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

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.

Part of the promise of Roosevelt:  Every resident is guaranteed a place in the town's cemetery.
Janet Babin / WNYC
Part of the promise of Roosevelt: Every resident is guaranteed a place in the town's cemetery.

"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.

A section of Ben and Bernarda Shahn's mural in Roosevelt, N.J.'s elementary school depicts the plight of laborers.
Janet Babin / WNYC
A section of Ben and Bernarda Shahn's mural in Roosevelt, N.J.'s elementary school depicts the plight of laborers.

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 2012 WNYC Radio

Janet Babin