new deal utopias

New Deal Utopias explores three planned communities built by the U.S. government during the Great Depression, collectively known as “Greenbelt Towns.” The photographs depict the built environments and landscapes of Greenbelt, Maryland; Greenhills, Ohio; and Greendale, Wisconsin, to evoke utopia both as an idea and place in the American mind. The short-lived government agency, the Resettlement Administration, conceived and constructed the model cities to address the social and economic discrepancies brought on and accentuated by the Depression. In the ‘30s, the program was critiqued as “socialistic” and “communistic” by conservative members of Congress, industrial and corporate leaders, and newspapers hostile to New Deal policies, yet it still managed to make an indelible impression on urbanist ideas in America. The introductory images of this essay, excerpted from a 1936 government promotional brochure, graphically depict the essential features of a Greenbelt town: a planned community whose curving shape and modest size would be the antithesis of the urban grid and the antidote for overcrowded cities. Nestled in a ring of parks, gardens, and forestland, citizens of a Greenbelt town would enjoy the fresh air and beauty of nature and embody the hope that American citizens would meet the challenges of the Great Depression in a spirit of cooperation.

Today we are again struggling through tough economic times and the politics and divisions that produced the Greenbelt towns still prevail. My images engage not only with the history of the New Deal, but also with contemporary conversations about politics and place, the history and future of urbanism, and the complex relationship between landscape and the built environment. My photographs are a meditation on the changing nature of planned communities and the human urge to create an ideal society, as we continue to grapple with the shifting roles of housing, nature, and government in America.

Jason Reblando