The Unusual History of the Village of Greendale

Greendale’s unusual suburban character is owed to its origins as one of the most ambitious public housing projects in American history.

A Greendale Resettlement Administration construction crew, 1937; Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

How important was the depression-era development of Greendale? None other than Eleanor Roosevelt visited the little new suburb during a November 1936 tour of New Deal programs in Milwaukee.

“I have just come back from one of the most interesting mornings I have ever spent,” the first lady wrote in her journal, gushing about her trip to a factory where hundreds of local women were earning a living wage making toys and other handicrafts, and to the suburb taking shape just south of Milwaukee. “I visited the Greendale Resettlement project which has a delightful site and is I think a really good development.”

At the time of her arrival, representatives of the Resettlement Administration – a federal agency founded in 1935 to help struggling families relocate to affordable housing – were busily building a town from the ground up: roads, parks, municipal buildings, single-family homes, the whole works. Roosevelt likely would have seen urban planners wandering around, hashing out the finer points of their designs. Construction workers carting bricks and lumber into half-built houses rising from the husks of golden-hued cornfields. And curious onlookers gawping at all the activity, apparently unfazed by the fact that the town’s streets had not yet been paved and had the consistency, at least according to early resident Karen Erickson Fogelberg, of “pea soup.” Roosevelt also might have noticed, beyond all the mud  and lumber, that a ribbon of rolling green hills and dairy farms ran along the horizon. This literal “greenbelt” gave the town its name and provided its residents with ready access to the bounty of nature. 

In fact, Greendale’s creators hoped that the town, which was close enough to Milwaukee to appeal to commuters but far enough away to maintain its own sense of identity, would embody the best of both urban and rural living. They saw the development as nothing less than a tiny utopia, a little slice of paradise in Southeastern Wisconsin that would help entice hundreds of thousands of Americans to move to other planned communities that they intended to build across the country.

[Greendale’s developers were proponents of the Garden City Movement, an approach to urban planning that was first touted in 1938 by Ebenezer Howard, who was interested in creating utopian cities designed by harmony with nature]

A living room in a model Original, 1937; Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress
   

Greendale’s origin story isn’t all roses and rainbows, though. In fact, its very creation was born out of desperation. 

In the 1930s, America was in the throes of the Great Depression. Roughly half of all mortgages were in default, and hundreds of thousands of people had lost their homes or were in danger of doing so. 

President Franklin Roosevelt tasked a group of advisers to start rolling out programs and policies that could help combat poverty and homelessness. One of those advisers, an economist named Rexford Tugwell, believed that he could deal both crises a major blow at once by hiring unemployed men to build entire towns filled with government-owned homes that could be rented to down-and-out Americans who might otherwise struggle to find affordable housing.

He imagined that each town would be surrounded by verdant fields and forests, so that its residents could easily commune with nature. “My idea,” he later told journalist Jane Jacobs, “is to go just outside centers of population, pick up cheap land, build a whole community and entice people into it. Then go back into the cities and tear down whole slums and make parks of them.

Tugwell’s idea was a bold one – maybe too bold for the American political landscape of the 1930s. Soon after the RA, under his leadership, was given the go-ahead to begin building the first of the towns, conservative legislators started speculating whether Tugwell might secretly be a Communist, or some other sort of rabble rouser, intent on cluttering up the countryside with cheap, government-owned housing complexes. They took to calling him “Rex the Red,” and eventually managed to scupper his plans to build hundreds of greenbelt towns. 

[During Greendale’s construction, a newspaper called the Chicago American ran a story titled “U.S. Government Building a Communist Town.”]

In fact, only three were ever completed. The first, Greenbelt, is located in Maryland. The second, Greenhills, is located in Ohio. And the third, our very own Greendale, still stands as a living reminder of one of the most ambitious housing projects in American history.


What, exactly, does a federally planned greenbelt town look like today? The short answer is that it looks a lot like many other similarly sized American towns. There are gas stations and strip malls and supermarket chains in Greendale. At Southridge Mall, just across the village’s northern border, you’ll see a Walmart Supercenter and a Marcus BistroPlex. Plenty of vacant storefronts, too. 

But as you venture closer to the middle of the town, its unique history becomes a bit more apparent. Unlike many American suburbs, Greendale is oriented around a genuine town center – even if it was planned rather than shaped by the forces of commerce. A cluster of quaint, brick storefronts overlook wide sidewalks. And long stretches of tree-lined medians divide the roads there, dampening the sound of traffic and making the prospect of lingering over a cup of coffee outside the Broad Street Coffee Co. that much more pleasant. 

A mailbox evoking an Original, 2009; photo courtesy of Jason Reblando

An unusually extensive network of interconnected walking paths spreads from the center of the village, allowing pedestrians to zig and zag across much of the town without crossing major roads. They can also reach plenty of public amenities – a community center, a pool, tennis courts – located near the trails. 

And of course there are the Originals, the 572 houses that the RA built between 1936 and 1938. Many of the homes are nearly identical in size and layout, though some boast unique masonry that sets them apart from their neighbors. A gigantic daffodil is displayed on the chimney of one of the homes, for instance. A huge chess piece decorates another. 

“I immediately knew I had crossed into a special town when I saw the beautiful New Deal-era architecture,” says photographer Jason Reblando, a modern-day greenbelt aficionado.

Reblando became interested in Greendale and its siblings in Maryland and Ohio while photographing a series of public housing developments in Chicago. He has returned to the towns many times over the course of several years and published a book, New Deal Utopias, featuring the photographs he took during his visits. He also ended up moving to a planned community in Illinois in part because it reminded him of the towns. It’s fair to say he appreciates their design. 

“The layouts of the greenbelt towns in general are very thoughtful and humane,” Reblando says. “I grew up on Long Island, where you needed a car to get everywhere. It almost feels out of place if someone is using the sidewalk.”

Reblando also was struck by the sense of civic pride that he found in Greendale. Many of the locals he met were highly active in their community and often attended events organized in or around a large gazebo near the center of town. “After I completed the project, I would occasionally meet someone who grew up in Greendale, and they would affectionately refer to it as ‘The Bubble,’” Reblando adds. 

Other transplants also comment on the same phenomenon. Robb Nowak, the president of the Greendale Historical Society, has lived in the town for six years now. He’s noticed that many of his neighbors have always lived in the village or have returned after short stints elsewhere. Nowak is quick to point out, though, that residents have been welcoming to outsiders. “I didn’t find any standoffishness here,” he says. 

“As time goes on, there are less and less people who remember the early years,” he adds. “But there’s still a group. They always show up at the Saturday market. You see the same people all the time.”

Photo of the kitchen in the Greendale Historical Society’s Apple Court house project; Photo by Allison Garcia

 

 

Life in a Greendale Original 

BY ALLISON GARCIA

IF YOU LIVE IN GREENDALE, there’s a certain jargon you have to learn. People don’t ask what street you live on, they ask what section you live in. For example, I live in the A section, where the first Greendale Originals were built. Street names include Apple, Azalea, Apricot and Arbutus. Yes, it’s charming.

The term “Greendale Original” was adapted early on to describe the homes that the federal government built, in sections A through D, in the 1930s. In most Originals you’ll find gorgeous beamed ceilings, original hardwood flooring and lots of locally sourced “cincrete” (think concrete + cinder block).

The houses are quirky, though, with some unexpected design choices. For one, the living room sits in the back of the house, with a view of the garden. Conversely, the kitchen is in the front, looking out at the street. The front yards are small, and the houses butt up next to each other, but in Greendale, people like to say “the closeness of homes encourages the closeness of people,” which I’ve found to be true. Plus there’s plenty of space in the backyards to find some privacy.

One thing you won’t find is a basement, which sparked an urban legend: Once upon a time, some government workers messed up (typical, right?) and accidentally sent the materials needed to build out the homes’ basements to the greenbelt project in Maryland, where basements are less common. “That’s not true,” says Ted Mainella, treasurer and former president of the Greendale Historical Society. “Really it was a financial decision. It was cheaper to build the houses without basements.”

That’s not to say the houses were built cheaply. Many of the materials used in these homes are top-of- the-line. In most Originals, you can find doors made out of 400-year-old Douglas fir wood, ponderosa pine in the beamed ceilings and floors of oak or even maple.

The quality of the materials is proven in the Greendale Historical Society’s latest project. For the past two years, it’s been restoring a home on Apple Court, which happens to be the second Original built in Greendale. Soon, people will be able to tour and even spend the night in an Original furnished to look just the way it would have when the houses were first built.


It’s impossible to talk about the positives of planned communities without also talking about the negatives. And Greendale has its fair share of those as well. 

Early in its history, many of the same people who demonized Tugwell “Rex the Red” also criticized the town’s co-op grocery store and strict income caps as un-American.

In 1949, the Public Housing Administration began offering to sell the homes to the residents living in them at the time. But up until then, all of the buildings were government-owned, and rented out to lower-income families based on need and household size. Prospective tenants had to earn at least $1,200 each year but no more than $2,700, which is roughly equivalent to $22,000-$50,000 today.

[The PHA’s offers must have been good ones, because the transfer of ownership from the government to residents was largely complete by 1952]

A Greendale general store, 1937; Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

 

Early resident Ellis Brown described his selection to live in the planned community in the Greendale Historical Society’s book Greendale Remembers: “We made our first application in the courthouse in Milwaukee,” Brown said. “We were evaluated rather quickly based on our need, financial responsibility, moral character, work background and so forth. We were given full approval in March of 1938. It took about four or five months after we filled out the application. That’s government red tape!”

In addition to income regulations, there were also rules governing who could live where: childless couples couldn’t apply to live in units built to house larger families, for instance, and vice versa. And though those rules were ostensibly put into place to promote greater equity, they also made it easy for those in charge of recruiting and admitting new residents to prevent Black or brown people from moving in.

“It certainly was not a goal to have the town integrated,” Nancy Frank, interim dean of the UW-Milwaukee School of Architecture & Urban Planning, says plainly. “They were recruiting white people.”

A model of the planned Greendale neighborhoods, 1936; Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

That goal was even codified into the covenant of a Greendale housing development called Crestview Acres: “No Persons other than the white race shall own or occupy any building on said tract, but this covenant shall not prevent occupancy of persons of a race other than the white race who are domestic servants of the owner or occupant of said buildings.” That ordinance was recorded in 1958, 10 years after the United States Supreme Court ruled such racial restrictions unconstitutional.

Unfortunately, the practice was commonplace at the time. The Washington Highlands subdivision in Wauwatosa – another planned community designed in the early 20th century in accordance with the tenets of the Garden City movement – included nearly identical language in its covenants. And in the 1940s, 16 of the 18 Milwaukee County suburbs also flat-out refused to admit nonwhite residents.

Today, 83% of Greendale’s roughly 14,000 residents identify as white, and not Hispanic – far whiter than Milwaukee (where only 35% of residents identify the same way) and Milwaukee County overall (51%), according to census figures. But its demographic makeup isn’t dissimilar from Milwaukee County suburbs (78% non-Hispanic white), and many residents believe that the town is becoming more and more welcoming each year. 

the Greendale Theatre, 1939; Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Frank says Greendale’s racially restrictive history can be condemned while still praising some of its more progressive founding principles. In her mind, Tugwell and the other RA officials who helped design the town did manage to create an unusually walkable, well laid-out town that promoted civic-mindedness in its residents, and they deserve praise for that. 

“I think the proof is in the pudding,” she says. “You know, the homes are very small. So – from a 21st-century perspective – they’re kind of obsolete.” Or you would assume that they should be obsolete, anyway. “Everybody wants big closets and two and a half bathrooms and all of that … and one might have expected that therefore their value would not have appreciated.” 

“Greendale was a great place to grow up because we could skate almost all over withouth having to cross a street.” 

– Kathleen Hart

But they did. And Greendale continues to remain a sought-after place to move. In 2020, 184 homes were sold across the 53129 ZIP code, which covers most of Greendale.

And the median number of days that they spent on the market was just six, 50% faster than the county’s overall pace of sale. Clearly, the town appeals to people who love its unique history and Garden City aspects.  

Greendale’s Gazebo Park is a central spot for entertainment and social gathering in the unusually tight-knit community; Photo courtesy of Jason Reblando

“Greendale was a great place to grow up because we could skate almost all over without having to cross a street,” recalls Kathleen Hart, who moved to Greendale with her family in 1938 and was in the town’s first kindergarten class. “We walked to school through the woods.”

Hart, who is now 87, is also well aware that the town was originally built by and for working-class Americans. “The fact that I lived in a community where everyone was the same economical class was beneficial to me. There was no affluence, and when no one had extras, it was not so bad,” she says.

No, Greendale’s residents were not rich in the common sense of the word. But they did have an abundance of green space – parks and walking paths and public amenities that made it easy to get out and enjoy the beauty of nature, and to meet new people and become involved in the community. Both then and now. 


Culture Editor Lindsey Anderson wrote “Dairy State of Emergency” in the March 2020 issue.



 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s May issue.

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Lindsey Anderson covers culture for Milwaukee Magazine. Before joining the MilMag team she worked as an editor at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and wrote freelance articles for ArtSlant and Eater.