Historic Greenbelt: A model of community cooperation

Business,Real Estate,Kris Antonelli

Hidden away from the suburban sprawl that characterizes much of central Prince George's County is a little-known gem of a neighborhood — Old Greenbelt — a community where residents have kept the original New Deal-era spirit alive. 

“[President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s] legacy is still here,” said Sheila Maffay-Tuthill, whose family was one of the first to move into the new cooperative community in 1937. “And that community spirit has kept people here and still attracts new residents.”

Historic Greenbelt, also known as Greenbelt Homes Incorporated, is a 1,500-unit enclave of small homes and apartments situated at the crossroads of the Capital Beltway and the Baltimore/Washington Parkway. One of three towns in the country built during the Depression era, Greenbelt remains a thriving specimen of Roosevelt's New Deal programs.

“It was designed to put people to work and stimulate the economy,” Maffay-Tuthill said. “Which is very appropriate for the current time.”

Greenbelt had its beginnings in 1935, when the federal government bought up overworked farmland for $97 an acre. The first residents, known as “pioneers,” moved in two years later. Designed as a cooperative garden suburb and meant to serve as a model for town planning, the Art Deco-style homes and apartments are grouped in courts along two curving main streets.  An arrangement of landscaped walkways allows residents to walk from their homes to the town center without crossing a major street. Besides being a city-planning model, Greenbelt was also an experiment in social planning.

“My grandparents were one of the first pioneer families,” Maffay-Tuthill said. “They were part of this new experimental town where the government interviewed and hand-picked residents who agreed to be involved in the community and eventually set up a local government.”

In 1952, when the government wanted to sell the town, the residents formed the current cooperative to buy the houses. While some of the shops and restaurants in the Roosevelt Center are now privately owned, the local weekly newspaper and the grocery store are still co-ops. Meanwhile, the city of Greenbelt has expanded from the cozy historic center to include six square miles and a population of about 22,000.

The city's growth spurt did not deter Maffay-Tuthill, who grew up Greenbelt in the late 1960s and 1970s, moved away, and then  returned with her husband and three children about three years ago.

“Coming back felt very happy and comfortable to me,” she said. “I have happy memories of living here and walking and riding my bike everywhere. I didn't even get my driver's license until I was 18 because I didn't need it. I know so many people here. Now when I shop at the co-op, I see a minimum of 10 people I know.”

Barbara Havekost came to Greenbelt as a University of Maryland student in the 1950s and ended up staying.

“I got married and had children, and it was a great place to raise children,” she said. “I worked for the city in human resources so I had the easiest commute. I love Greenbelt. We are not selling big, beautiful homes here; we are selling a way of life.”

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