Tseday Holley, Maura Mendes, and Laura Zartarian

Community History


The town of Greenbelt was born out of The Great Depression (Peterson). FDR had built a Resettlement Administration that was led by Rexford G. Tugwell who had helped FDR with several New Deal programs; the Resettlement Administration was created in the Spring of 1935 with the money set aside for unemployment use – this program was given an amount of $5.5 million during the New Deal (Knepper 14). Greenbelt was one of three new “green towns” that started off as single neighborhood built around a center for a school, community buildings, shopping center, government and management offices, and recreation activities. All these facilities for the townspeople were located in the center of Greenbelt and were all next to each other. The idea of having a neighborhood unit was viewed as important by the towns creators; economic and social cooperation were key. Greenbelt was built on land that belonged to the federal government in a remote area of Prince George’s County Maryland, thirteen miles northeast of Washington, D.C.  The physical layout of the town promoted friendships among the townspeople; the townhouses faced each other on each street where residents usually created social groups - the town had five blocks (A, B, C, D, and E) and each formed courts that were linked together by walking pathways (Knepper 19).

On September 30, 1937 the first families moved into Greenbelt (Knepper 35). There was a strict selection process to decide who could move in – people had to be interviewed. Greenbelt was designed to provide low-income housing, and it was for those who would be involved with the community (Peterson); the Resettlement Administration later changed the criteria from low income to “modest income”. They were looking for families that would be involved and cooperate in the community, if they showed a need for good housing; the main focus was on the size of income, family size, credit data, age, and income stability (Knepper 34). Families were allowed an annual income between $1,100 and $2,200 and those with children were given preference during the selection process. A quota system was created where 80% of residents were from DC and 10% from Virginia and Maryland. Quotas were set for workers: 50% federal government workers, 5% DC government employees, and 45% nongovernment workers. The Administration even made a quota system for religion to protect against discrimination where there were to be 59% Protestants, 34% Roman Catholics, and Jewish (Knepper 32). The community was all white, blacks were not given housing, although they had been the ones to help with the building of the community (Peterson). The town program did nothing to help racial discrimination in housing or help blacks get better housing; the initial Greenbelt plan had a separate area that was to be built for African Americans, but that portion of the plan was discreetly abandoned because officials argued that Blacks had their own housing project in Northeast DC (Knepper 32). There was however a political division between conservatives and liberals that existed in town (Knepper 34).

The houses built were small, plain and “contemporary” usually built with cinder block and there was a total of 885 housing units built (Knepper 20). The kitchens were very tiny and usually held a double sink, small fridge, stove, and iron. There were two or three bedrooms, the parents room and the child’s room; children of different sex were not allowed to share a room so families would have to move if they had a different sex child. The bathroom was also very small and everyone would take baths because showers did not exist in these houses (Peterson).

In order to maintain safety and presentation the FSA required residents to make sure their homes and yards were neat and to not be loud; residents were also asked what rules they thought would be necessary. Residents loved the recreation programs available to them, like a swimming pool and fields (Knepper 37). Thirty-five social organizations sprung up within the first year to bring people together. At the time, the Center School only taught first through eighth grade, and the high school was completed in September 1938; many of the students came from the surrounding towns of Hyattsville, Branchville, Beltsville, Berwyn, and College Park (Knepper 48). Many residents described the town as “one big family” and that it had a “small-town atmosphere”; there was no hierarchy and there was an equal sense of responsibility for the town and for each other which added to the cooperation of the community – there was a communal identity (Knepper 57). Residents were united in their identity that steamed from their new unique town. FDR had said that “Greenbelt was a successful experiment that should be copied” (Peterson). Together they had worked hard to create their own model of an isolated area that was allotted to them.

Recent History

Greenbelt is a growing and strong community.  The planning of the town preceded the construction that was done. Homes were grouped in superblocks, and there were different interior walkways that allowed residents to travel from their homes to town. These walkways made it possible for them to not even have to cross the street. There were two curving streets that laid upon and below a crescent shaped natural ridge. In the center of the ride were all the shops, schools, community center and other recreational activities. The actual design of the city was very different from what we know now, after the city formed completely. A new resident decided to form a town government and open up the first Kindergarten in Prince George County.

Since, the 1930s Greenbelt has grown bigger and advanced in many different ways. However, it hasn't lost its historical background and legacy. It has been able to continue to grow because of the structures that was put in place and upheld. Additionally, in 1963 Greenbelt added the Beltway Plaza mall. The mall was developed by Sidney J. Brown and first national realty. It originally only consisted of S. Klein department stories and across from it was a supermarket. The supermarket and mall was separated by large parking. In 1972 they decided to make it officially into a tiny indoor mall. The S. Klein stories officially shut down in 1975 and the mall underwent major renovations. The renovation consisted of several different department stores, a movie theater and restaurants. The mall is currently still standing, however; the stores that the mall consist of now are different. The majority of the mall was kept the same with a few renovations and changes done. Greenbelt also consist of another big shopping center called Greenway shopping center. Before the 1978 this area was owned by an Anna M. Ketchum and Karen A. Smith. The property was underdeveloped until 1981 where it began to be developed into a shopping center. Then in 2002 the shopping center received new owners and the property expanded. Now, this property consists of several different stores, restaurants and grocery stories. In addition, to these shopping center Greenbelt has several other restaurants and convenient stores.

In addition to schools and stores, Greenbelt also has its own museum. The museum shows the history of Greenbelt and how it became such a strong town/community. It shows American history and explores the town of greenbelt. The Museum is furnished with items that were made between 1936-1952. From the kitchen utensils to the furniture that they put in it; the point was to recreate how greenbelt was when it was first created. Walking through the museum you can put yourself into the shoes of the families that had to struggle back in the 1930s. The museum aims to give visitors a view of what a home looked like during the Great Depression and World War II.


History." Greenbelt Museum. N.p., 12 Jan. 2014. Web. 03 Oct. 2016.

"Greenbelt, Maryland." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2016.

"A Walk in Old Greenbelt." Greenbelt in 2012. N.p., 2012. Web. 03 Oct. 2016.

Peterson, Donna. Step into History. Dr. Samuel A. Mudd Museum, Greenbelt, MD.

Knepper, Cathy D. Greenbelt, Maryland: A Living Legacy of the New Deal. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2001. Print.