America is a utopia. Or at least it was a utopia. Or perhaps it could have been a utopia. And at its centre was to have been the City on the Hill, that biblical phrase adopted by American leaders from the Puritans through JFK and Barack Obama. Yet something about the city jarred with the American ideal; there was always something tainted about urbanity — the huge country’s real soul, it seemed, lay in the frontier, the edge, with the pioneering spirit of the country itself.

The compromise, the real heart of America, has been the suburb. Not quite city, not quite country, a compromise that imitates the small-town idyll of Frank Capra or Norman Rockwell. This American archetype — clapboarded houses, a main street, a church, a big school, mom ‘n’ pop stores, driveways and lawns with picket fences — remains deeply embedded in the subconscious, not just of America but of a world that yearned to imitate it. It might have morphed into autopia, the neighbourhood stores replaced by Walmart and the white picket fences subverted by David Lynch and slasher movies, but the idyll remains.

One of its most intriguing and little-known incarnations is embodied in the Greenbelt Towns. These were a product of Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal, a project initiated in 1935 by the Resettlement Administration and the Public Works Administration to create employment and an idealised version of small-town life eschewing both the devastating consequences of the Dust Bowl and the harsh conditions of the Depression-era city.

The building of the new towns was instigated by Rexford G. Tugwell, an intriguing character, a handsome, progressive economist who became part of Roosevelt’s “Brain Trust” initiating policy for the New Deal. The idea behind them was to buy cheap land on the far edge of cities and relocate economically disadvantaged citizens. They were intended as a new kind of settlement, run on co-operative principles with citizens collectively owning the facilities, the land and managing the everyday affairs and governance. They were at the time, almost inevitably, derided in the press and by Republicans as communist or socialist experiments, alien to the American way of life.

There were to be four towns, Greenbelt, Maryland (north-east of Washington DC), Greenhills, Ohio (north of Cincinnati), Greendales, Wisconsin (south-west of Milwaukee) and Greenbrook in New Jersey, although only the first three were realised. How these places appear today is the subject of a new book by photographer Jason Reblando, New Deal Utopias. It is, in a way, a coda to the famous work of the Farm Security Administration, which commissioned photographers including Walker Evans, Jack Delano, Gordon Parks and, most memorably, Dorothea Lange, to document the poverty and misery of the Depression and the great migration. If those photos were pivotal in exposing the plight of the poor and the conditions that led to the call for such settlements, Reblando’s work investigates and questions the results with a humane but even eye.

Daffodil House, Greendale, Wisconsin, 2009 © Jason Reblando

This is a portrait of, to be frank, a pretty boring series of places. The fluorescent-lit, bland city halls with their stackable chairs, the civic portraits of people now long forgotten, the neglected, weedy basketball courts and the generic housing. These are images of such familiarity and banality that, at first, we barely register them. Yet Reblando is also careful to include the details that reveal the roots of the Greenbelt experiment. There are Art Deco-inflected murals and reliefs, part of a work-creation programme which extended to artists as well as labourers but also an affirmation of the belief in the value of the civic infrastructure which formed the core of these cities.

The Greenbelt cities clearly did not evolve into any kind of utopia. They stuttered and the industry, communal horticulture and co-operative work was never allowed to get into gear. But neither were they failures. As the photos show, their simple, cheap, functional — but decent — architecture has lasted well, even though the idealistic models upon which the cities were founded have faded away. The government was never comfortable with those “socialist” principles — these were towns it was impossible to pigeonhole, they never fitted properly into the bureaucratic system of controls. Bit by bit those eccentric communal and co-operative ownerships were sold, appropriated or passed on to the housing administration and the forests which surrounded them were eroded by development until, by 1954, the dream was over. The built legacy, however, remained. Completed in 1938, the three cities represent an intriguing moment when America was looking simultaneously backward and forward, building with both nostalgia and radical social intent.

Teens in front of Community Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, 2010 © Jason Reblando

There was not much new about the ideas behind the cities. They had been inspired — as was so much else — by Ebenezer Howard’s Garden Cities of To-Morrow (1902). Howard’s vision is often associated with the slightly twee garden suburbs and cities that emerged at the tail-end of the British Arts and Crafts Movement, notably Hampstead Garden Suburb and Welwyn Garden City, but to concentrate on the aesthetics is to miss the radical nature of their conception. Howard had called for mechanisms that would allow for communities (not speculators or developers) to benefit from uplifts in the value of land as garden cities became successful. He called for the cities (which were to be kept relatively small) to be interconnected by public transport and for each to be surrounded by agricultural as well as industrial land which would allow each to achieve a level of self-sufficiency and maintain a mixed economy. This was the original green belt, which is now so contentious in the UK. Most of the economic and environmental thinking behind these proposals has been forgotten and what is remembered is the greenery and the cutesy houses.

The garden city is still pulled out as an exemplar, I think, because it appeals to a particular Anglo-American sensibility, the emotional attachment to a house with a garden, to greenery and which embodies small-town sensibility, that nostalgic vision of a society that probably never was. Or, perhaps it actually was. Perhaps the survival of Greenhills, Greenbelt and Greendales does display the potential of places built not for commerce but for community.

‘New Deal Utopias’, Jason Reblando, published by Kehrer Verlag

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Photographs: Jason Reblando

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