The New Deal town of Greenbelt, Maryland was established in 1937 as one of the era’s so-called “green towns” which were conceived as prototypes for utopian communities throughout the United States. During the 40s and 50s, the town was run as a cooperative, but with eugenic undertones — prospective residents of the town had to complete detailed applications and non-Whites were not allowed to live in Greenbelt until 1963.
In a self-described co-op utopia, how do Greenbelt’s public, civic, and residential spaces reflect a notion of community? Also, is the concept of fostering community through space in Greenbelt a reflection of a contemporary reality or just nostalgia?
The spaces of historic Greenbelt — replete with Art Deco housing units, a town hall, and a central shopping center with a public square — remain inhabited and well-maintained in 2010, but with notable differences. The public square above had a few people relaxing on benches and others selling tickets for a Greenbelt film festival , but the area did feel a bit deserted for a weekend. Without a doubt, big box shopping centers nearby have eclipsed the services offered in this center, which was the commercial hub of days past. I believe that this central space is not a deterrent to crowds, but quite the opposite — it’s visually accessible and welcoming.
The historic area of Greenbelt’s housing units functions well today. The backyards of the houses face each other and are connected by sidewalks that wind through the neighborhood.
The buildings are clean and the symmetrical Art Deco design fits nicely with the green spaces. The town was featured in a 1939 film titled “The City” where it was portrayed as the remedy to the chaotic, dehumanizing rhythms of the metropolis.
In the civic areas of Greenbelt, green space dominates what could have been a paved central square. The town hall is understated in its monumentality and was certainly the architectural hallmark of the town when it was first conceived. The reliefs running along the side depict articles from the Constitution.