Photographer Jason Reblando had been documenting public housing units in the Chicago area when he learned about an intriguing but little-known phenomenon in American history: three “Greenbelt Towns” that were planned, built and managed by the federal government in the late 1930s as part of the New Deal.
Reblando was intrigued by the history and visual appeal of these three cities – Greenbelt, Maryland; Greenhills, Ohio; and Greendale, Wisconsin – and photographed and researched the communities’ history and current landscape for his 2017 book “New Deal Utopias.”
USA TODAY spoke with Reblando about the project, as well as the unique history behind the “Greenbelt Towns.” The following is an abbreviated version of the conversation, along with a selection of Reblando’s photographs from the book.
What is the story behind the creation of the “Greenbelt Towns” during the 1930s?
The Greenbelt program was a New Deal program that was created by the Resettlement Administration, the R.A., and it was headed by a guy named Rexford Tugwell, who was one of FDR’s right-hand men, part of his “Brain Trust.” Tugwell was put in charge of the R.A., and he saw that as a way to resettle people who were suffering from the Great Depression, both people who were being blown off their farms and people who were urban dwellers. He saw land that was outside major metropolitan areas as a new frontier to build suburban resettlements.
These three towns, in particular, had a special designation as “Garden Cities.” Tugwell looked to the past and he was inspired by a British urban reformer named Sir Ebenezer Howard. Howard was appalled by the brutal overcrowding of London, and he believed the solution to that problem was to decentralize cities and form new communities outside the big metropolitan areas. These new cities were meant to be both the best of the town and the best of the country, combining the social advantages of living in a community with the fresh air and green spaces of the country.
Can you tell more about your process of photographing the book?
I’ve been to each city at least three or four times over a span of maybe three or four years. It was out of the generosity of the residents that I was able to walk around and express my curiosity. I was working closely with the historical societies in each town, who connected me with people who were also interested in what I was doing. I was using a 4×5 camera, which is a large-format view camera. It’s the type of camera that you usually have to use with a tripod and go under a dark cloth, so the camera itself was a conversation piece.
Why did you decide to use the 4×5 camera?
I love that camera – it uses 4×5 sheet film, so it’s not on a roll. The negative is 4 inches by 5 inches – a big negative with a lot of detail that makes beautiful prints. And you can correct perspective by tilting the lens. A lot of architectural photographers will use a 4×5 because it captures so much detail.
It’s portable enough that I can travel with it but also burdensome in the sense that it requires a lot of time to set up and it slows me down, so I have to be deliberate about what I’m photographing. (When I take a picture), I have to have already set up the tripod, loaded the film, and carefully framed the photo.
You get a sense of that in how still the photos in the book are – there aren’t any action shots. That deliberateness is why I chose to use (the 4×5 camera).
What do you find especially remarkable about the Greenbelt Towns?
These Resettlement Administration planners had a lot of foresight as far as the walkability, the paths, the importance of the town center, the size of the community – they were built small so they could be walkable.
Also, I found the concept of the greenbelt that encircled each community very interesting. The greenbelt was a half-mile belt of parks and green land that would surround each community. It was meant to act as a buffer between the town and the metropolitan area it bordered, and was supposed to control sprawl so the town didn’t grow too fast. To have nature built into the residents’ interactions I thought was very forward-looking.
While each town has had its own evolution, it still feels like they have a kinship with each other; they’re connected with each other because of their New Deal legacy. I think the planners were forward-looking in terms of people having this communal space, not only neighbor to neighbor but also town to town. It feels like they’re bound to each other. I grew up in the suburbs on Long Island, and I didn’t feel as connected to my neighbors as these residents do. Eighty years later, (Greenbelt Towns) still really celebrate and preserve that legacy.
Did you sense these towns have a strong connection to their unique history?
It is incredible. I’m sure there are lots of towns out there that wear their pride on their sleeves, but it feels like each (Greenbelt Town) is so connected with their history. There are historical societies that are active all over the place, but it’s very palpable in these towns.
I gave a talk at Greenbelt, Maryland’s historical society, and they were very warm and welcoming. I can only attribute that to their town pride and their deep interest in their own community and how it connects to history and to these other two communities that they came up with.
Unfortunately, there are threats to the towns. Greenbelt, Maryland, and Greendale, Wisconsin, are very healthy and really celebrate their towns, giving house tours. Greenhills, Ohio, is under the biggest threat. Some of the original architecture has been demolished even though (much of the town) has National Historic Landmark status, and other parts of it are under threat. There’s a lot of tough decisions to be made.
You can’t rebuild these things though. I’m not sure what the answer is, I just know it requires a lot of money. (laughs)
Why do you think it’s important to preserve these places and tell their story?
It is such an interesting slice of history as far as what American suburbs have become. I know that sprawl is a thing we’ve kind of accepted, but it means we’re commuting a long time. Sprawl means that we’re not necessarily walking. I think that if we looked back at these communities, there’s a lot of lessons to be learned.
Today’s urban planners look back to (garden cities) in England that were formed in the early 20th century, but Greenbelt Towns are a really great case study, not just because of the types of housing, but also how real person-to-person communities were formed because of the towns. The planners had both the architectural fabric and the social fabric in mind while they were planning these places.
I think it’s a real model for how a nation should think about themselves. I know that these plans of egalitarianism and cooperation may seem to go against the principles of rugged individualism and capitalism, but these towns were built as a remedy to the Great Depression, both socially and architecturally.
I hope that we don’t have to go through another Great Depression to have these solutions come up again. I hope we can see each other as neighbors and fellow citizens instead of just competition.
Photos from “New Deal Utopias” will be on exhibit at the SFO Museum at the San Francisco International Airport (July 10 – Oct. 16, 2018), Miller Art Museum (Jan. 19 – Feb. 25, 2019), and Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (Jan. 27 – March 14, 2020).
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