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Sun September 23, 2012

'New Deal' Town Turns 75, Utopian Ideals Long Gone

Originally published on Tue September 25, 2012 12:29 pm

The town of Roosevelt, N.J., was born out of an era not much different from today. It was 1937, the economy was in the toilet, and the country bitterly divided.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt had won a second term in office — an election as acrimonious as today's — and with his re-election, a host of New Deal programs moved forward. One of these projects built 99 towns outside of industrial centers across the country. The town of Roosevelt, 50 miles south of New York City, was one of them.

What set Roosevelt apart from its sibling-towns across the country was its utopian design. It was to be a cooperative colony, an American-style kibbutz for New York's mostly Jewish garment workers. The federal government built houses, a garment factory and a 500-acre farm, all to be owned and run by the residents.

Today, few of the town's thousand or so residents remember the lofty aspirations that shaped it, but Helen Barth does. She moved here in 1936 from the Bronx, though the town wasn't officially founded until 1937.

"My father saw an advertisement in The Jewish Daily Forward," Barth says. "It was a Yiddish newspaper, and it just painted an idealistic lifestyle."

Barth's family traded tenement life for a modern Bauhaus-style ranch home. The farm and half-acre lots were more open space than Helen Barth had ever seen.

"I can actually remember going out there and taking a bite out of those first tomatoes," she recalls. "There was nothing, nothing like it."

Utopia, But Poorly Planned

Barth's fond memories of this American-style kibbutz long outlived the farm and the factory. Town historian Michael Ticktin says both ventures failed after about two years.

"They didn't meet their production. They weren't able to produce," Ticktin says. "One problem was they had to go into production before all the houses were built, so they didn't have enough people there right away and the government thought it was mismanaged. Of course, the people blamed the government."

Michael Hiltzik, a columnist for The Los Angeles Times who wrote the book The New Deal, A Modern History, says most of the other towns built by the National Industrial Recovery Act no longer exist, but Roosevelt managed to adapt.

"The entire program was sort of an albatross," Hiltzik says. "It was very, very expensive, and the agricultural progress that New Dealers thought they'd make, and certainly the industrial gains they thought they would see, never really materialized."

Roosevelt is not much of a town. The most happening place is the town post office, where the post master knows most residents' names. The lone retail store sits vacant; the public pool is gone; some of the original homes have lost their curb appeal.

But the town's quirky architecture — designed in part by architect Louis Kahn, who was then just a lowly apprentice — and reasonably priced homes appeal to artists looking for a little isolation. The town even had a reputation as something of an artists' colony.

Jonathan Shahn, a sculptor who has a studio in the town's old garment factory, came here with his activist father, Ben Shahn, who painted a famous mural in the town school in the 1930s. Jonathan Shahn grew up here, moved away, and now he's back, though he says he still prefers cities.

Shahn says he likes Roosevelt well enough, but he says many of the residents are overly nostalgic about the place.

"I think they maybe created a little bit of mythology about it," Shahn says. "People come, people go, and it's much more of a regular town."

As the town celebrates its 75th birthday, it does so as a regular town with no stores or traffic lights that has managed to survive its experimental origins.

Copyright 2013 WNYC Radio. To see more, visit http://www.wnyc.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

The little town of Roosevelt, New Jersey, celebrated its 75th anniversary this weekend. The town was one of 99 communities created by the federal government, as part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Back then - not unlike today , the nation was bitterly divided. Here's FDR speaking to supporters in 1936.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

PRESIDENT FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: Never before, in all our history, have these forces been so united against one candidate, as they've been today. They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred.

(APPLAUSE)

LYDEN: President Roosevelt was elected to a second term; and the New Deal projects, like this New Jersey town, moved forward. WNYC's Janet Babin checks in on the town of Roosevelt 75 years on.

JANET BABIN, BYLINE: Few of Roosevelt's thousand or so residents remember that this town began with utopian ideals, but Helen Barth does. She moved here from the Bronx in 1936.

HELEN BARTH: My father saw an advertisement in The Jewish Daily Forward - it was a Yiddish newspaper - and it just painted an idealistic lifestyle.

BABIN: The federal government built houses, a garment factory and a 500-acre farm; all to be owned and run by the residents. Barth's family traded tenement life for a modern, Bauhaus-style ranch home. The farm and half-acre lots were more open space than Barth had ever seen.

BARTH: I can actually remember going out there, and taking a bite out of those first tomatoes. There was just nothing, nothing like it.

BABIN: Barth's fond memories of this American-style kibbutz outlived the farm and the factory. Town historian Michael Ticktin says after about two years, both had failed.

MICHAEL TICKTIN: They didn't meet their production; they weren't able to produce. One problem was, they had to go into production before all the houses were built. So they didn't have enough people there right away, and that - the government thought that it was mismanaged. You know, of course, the people blamed the government.

BABIN: The cooperative ventures of these New Deal towns fell apart by the 1940s, says L.A. Times columnist Michael Hiltzik. He wrote the book, "The New Deal, A Modern History."

MICHAEL HILTZIK: The entire program was sort of an albatross. It was very, very expensive. And the agricultural progress that the New Dealers thought that they would make - and certainly, the industrial gains that they thought they would see - never really materialized.

BABIN: Hiltzik says most of the other towns no longer exist. But somehow, Roosevelt managed to adapt...

BILL: Hello, Gary.

GARY: Hey, Bill.

BILL: What do we need today?

GARY: I've got one package, I believe.

BILL: OK. And that's six...

GARY: Six-four.

BABIN: ...though it's not much of a town. The hoppingest place is the post office, where the postmaster knows most residents by name. Roosevelt's lone retail store now sits vacant. The public pool is gone. Some of the original homes have lost their curb appeal. But the town's quirky architecture, and reasonably priced real estate, appeal to artists looking for a little isolation - just so long as it's a short bus ride away from New York galleries.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)

BABIN: Jonathan Shahn chips away at a sculpture in his studio, in what was once the town's garment factory. He came here as a kid with his activist father, Ben Shahn, who painted a famous mural in the town school back in the 1930s. Jonathan grew up and moved away but now, he's back - though he says he still prefers cities. Shahn likes Roosevelt well enough, but he says many of the residents are overly nostalgic about the place.

JONATHAN SHAHN: I think they mainly create a little bit of a mythology about it, you know. And people come, people go; and it's much more like a regular town.

BABIN: A regular town with no stores, no traffic lights, that's managed to survive its experimental origins to celebrate its 75th birthday. For NPR News, I'm Janet Babin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.