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Focus on: Greenbelt, Md.: a city that runs on cooperatives.

The story of Greenbelt, Md., is a many-faceted, layered story about a town that has had an impact on how we look at cooperatives and the many ways they can deliver services to their residents. The focus of this article is on the history of cooperatives in Greenbelt, a suburb of Washington, D.C., that is home to nine cooperatives, with more forming. It will also touch upon the social implications of the decisions made over the years by planners, government officials and residents.

An experiment in community development

In 1937, the first families moved into the brand new community of Greenbelt. The town was rather unique, in that only three such "experimental towns" had been built to that date. One was in Greendale, Wis., the other in Greenhills, Ohio. An earlier attempt to develop a similar community in New Jersey had failed.

What made these towns unique is that the federal government was experimenting with new, social/community development concepts that promoted the idea of building whole communities--including schools, community buildings, churches, places of employment, etc. Potential tenants were interviewed with an eye toward finding residents who would be able, and willing, to build the social infrastructure needed for a viable community.

Greenbelters, as residents refer to themselves, went about doing just that, coaching and managing sports leagues, forming a newspaper cooperative, a grocery store cooperative and a credit union, among other co-ops. There was so much going on that one holiday season the town council declared a moratorium on all meetings for two weeks so that families could enjoy time together.

Federal role ends

In the early 1950s, the federal government began turning away from some of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's public works/job creation programs. Housing in Greenbelt was sold to the residents while community property was turned over to the incorporated City of Greenbelt. This caused much controversy, which is partly captured in a semi-documentary movie, "Three Brave Men," in 1956, although it was not filmed on location.

In the movie, as in real life, many residents wanted the government to continue to own the town and did not want their fellow neighbors to manage the housing cooperative. False charges were made that Greenbelters were communists.

But eventually the furor subsided, and most residents embraced the concept of replacing federal government ownership with resident-owned and controlled housing cooperative.

Greenbelt today

Today, the city of Greenbelt is home to about 23,000 people, 3,000 of them living in cooperative housing, 9,000 living in apartments and the rest in single family homes. Cooperatives still play a significant role in Greenbelt. These include:

* Greenbelt News Review--believed to be the nation's oldest, continuously run worker cooperative newspaper;

* New Deal Cafe--serves as the "community's living room;"

* Greenbelt Co-op Supermarket & Pharmacy--simply referred to as "the Co-op;"

* Greenbelt Nursery School;

* Greenbelt Federal Credit Union;

* Rapidan Camp--located in the foothills of Virginia, although a Greenbelt Cooperative;

* Greenbelt Homes Inc.--a 1,600-member housing cooperative, believed to be the nation's largest and oldest housing co-op, outside of New York City.

* Evergreen Health Care--a healthcare co-op, recently created under the Affordable Care Act;

* Greenbelt Community Solar, LLC--an LLC founded with cooperative principles, including one member, one vote.

* Other businesses--which will become worker-or community-owned co-ops--are currently in the formation stage, including: Friends of the Greenbelt Theater, a community-owned, single-screen movie theater;

The Franklin Park Early Learning Center; a composting business, and a thrift shop.

A hotbed of cooperatives

Why did the city of Greenbelt turn into a "hotbed" of cooperatives? The answer is most likely because of the design of the town and the way it came into being. It was a new town with founding principles that are still carried forward today as each new resident moves into it.

The design of the town was based on several ideas prevalent at the time, including the ideas of architect Lewis Mumford and the Garden-City Movement, which stressed the ideals of having a wholesome, safe environment for families.

In today's planning terminology, Greenbelt was designed under the New Utopia or New Urbanism planning concept. Houses are close together, parking is in pods and walkways are separate from vehicle traffic. Stores, restaurants and community facilities are within walking distance, all with less emphasis on access by cars.

The community design, the effort to seek residents who wanted to build a community and early efforts to build cooperative enterprises by the early founders of Greenbelt, all combined to create a community with a strong co-op foundation that is able to adapt to change.

Now, 78 years later, current residents continue to encourage like-minded people to come to the community and to convince newcomers to embrace the Greenbelt way of life, living, shopping, working and governing cooperatively together.

By Suzette Agans

Rural Development Specialist

USDA Rural Development

COPYRIGHT 2015 U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rural Business - Cooperative Service
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Author:Agans, Suzette
Publication:Rural Cooperatives
Geographic Code:1U5MD
Date:May 1, 2015
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