More significant, perhaps, was that the entity that invented Greenbelt was less and less comfortable with its creation. In Greenbelt, Maryland: A Living Legacy of the New Deal (2001), the historian Cathy Knepper notes that the town "suffered repeated attacks from its creator, the federal government" in the decade following World War II, starting with a congressional investigation of cooperatives in 1947 and concluding with a McCarthy-era witch-hunt in which several naval employees who lived in Greenbelt were fired as security risks. (Rumors of subversives in the suburb actually predated the red scare. Many pacifists who had refused to fight in World War II had moved to Greenbelt, a town tolerant of political dissent if not of those who used their clotheslines after 4 p.m.) The biggest change, though, came when the feds decided to disentangle themselves from the town. "Federal officials originally described Greenbelt as a great social experiment," writes Knepper. "By the end of the war...officials regarded Greenbelt as a collection of houses that the government no longer wished to own."
In 1952, Congress sold off most of Greenbelt's public housing. A resident-owned co-op bought the bulk of it, along with 708 acres of the undeveloped land that surrounded the town and gave it its name. It was a privatization that even socialists could love: the transformation of a government town into a co-op community, with affordable housing and a liberal political culture. But if the feds were changing with the times, the cooperatives were too. Gradually, the city was going capitalist.
Even as one co-op was buying up government houses and holding them in common, a second co-op was buying homes from the first and re-selling them to individual owners. More important: Unable to pay the taxes on the vacant land it owned, the Greenbelt housing cooperative sold it to a private developer. The ultimate result was a building boom that the Greenbelt faithful could not control.
Meanwhile, Greenbelt Consumer Services was evolving from an idealistic venture into a big business, expanding its operations into Takoma Park, Wheaton, and Washington. "Continuous expansion is a basic principle of cooperatives," the company's president wrote in 1952, "and of any business that wants to remain healthy." Power was centralized in the hands of management, which was regularly accused of making decisions without consulting the co-op's members. The company eventually moved its headquarters to Savage, Maryland, leaving Greenbelt behind in everything but name.
There is still a strong co-op movement in the town, but the phone book is filled with conventional businesses as well; and, as the history of Greenbelt Consumer Services shows, cooperatives can respond to market signals the same way other businesses do. Old Greenbelt still has a small-town flavor, but the city's outskirts have more in common with the rest of the region's sprawl. Federal money, too, still plays a role in Greenbelt, as it does in virtually every corner of America. But D.C. doesn't run the place anymore. With Washington just a short drive or subway ride away, the feds' chief role in the town is to sleep there.
American history is filled with tales like these. One crank or genius dreams up a new way of living, and suddenly a brand new village or compound or crash pad is attempting to realize his ideals. Decades later, the dream has either died or, more intriguingly, evolved, adjusting itself to changes both inside and outside the community. These experiments are not utopian in the sense of being perfect societies, or even necessarily of aspiring to perfection. But they fit Robert Nozick's idea of different social visions competing within a larger framework of freedom. In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Nozick proposed "a wide and diverse range of communities which people can enter if they are admitted, leave if they wish to, shape according to their wishes; a society in which utopian experimentation can be tried, different styles of life can be lived, and alternative visions of the good can be individually or jointly pursued." Evidently, such parallel worlds are not just the stuff of philosophers' thought-experiments. They are scattered throughout the American past and present, constantly being born and dying, evolving in different directions and influencing the society around them.
Greenbelt, granted, is an unusual case. It would be excluded from Nozick's libertarian "framework for utopia," at least before 1952, because it was built and initially owned by the state. On the other hand, it is a part of a specific tradition of suburban experiments, not all of which were federally funded. One of its original inspirations, launched in 1928, was Radburn, a privately backed effort to build a self-sufficient garden city within two square miles of New Jersey. (The colony is still there, but it stopped trying to be a utopia long ago.) After Greenbelt there came the corporate-run new towns of the '60s and '70s -- i.e., the places I write about in my Reason article. Reston, Virginia; Columbia, Maryland; Irvine, California.
Utopia, Nozick writes, "is what grows spontaneously from the individual choices of many people over a long time." Not everyone shares this flexible and patient concept of utopia; to most, the word implies a perfect, static society that need never improve or change. Besides, in our present cultural context it's hard to square the idea of utopia with that of Gulf Oil (which owned Reston for a spell), or the CIA (Langley is a 12-mile drive from Reston, and many agency employees live there) or the NSA (Columbia is adjacent to Fort Meade, headquarters of the National Security Agency). Paradoxes can be fun, you may complain, but come on.
Very well: You can shed the notion of utopia, and the significance of these little experiments will remain. "Reston is not utopia," one citizen of that suburb told me while I was researching my Reason piece. "It's not Nirvana. Not everything we've started here has worked. I don't need to be in a place that's perfect. But at least, in Reston, we try." And, outside Reston, the rest of us try other things. That is freedom, in all its banality and splendor.