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The Greendale Blueprint

Celebrating 70 years of New Deal urban planning

Jul. 30, 2008
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The leafy suburb of Greendale is one of the most distinctive communities in the Milwaukee area. Even the most casual visitor will notice the differences between Greendale—with its mix of charming but affordable single- and multiple-family residences and well-thought-out village center—and the typical car-centric American suburb. The astute observer might see a forerunner of New Urbanism in Greendale’s blend of twisting streets and homes that do not turn their backs on those streets, a feature that joins home and community seamlessly. Designed to accommodate car traffic but never subservient to it, Greendale is equally accessible to drivers, bikers, walkers and joggers.

This didn’t happen by accident: Greendale is the product of the Greenbelt program, a federal government initiative undertaken as part of New Deal efforts to end the Great Depression of the 1930s. That extensive and seemingly unending economic crisis created a unique environment that allowed the federal government to engage in what President Franklin Roosevelt called “bold, persistent experimentation.”

One of those bold experiments was the Greenbelt program, which was intended to provide affordable housing for working class families and create jobs for unemployed construction workers across the country. The Greenbelt planners wanted to re-create the traditional communal bond they believed had been severed by over population and a lack of green space in America’s industrial metropolises.

Greenbelt planners considered Milwaukee for one of its three Greenbelt sites for a number of reasons, among them its Germanic character, its socialist political heritage and its long history of metropolitan planning. The planners thought Germans possessed such characteristics as “industriousness, thrift and [a] love of music, art, drama and horticulture,” which they believed would make the project a success. They also believed that local opposition to the collectivist Greenbelt experiment would be low in an area that had voluntarily elected socialists and had previously been a national leader in planning, zoning and population-decentralization efforts. Milwaukee, in fact, had constructed one of the first public housing projects in the nation some years before.

Breaking Ground

In preparation for groundbreaking, Federal Resettlement Administration employees spent much of 1935 and parts of 1936 purchasing the land that would become Greendale while trying to balance between the demands of Washington and Milwaukee leaders, each of whom wanted some control over the nature and direction of the project.

While there was not significant opposition to the project, some local objections did emerge. The proposed homes would be owned by the federal government and rented to residents. As a result, builders were concerned that government construction of homes might depress demand on the regular market, while local government officials were concerned that the land would be removed from the tax rolls.

In the end, the promise of lower-cost suburban housing for working families and the allure of hard-to-find construction jobs in the midst of the crippling Depression combined to smooth the road of public opinion. The truth of the situation was that Greendale, like most New Deal projects, was neither as radical as its conservative opponents charged nor as limited as its more liberal supporters lamented.

Greendale remained a compromise for a variety of parties: those who wanted to resettle homeless rural families, supporters of improved living environments for urban workers and planners who were mostly con cerned with alleviating the growing shortage of decent, affordable housing. As Milwaukee’s demo graphics demanded, most of the original residents of Greendale had been living in Milwaukee or one of its suburbs, such as West Allis or South Milwaukee.

Of particular importance for Greendale’s legacy was the Resettlement Administration’s hiring of a young engineer named Frank Zeidler to perform surveying work on the Greendale site. In turn, the promise of Greendale had an impact on the future mayor of Milwaukee. While Greendale’s form was based on decades of local planning work, the vision of decentralized, suburban-style homes for members of the working class became a dominant theme of Zeidler’s postwar mayoral terms. Zeidler-led Milwaukee envisioned Greendale’s homes as one part of an expanded city, a premise that was objectionable to people who already lived in one of the growing number of independent suburbs but important to the developing character of Milwaukee proper.

Individual Ownership

These competing agendas came to a head after World War II, when the federal government moved to sell the Greenbelt communities, including Greendale, to individual homeowners. Mayor Zeidler saw in Greendale an excellent opportunity to devel op housing for war veterans and to pursue one prong of a broader program of population dispersal.

Accordingly, the City of Milwaukee made an offer to purchase Greendale, with the goal of annexing the land to the city proper and developing additional housing units in coop eration with a group organized by the American Legion. These homes were also planned to be owned by individuals, though the project would be made possible through a public-private partnership. Once Milwaukee’s plans for annexation became public in 1949, support for the American Legion plan dropped precipitously, and in 1950, every single supporter of the American Legion plan was voted out of office by Greendale residents.

In a sense, the planners of Greendale had succeeded all too well. In Greendale, they had indeed created a cohesive community in a suburban, park-like setting. By 1950, how ever, Greendale’s residents were vocally resisting what the Greendale paper called “despotic methods” of Milwaukee’s attempts at expansion.

Greendale had become something much different from what its planners had intended. Those plans had envisioned an experiment in central planning and collective living. But Greendale residents clearly rejected that vision in favor of personal control over their political destiny. The result of the post war struggle for the future of Greendale was the government sale of the homes to resident-owners. By the early 1950s, Greendale was home to individually owned, if largely owner-occupied, residences in what would become the classic suburban mold. Today, practically the only vestige of these New Deal roots is the diversity of housing styles and types, but this diversity remains as remarkable today as it was intended to be more than 70 years ago. Despite the shift from government to individual ownership, Greendale remains a community of renters and owners, and of various socioeconomic classes. While today’s residents have created a Greendale that’s a far cry from the ideals of its planners, the continuing attraction of the so-called “originals” stands as testimony to the successful attempts to plan a community that remains one of Milwaukee’s most desirable.

Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.

Greendale’s Birthday Bash
Greendale invites all of Milwaukee to take part in its 70th anniversary celebration Aug. 8-10. Christopher Miller will give a speech entitled “Why Greendale and the New Deal Matter,” and a beer-tasting event will be held Aug. 9 at Ray and Dot’s, 6351 W. Grange Ave., from 3 to 5 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door and may be purchased in person at the Reiman Visitor Center, 5602 Broad St., by calling (414) 421- 1956 or by visiting www.TheGreendaleHistoricalSociety.org.

The Making of Greendale | Photos courtesy of the Greendale Historical Society


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