Utopia Film Festival Opening Program
Greenbelt’s Utopia Film Festival has been held every October since 2005. Independent films that reflect the spirit of the community and locally produced films are emphasized. This year’s 8th Annual Utopia Film Festival opened on October 13 with a program that celebrates Greenbelt’s 75th anniversary.
Sign for Utopia Film Festival’s opening program
Three films will be shown:
11 am: Greenbelt: A Model Community
11:15 am: The City
12 noon: Home: The Langston Terrace Dwellings
From right are Lee Shields, Bonnie Shields, and Sharon (Taylor) Allemann. Both Lee Shields and Sharon Allemann are Greenbelt pioneers. Allemann is in town to attend this evening’s Greenbelt 75th Anniversary Gala.
Amethyst Dwyer enjoys some freshly made popcorn.
Jo-Anne Fournier (left) talks to Leeann Irwin. Irwin is the manager of this Utopia Film Festival’s Greenbelt 75th Anniversary Film Program.
From left are Leeann Irwin, Lois Rosado, and City Councilmember Leta Mach.
Angela Handran, Greenbelt Theater’s manager, works behind the counter.
A filmgoer picks up a festival brochure.
Leeann Irwin welcomes people to the opening program of the 8th Annual Utopia Film Festival. She says that today program looks at issues related to the city’s 75th anniversary.
A short trailer on the Utopia Film Festival. Susan Gervasi, the festival’s executive director, tells me that all of the films today including this trailer are shown with a digital projector which the staff carried up to the projection booth. The theater has a 35mm film projector only.
The first film is the 11-minute “Greenbelt: A Model Community,” directed by Martin Huberman and produced by the Greenbelt Museum’s curator Megan Searing Young in 2010.
“Greenbelt’s history comes to life through interviews with current residents, Greenbelt pioneer children, and historians. It also features rare newsreel footage, dozens of historic photographs, and contemporary scenes of Greenbelt today.”
Lee Shields, a Greenbelt pioneer who is in attendance and who I just photographed, is shown sitting in Greenbelt Museum’s kitchen.
The film also includes a photo of the Greenbelt Theater on opening night, September 21, 1938. A reproduction of the photo is in the theater’s lobby.
University of Maryland architectural professor Isabelle Gournay speaks in the Greenbelt Museum’s living room.
The second film is “The City,” a 43-minute, black-and-white documentary from 1939. “Made to be shown at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, ‘The City’ is the classic New Deal documentary about the Depression-era birth of the utopian ‘green towns.’”
A city crowded with people
Greenbelt where carefree children bike on the pedestrian pathway, with the Community Center (then Center School) in the background
The Art Deco Greenbelt Center School
Greenbelt’s shopping center (now Roosevelt Center)
Greenbelt’s iconic cinderblock townhouses
An apartment building on Crescent Road (now called Crescent Square Apartments)
“The City” ends with a smiling boy.
The third film in this program is the 57-minute “Home: The Langston Terrace Dwellings,” directed and produced by Barr Weissman. “The Langston Terrace Dwellings, which is twenty-five blocks from the U.S. Capitol, was the first federally funded housing project in 1937. Project architect Hilyard Robinson was determined to create a decent, attractive development enhanced by natural materials and public art. ‘Home: The Langston Terrace Dwellings’ examines this New Deal utopian housing project for African-Americans—the first public housing project in Washington, D.C. and the second in the nation.” Shown here is architect Hilyard Robinson.
Historian David Taft Terry (left) and filmmaker Barr Weissman answer questions after the film. Here Terry talks about restrictive covenants which were used to keep certain groups of people such as African Americans, Jews, and Asians out of certain communities.
Barr Weissman adds that the neighborhoods around Langston Terrace were all white and there were indeed such covenants.
This lady wants to know whether Langston Terrace was built on empty land. Weissman answers yes.
Lois Rosado finds interesting that children at Langston Terrace were raised not knowing about segregation and discrimination. She also mentions that Greenbelt residents were able to form a co-op and purchase the town from the federal government whereas Langston Terrace declined.
This audience member says that residents in Greenbelt were savvy in their dealings with the federal government, especially loans, and that played a role in their ability to purchase the town.
Lore Rosenthal says that today is the first time she has heard about Langston Terrace and asks whether any sociologists have done long-term studies on its decline.
Barr Weissman says he does not know such long-term study. David Taft Terry talks about the opening of other opportunities to African Americans may have something to do with the decline.
Anna Socrates says that Greenbelt also had a shopping center and a school. She asks whether there were similar community facilities at Langston Terrace as it was in the middle of white neighborhoods. “Where did they go grocery shopping?” Weissman says that there were only 274 units so no new facilities were constructed specifically for it. There went to shops on Benning Road. There was negotiating going on with the surrounding communities.
Justin Baker mentions Kelly Anne Quinn’s University of Maryland dissertation on Langston Terrace and a documentary on the disintegration of the Pruitt-Igoe public housing project in St. Louis.
Susan Gervasi, Utopia Film Festival’s executive director, mentions that the animal sculptures in the film at Langston Terrace were done by Lenore Thomas Straus, the WPA sculptor who was responsible for the Mother and Child statue in Greenbelt. “So Langston Terrace and Greenbelt had one artist in common,” she says.
Bill Norwood talks about the upward mobility aspect of Langston Terrace.
Leeann Irwin shows a booklet on Langston Terrace by Barr Weissman that supplements the film.
Terry mentions that a book called “Alley Life in Washington” by James Borchert is a standard on African American life in Jim Crow D.C.
This member of the audience thinks the film captures well the spirits and aspirations of the people living in Langston Terrace and is interested to know more about the techniques used in making the film.
Barr Weissman says that the film took five years. He studied anthropology in school and has been influenced by Clifford Geertz’s “thick description” approach to anthropology, “which is where you don’t have opinion and you don’t try to impose your opinion; you try to let the subject be whatever the subject is… I wanted the people to speak for themselves.”
Jo-Anne Fournier raises a question about public housing (Langston Terrace) vs planned community (Greenbelt) and says that we need to consider what kind of community we need for the future.
Terry says that as a historian he tries to put himself back in the historical situation. He thinks that public housing such as Langston Terrace in the 1930s helped the African American residents because of the Jim Crow laws around.
Lore Rosenthal says that people choose to live in Old Greenbelt because of the community here even though the houses are small. She asks whether there are “forward thinking projects in D.C. where people would choose to live that close together and build a small community just like here in Greenbelt.”
Barr Weissman thinks that such communities are making a comeback.
Bill Norwood says that it is possible to make things better and he tells about a landlord of a housing complex being tough on criminal activities.
Justin Baker talks about a growing movement of downsizing homes and now McMansions are going out of favor.
“How is Langston today?” Weissman says that he has not been back for a while and this should be Langston Terrace’s 75th anniversary year. Leeann Irwin tells that she tried many times to contact Langston Terrace but could not find an organization there.
Barr Weissman talks to audience members after the discussion.
Brother and sister Rodrick and Gina Darby were both born and raised in Langston Terrace. Their father was a federal worker and their mother a homemaker. They have fond memories of the place, and they talk about “the richness of the community and the beauty of the architecture.”
Historian David Taft Terry holds a Utopia Film Festival T-shirt and a festival all-events pass.