The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Sunday, December 08, 2002
SUBURBAN UTOPIAS: There's a growing sense, in the academy and the press, that there's more to the suburbs than the bland and uniform landscape derided by so many novelists, songwriters, and city planners. Few realize, though, just how strange that landscape can be -- that the territory around America's cities is not simply a social experiment in itself, but contains many social experiments, some as radical as any utopian or communal colony of the past. I wrote about some of those in the January issue of Reason. Let me tell you about one more place, a town I originally intended to describe in the Reason piece but left out to make the essay more manageable.

Greenbelt, Maryland, belongs to that species of suburb that's often described as leafy. A tree-filled, pedestrian-friendly garden city, Greenbelt feels more like a small town than a 'burb just north of the Washington Beltway, surrounded by the notoriously sprawling D.C.-Baltimore metrosmorgasborg. Unobtrusive underpasses allow one to walk across much of the town without ever having to cross a street, while green space envelops its public buildings and private homes. Evidently, there is a market for comfortable leafiness, just as there is a market for strip malls and Dairy Queens.

That said, market is not the first word that jumps to mind when you think of this town. From its origins as an experimental colony grown from the left wing of the New Deal, Greenbelt has been tied to the federal government. It wears this history proudly: The plaza at the heart of Old Greenbelt is called Roosevelt Center, after Eleanor's husband, and while other parts of town conform more closely to the conventional suburban landscape -- shopping centers, freeways, office parks -- the buildings at Roosevelt Center reflect the formerly futuristic art deco style of the 1930s. There are remnants here not just of the Depression era's architecture, but of its leftist ideals as well: there is a cooperative supermarket, a cooperative pharmacy, a cooperative coffeehouse called the New Deal Café. The latter's bylaws require it to "serve as a water hole or 'living room' for the community with a 1930s decor" -- and, on the exterior, it has the '30s flavor down pat. The interior is a bit more contemporary, resembling hundreds other countercultural coffeehouses around the country.

Greenbelt was the brainchild of Rexford Guy Tugwell, one of the most technocratic figures in American history. (In a megalomaniacal bit of light verse composed in college, the future bureaucrat declared, "I bend the forces untamable;/I harness the powers irresistible--/...I shall roll up my sleeves--make America over!") These authoritarian origins left a mark. Greenbelt was the first municipality in Maryland to adopt the centralized council-manager form of government. Its first citizens endured rules regulating everything from the pets they could own (only fish were allowed) to the hours they could use their clotheslines. Its houses were owned by the federal government, and its residents had to be vetted by income and for professional and religious diversity before they were allowed to move in. Blacks were barred entirely.

Such petty repression shouldn't come as a surprise. The New Deal emerged from the Progressive tradition, an ideology that favored a "scientifically" managed society dominated by large, hierarchical institutions. But there was a more populist faction along the edges of Roosevelt's regime, influenced more by the cooperative movement than by the Progressives; and from them, Greenbelt acquired a parallel current of local initiative. In theory, the cooperators favored a decentralized economy controlled directly by workers and consumers. In practice, many co-ops were actually organized or subsidized by the state. When private entrepreneurs failed to invest in Greenbelt, the Department of Agriculture decided to set up consumer cooperatives instead, contracting with a Boston-based co-op -- the Consumer Distribution Corporation, or CDC -- to organize the town's economy.

Obviously, neither the Department of Agriculture nor the CDC represented any sort of local initiative. But the CDC was serious about passing control of the enterprises it was underwriting to the actual citizens of Greenbelt, and soon a local group, Greenbelt Consumer Services, had taken them over. The townspeople launched more cooperatives of their own: a health care association, a weekly newspaper, even a Gum Drop Co-op run by schoolchildren. Along with the cooperatives, Greenbelt enjoyed the comfortable self-regulation found in many small communities. As of 1940, its public library imposed more fines than the police did. The school was small, the firemen were volunteers, and there was no city jail. Even the council-manager government had a more democratic shadow: the Greenbelt Citizens' Association, which sponsored town meetings.

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.

posted by Jesse 10:45 PM
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