This weekend I met my first blog friend. Okay, in full disclosure, she went to college with my sister, and so we have known of each other for many years. But we have never hung out until my blog prompted her to write a few weeks ago and invite me out to visit her hometown of Greenbelt, Maryland. Of course I said yes, and yesterday I made the drive, which was a surprisingly short 35 minutes from my house in Arlington. I was in for an afternoon in historic preservationist heaven.
I met Helena and her daughter at the crepe booth in the farmer’s market. We got crepes and then Helena spread a blanket (she comes prepared) on the grass for us to eat and chat. Mine was gouda, artichoke, egg, and spinach—delicious.
After lunch, Helena suggested we walk around the market and town. Greenbelt was born in 1936 when the federal government, in an effort to provide jobs during the Great Depression, constructed it and two other experimental towns in Ohio and Wisconsin. During the 1930s, people began flocking into cities, including Washington D.C., looking for work. Faced with a housing shortage, D.C. looked outward, and the affordable housing constructed in Virginia and Maryland still defines our suburban landscape. I actually live in an Arlington, Virginia, rowhouse constructed during this era.
In Greenbelt, planners took the need to create housing one step further, and decided to build an entire town that they anticipated would someday be self-sufficient. Potential residents were interviewed. In addition to meeting income requirements, they had to be willing to engage in community activities. The businesses, including the movie theater, grocery store, and gas station, were cooperatively owned. Green space and pedestrian paths were abundant—and still are.
Today, the place reads like a little Art Moderne / International style Utopia. The buildings are long, white, and streamlined. After stops by the old theater and school, which is now a community center, we made our way to the Greenbelt Museum. There we watched an engaging short film about Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which spawned the garden city, and then toured the little duplex. The eager guide showed us the 1930s artifacts, such as a rotary lawn mower that was almost identical to the one
my grandparents I use today.
After the museum, it was time to head home. Thank you, Helena, for inviting me to visit!