The Design Observer Group


Posted 11.23.10


Jason Reblando

New Deal Utopias





For the past couple of years, I have been exploring the legacy of a dynamic era in American history. I have been photographing three planned communities conceived and constructed by the Depression-era administration of Franklin Roosevelt. New Deal Utopias examines some built environments that resulted from FDR's idealistic plans to resettle displaced farmers and poor urban workers in model towns that unified the best elements of city and country. These "greenbelt towns" — Greenbelt, Maryland; Greenhills, Ohio; and Greendale, Wisconsin — were testing grounds for what the short-lived Resettlement Administration envisioned as a new American way of life. Not only were they prototypes of postwar suburbs; they also embodied the hope that American citizens would meet the challenges of the Great Depression in a spirit of cooperation.


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I became interested in the greenbelt communities through previous photographic projects focused on Chicago public housing. While researching the Julia C. Lathrop Homes, a low-rise housing complex built by the Public Works Administration, I learned what architects learn in school — that the provision of design amenities such as ample and accessible common green space was inspired by the British reformer Ebenezer Howard. Observing the overcrowding and foul air of late 19th-century London slums, Howard proposed the Garden City concept, which would combine the social and economic opportunities of the city and the natural beauty of the country. The Greenbelt Town Program set out to be the most fully realized manifestation of Garden City principles in America.

In these photographs, my goal is not only to evoke the communal spirit for which the greenbelt architecture was designed but also to meditate on the urge to create a better society. I learned that many residents remain proud of the New Deal legacy; today the greenbelt towns enjoy common green spaces, and housing layouts encourage neighborly interaction. Yet I want my images to acknowledge somehow that utopia is a problematic goal. It is unsettling to realize that African-Americans helped to build Greenbelt, Maryland, but were not allowed to live in it; they were confined to a separate development, Langston Terrace. We might ask: Who defines utopia? Who has the opportunity to experience it?

Today we are again struggling through tough economic times — though not as tough as then — and the politics and divisions that produced the greenbelt towns still prevail. In the '30s, the program was ridiculed as "socialistic" and "communistic" by conservative members of Congress, industrial and corporate leaders, and newspapers hostile to New Deal policies. In these photos I want to explore the intersections of politics and place and of the natural world and the built environment, and also to observe how people find their housing and how their housing sometimes finds them. New Deal Utopias is not a guidebook, but rather an opportunity to look to the past as we grapple with the problems of contemporary housing and city design, and reevaluate the role of government in American life.