixty-five residents who entered, Mary Clare Bonham, a high school junior, was declared winner for her design of a lone pine tree in green upon a field of white between two broad green stripes” (Barbara Likowski and Jay McCarl, page 77).
My walk ends at the Aquatic Center. I will now go in to watch the New Year’s Day polar plunge.