Greenbelt Ponders Suburban Experiment 75 Years On (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Greenbelt Ponders A Suburban Experiment, 75 Years On

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
Speaking of shelter, we turn now to a story about the homes of suburbia. Now, it sort of goes without saying that the big suburban house on a rolling green lawn holds a special place in the American psyche. But the thing is, big homes are always synonymous with suburbia. In the community of Greenbelt, Md. many of the homes are much different from what we've come to expect of the 'burbs. Greenbelt began as a kind of experiment in suburban living. It was found as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal and Emily Friedman paid a visit to see whether the Greenbelt experiment is still working, 75 years down the road.

MS. EMILY FRIEDMAN

00:00:39
From the very beginning, Greenbelt was unique.

MS. MEGAN SEARING YOUNG

00:00:43
Unlike most small towns, Greenbelt did not evolve from a town square. It was planned, every bit of it was preconceived.

FRIEDMAN

00:00:51
This is Megan Searing Young. She runs the Greenbelt Museum. She says everything about Greenbelt was geared toward making the residents as happy and healthy as possible. There were playgrounds, tennis courts, a pool, which in the 1930s was pretty fancy and a system of sidewalks that made it possible to walk just about anywhere you wanted to go.

YOUNG

00:01:11
Greenbelt was quite luxurious. There were over 5,000 applicants for the approximately 888 homes that were first built. So there was an intensive selection process.

FRIEDMAN

00:01:21
The selection committee was looking for young families, couples had what they called, honeymoon cottages around 400 square feet. Families of five could rent a three-bedroom house. No one had more or less than they needed. In fact, if you had another kid, you had to move to a bigger house.

MS. BARBARA HAVEKOST

00:01:37
All right, this is a three-bedroom brick home.

FRIEDMAN

00:01:41
Barbara Havekost raised her four kids in this house. She's lived here for 50 years.

HAVEKOST

00:01:45
This is one of the originals built in 1937. It won't take long to tour. Go ahead first okay.

FRIEDMAN

00:01:52
Around 1100 square feet hers is one of the larger homes in historic Greenbelt. In a bedroom, she points out one of the homes' biggest challenges, storage.

HAVEKOST

00:02:02
And this the size of the closet that two people shared, right.

FRIEDMAN

00:02:07
There's one bathroom in the house, just one.

HAVEKOST

00:02:10
I actually kept a schedule for showers and things because you had to with one bathroom.

FRIEDMAN

00:02:16
Even after 50 years, Havekost says she still marvels at how carefully designed the house is.

HAVEKOST

00:02:22
I think that the architects made complete use of every square inch of this house to make it as livable as possible even though the square footage is probably have the size of today's homes or less.

FRIEDMAN

00:02:34
The federal government sold Greenbelt in 1952 to a group of veterans. The veterans formed a co-op and eventually all the homeowners became the owners of Greenbelt. It's still a co-op today. Lucy Dirksen bought a historic in Greenbelt about 10 years ago.

MS. LUCY DIRKSEN

00:02:50
It was just the right amount of space and it was my husband, myself and my son.

FRIEDMAN

00:02:56
As their family grew, it became less and less comfortable.

DIRKSEN

00:03:00
When we're in such a tight space, we're all on top of each other. There's no place to kind of, you know, separate and ground oneself and then come back.

FRIEDMAN

00:03:09
They bought a house in one of Greenbelt's newer developments. It's a five-story split with three bedrooms, two art studios, a back porch and a giant playroom for her kids.

DIRKSEN

00:03:20
There is one other place. You're going to have like hold your breath. This is our basement.

FRIEDMAN

00:03:27
Dirksen says she loves her house, though she can't imagine going even one square foot bigger.

DIRKSEN

00:03:32
I honestly believe that the more we've acquired, the more work it's been and I don't really need to have more work.

FRIEDMAN

00:03:41
While Lucy's house isn't enormous, it is a more typical suburban home and her feelings about needing a large home are also pretty typical. That's according to the CEO of the Urban Land Institute, Patrick Phillips.

MR. PATRICK PHILLIPS

00:03:53
We're seeing the McMansion trend really fade. In many ways, we are coming back to what we saw -- the principles being developed at Greenbelt, mixed, used, more compact development variety in the housing types, a more walk-able environment.

FRIEDMAN

00:04:08
When Greenbelt was first built, Phillips points out, the idea was to be a model for private home builders and inspire them to create thought-out livable communities. But when soldiers returned from war in the late '40s they needed places to live fast.

PHILLIPS

00:04:23
So in some ways, we lowered our standards.

FRIEDMAN

00:04:26
Phillips says the average size of an American home is starting to shrink just by a little.

PHILLIPS

00:04:32
But this is America and big houses are still a symbol of achievement and success.

FRIEDMAN

00:04:37
In the face of that cultural norm, says museum curator Megan Searing Young, thousands of people choose to live in the modest homes of historic Greenbelt, 75 years and counting.

YOUNG

00:04:48
I think there's a certain level of awareness about Greenbelt's origins and that it was this experiment and a new way of living and people are still interested in that experiment.

FRIEDMAN

00:04:59
I'm Emily Friedman.

SHEIR

00:05:21
After the break, trucking to the farthest reaches of the suburban frontier.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE 1

00:05:25
This was recently purchased by a fellow from D.C. who commutes. The house over here to my right, again, are two fellows from the D.C. metro area. Across the street, she retired from the IRS.

SHEIR

00:05:37
It's just ahead on "Metro Connection," here on WAMU 88.5.
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