By Vandana Sinha
GREENBELT – Annie Halley thought she was in heaven on a fall day 60 years ago when, as a young housewife in the midst of the Depression, she stepped into her new home – a tiny white two- bedroom house in Greenbelt.
James Donald Wolfe, then 10, remembers his mother praying every night to live in a Greenbelt row house with running water and electricity after losing their house in the 1930s.
And Joanne Kellaher was 2 when her family moved in 1937 to the city where she never had to cross a street to reach the library, school, grocery store, playground or swimming pool.
Halley, Wolfe and Kellaher were among the first 3,000 residents of Greenbelt when it opened in October 1937 as a New Deal experiment to offer rental housing and jobs to low- and middle-income families during the Depression.
This week Greenbelt celebrates its 60th anniversary and its new status as a national historic landmark, which places the 756.8-acre planned community on par with Mount Vernon, Monticello, the Empire State Building and the nation’s other 2,227 national landmarks.
“I’m very proud of Greenbelt and always have been,” said Mayor Antoinette Bram, a resident for 37 years. “The landmark status involves responsibility – we don’t treat that casually. We will keep Greenbelt looking good and worthy of that status.”
Greenbelt residents today agree that the vision of the city’s original planner, Rexford Guy Tugwell, lives in the serene two-lane roads bereft of traffic lights, clean long blocks of original cinder block and brick housing and the green belt of trees that encircles the community and provides its namesake.
“We started out in building a good community and building a good place to live and raising our children in the right environment and caring for each other,” said Lucille Howard, 83, a Greenbelt resident and one of the city’s “pioneer” wives in 1938. “And we’re still doing it.”
Greenbelt was the first and largest of four planned communities that Tugwell derived from English “garden cities” based on small housing, few buildings and more green space. Planned cities in Greendale, Wis., and Greenhills, Ohio, followed. The fourth in Greenbrook, N.J., was never built.
“Most cities used to grow organically,” said Howard Berger, an architectural historian with Prince George’s County Planning Department. “This (urban planning) was part of a movement to try to, in a sense, bring order into chaos. It’s a holistic look at all the aspects that make up a community.”
But Greenbelt faced criticism at the beginning.
Dubbed “Tugwell’s Folly” by The Washington Post in the 1930s, the Roosevelt administration’s construction project cost taxpayers close to $10 million, booted out residents whose income topped $2,200 a year and prohibited women from working, hanging out clothes on evenings and Sundays and wearing shorts in public.
The federal government established an advisory panel in 1937 to screen and select 885 of 12,000 applications by low- to middle-income families to live in the federally funded housing at $31.50 to $41 a month for rent.
“The government wanted a community of active citizens,” said James Giese, former city manager for 28 years and Greenbelt resident for 35 years.
“Now there is a higher … sense of community and community activism, and this is a legacy going back to when the federal government sought out residents who were active,” he said.
Residents said they are affected, but not marred, by the city’s growth, which transformed Greenbelt from 885 to 10,000 housing units, from 3,000 to 21,000 population and from 20,000 to more than 4 million square feet of commercial space, the city planning department said.
The Beltway Plaza shopping mall, 12-story office buildings, parking lots, Spring Hill Lake apartment complex, turn-offs to the Beltway and Baltimore-Washington Parkway and six-lane thoroughfares such as Kenilworth Avenue that rumble through Greenbelt’s east side belies “Old Greenbelt’s” sidewalks, bike paths, underpasses, stop signs and open fields next door.
“You turn off of Greenbelt Road, and you step back in time,” said Celia Wilson Craze, director of the city planning and community development department. “It really reflects the epitome of what planning can achieve.”
She said county zoning authority, new engineering techniques and private development interests prevail over city officials’ preference to savor the Greenbelt of half a century ago.
“The city has made every effort to respect the planning heritage of the original community,” Craze said. “It’s probably fair to say that if Greenbelt was not built then, it would be very difficult to create it given today’s zoning tools.”
Greenbelt also has seen dramatic changes in its residents.
The city, which started as an all-white community, is now 20 percent black, 9 percent Asian and 4 percent Hispanic.
“There are many racial issues underlying here,” said Frederick Okie, 34, a black physician who moved to a Spring Hill Lake apartment in east Greenbelt in March and visits the Old Greenbelt public library each week. “I don’t know if some people would be happy about it if blacks moved in this area.”
But Halley, who lives in the same house she moved into with her young family 60 years ago, said change is a part of life.
“It’s not just compact like it was in the beginning. It’s grown so much, but I feel like it’s still a wonderful place,” the 85-year-old said. “Things have to change. I accepted it.”