THE ADMINISTRATION: The Greenbelt Mystery

  • For the privilege of living in one of the New Deal's three Government-owned utopian "planned communities," residents had to do much of the planning themselves. Abraham Chasanow, a $1,800-a-year clerk in the Navy's Hydrographic Office, found this out soon after he moved his family into a six-room, $36.50-a-month row house in Greenbelt, Md. in 1939. For 13 years Chasanow worked hard at his civic responsibilities. His hard work eventually led to serious trouble: last July the Navy suspended him as a suspected security risk. Chasanow, now 43, decided to fight the charges. He is still fighting them.

    Hanging the Wash. In the late 19305, Dr. Rexford Tugwell's Resettlement Administration built a model town seven miles northeast of Washington at a cost of $14 million. Because its 900 dwelling units covered a 2OO-acre tract surrounded by 3,100 acres of Maryland countryside, the town was named Greenbelt. Greenbelt's residents, including Abraham Chasanow, set about electing a local government, operating an consumer co-op to run the town's stores, organizing a health insurance plan and a recreation center.

    Every Greenbelt citizen was caught up in a continual flurry of supercharged issues. For a time, the price of everything in the town's stores, from haircuts to hosiery, had to be set after community argument. Painful decisions were made about keeping dogs (prohibited) and hanging out the wash on Sundays (approved). Soon 57 committees were functioning in little Greenbelt.

    Men with professional training were rare in the community. Since Abraham Chasanow had earned a degree at Washington College of Law night school, he was put on six assorted committees. Lawyer Chasanow also served on the draft board, the Health Association, the Citizens' Association. He took part in the P.T.A., the Lions, the Jewish Community Center. He did legal work for the town's 1,000-unit expansion in 1941 and contributed to the local newspaper, the Cooperator, of which his wife Helen was once church editor. The Chasanows also raised four children.

    After the war, the Government began to think about selling Greenbelt. Fourteen hundred Greenbelters, including Chasanow, formed an association to buy the town. But the other 450 tenants refused to sign up, in the hope that the Government would decide not to sell and would continue to subsidize their rents.

    The stormiest battle in Greenbelt's squally history was joined.

    In 1949 Congress ordered the town sold, no ifs, ands or buts. As the Greenbelt Veteran Housing Corporation and its legal adviser Abraham Chasanow fought for private ownership, tempers flared and rumors burgeoned. From house to row house, the word darted that the veterans' group was led by "Communist Jews and longhairs." Someone scratched at the sign over the Jewish Community Center to make it read "Jewish Communist Center."

    At length, in the summer of 1952, the U.S. sold Greenbelt. Chasanow's corporation gave tenants a year to decide whether to make purchase payments on their homes or move.

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