Notes for an
and white photographs of the construction of Jersey
On the dense map of New Jersey, the Borough of Roosevelt is a little dot about thirteen miles from Princeton. The town's two square miles include farmland and woodland; its population of about 875 people lives in 328 houses on half-acre lots. A two-lane county road runs through its main street to neighboring Hightstown and the interchange of Exit 8 of the New Jersey Turnpike, four miles away.
Since the 1930's, Roosevelt has attracted studies by academics, books and articles, documentary films and dozens of newspaper stories. It is the only entire town on New Jersey's Historic Register. While historic districts are not uncommon, whole towns so designated are rare: Roosevelt is one of only fifteen communities on the National Register of Historic Places.
Roosevelt was founded in 1936 as an agro-industrial community named Jersey Homesteads. Franklin Roosevelt's election in 1932 had unleashed a burst of programs to confront the effects of the devastating economic depression. One government agency, the Division of Subsistence Homesteads (later transferred to the Resettlement Administration) was mandated to create new communities, generally in proximity to local industries -- coal mining in West Virginia, for example.
Dozens of Subsistence Homesteads towns were built around the nation, varied in housing design, population, occupational and economic base. Roosevelt is the only one of these Resettlement projects that still functions as a self-governing municipality.
Jersey Homesteads was born as the result of a meeting between two agricultural experts in the early 1930's. Benjamin Brown, a Jewish-American businessman, met a U.S. Undersecretary of Agriculture in Russia, where both had been invited to consult with the government. Mr. Brown, an immigrant from Eastern Europe with a complicated history, had organized a large, successful turkey-marketing cooperative in Utah. He had a dream rooted in the Jewish back-to-the-land movement of the late 19th century, and he managed to plug his project into the Resettlement Administration's program through his contact with the Undersecretary.
Brown's plan was to resettle Jewish garment workers from New York to a rural village in central New Jersey. Its economic base would be a cooperatively managed women's coat and hat factory; in the off-seasons of this seasonal industry the workers would be employed at a cooperatively-run dairy, chicken and crop farms. The workers would own a co-op food store and a retail outlet for the coats and hats produced in their factory.
Jersey Homesteads was on the drawing board in 1934, and the first seven families moved into their new homes in 1936. The buildings were designed by Alfred Kastner, a refugee avant-garde Bauhaus architect from Germany. Radical in design, they were constructed of white-painted cinder block topped by flat, concrete roofs, undecorated and starkly utilitarian. In an area where Victorian wood styling was the residential norm, they were considered outrageous, even ugly. So...the Bauhaus met the Bronx; and 200 houses, a school, a factory, sewage and water plants were eventually built.
The Jersey Homesteads Utopia was ringed by conservative small towns and farms. Few Jews lived in the nearby municipalities; the surrounding region may as well have been below the Mason-Dixon line in its racial attitudes. Black movie-goers sat in the back of the segregated theater in Hightstown. During the planting and picking seasons, black workers were trucked up from the south and housed in shameful shacks. In fact, the region around Jersey Homesteads had been home to the Ku Klux Klan; and crosses were burned for the edification of Catholics as well as blacks.
There was no suburbia yet. New York was sixty miles away; a bus trip to the city took almost three hours with a lunch and restroom stop on the way. There were few phones or cars in town. It was remote, starry-dark at night and eerily quiet to its recent city immigrants. After rain or thawed snow, the unpaved streets were deep with mud.
Jersey Homesteads was widely attacked in the local and national press. To its neighbors, it was known as that Jew-Communist town. The clothing unions were opposed to the project, fearing that it would encourage run-away shops to avoid union contracts. Albert Einstein, who lived in Princeton, was instrumental in convincing the union leadership that Jersey Homesteads posed no danger to the labor movement.
Homesteaders were recruited through a network of Jewish newspapers and organizations, like the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Each family paid $500 to join the cooperative, not a small sum in those days when people often walked to work from Brooklyn to Manhattan to avoid the five-cent subway fare. The adults were fortyish, with one to five children ranging from grade to highschool age, and a few older teens. They were Eastern European Jews, adventurous and eccentric. A few had lived in other utopian communities. Many had covered vast distances on their journey to the United States; some came by way of China, away from their families for the years it took to secure a foothold. Most were citizens who had been in the country for less than fifteen years.
Their heads were stuffed with three or four languages, songs, prayers, jokes, Talmudic argument and parables, folk medicine, ancient curses, a bit of Chekhov, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Sholem Aleichem -- and ideologies, ideologies, ideologies: socialism, communism, anarchism, Zionism, trade-unionism. They were precisely the worker-intellectual Jews of Irving Howe's "World of Our Fathers." And Jersey Homesteads was immediately a familiar home to them. It was a shtetl, like in the old country, just like "Fiddler on the Roof." So, first things first, they promptly organized a proper burial and cemetery society.
For a few years the shtetl's public meetings were conducted in Yiddish, with complex, sinuous, bravura debate that moved any argument from the Old Testament to the Diaspora into the Pale, through the Enlightenment and past the Russian revolution right up to the subject at hand: unleashed dogs and overturned garbage cans. They were such fierce and skillful debaters that those who were not aggressive could spend a lifetime in town without finishing a sentence. They were opinionated and stubborn, too -- hardly the right material for the cooperative undertaking. Besides, the enterprise itself was complicated and without institutional depth in the United States. Isolated utopias based solely on secular ideologies do not have a good track record in this country. And they had no knowledge of the business world; their loyalties were to the unions and against the bosses, the owners of businesses like theirs. The manufacture of women's clothing is a volatile enterprise at best, a crap-shoot even for the most experienced. And it was the depth of the Depression.
So the cooperatives failed in a couple of years, before all 200 houses were completed. Most people remained, and commuted to work in New York or Philadelphia. The houses were made available for general rental, the factory was leased, the stores were sold. Cries of "speak English" arose at public meetings. Friends and relatives of the original Homesteaders moved in, as well as some local Gentiles and an artist, Ben Shahn, who had painted a government-funded mural in the school. Eventually, the government sold the houses and farms to their occupants and Jersey Homesteads became an incorporated borough. Its name was changed to Roosevelt after the President's death.
Roosevelt is not a utopian success story and much has been written and filmed about its failure from that point of view. In fact, it should have been examined in other terms: it proved to be a roaring success as a model for transforming housing into community and thereby transforming lives. When the sixties and seventies rolled around with grant money, nobody looked back at the old Resettlement Administration towns. They managed, instead, to spend millions on killer high-rises for low-income families.
Roosevelt people used to amuse themselves by projecting percentages based on the achievements of their population into national statistics: suppose the country had the town's percentage of lawyers who had argued before the Supreme Court, physicists who had worked with Enrico Fermi, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters, opera singers, professors, artists, doctors, authors, stage and television directors, and on and on. These are some of the occupations of the children who grew up in the little town of resettled garment workers.
But by far the most dignifying, life-defining occupation the village gave those workers was the responsibility for governing themselves in their own community. That governance engaged them as full people, ennobling them with the activities of citizenship. It is complicated, and it takes a lot of energy, to govern even a small town. Sooner or later, Roosevelt's citizens serve in some public activity: on the school board, the planning board, the borough council, the environmental commission, as a volunteer fireman or on the ambulance squad, in the PTA, the art association, the senior citizens club, the nursery school board, the food co-op, the historical commission, a political action group, the Little League. Eventually, everyone is drawn into active town life by anger, gregariousness or conviction of how things should be done. And, eventually, argument and ideology wind up in the town's budget and its taxes, yes or no to a new well, water-tower, sewage plant and road repairs, school administration, zoning ordinances, master plans. Its just a matter of scale from the politics of a village to that of a city.
Roosevelt is now thoroughly gentrified. Children of the clothing workers, and even some of their grandchildren, as well as others who grew up in the town, returned from college degrees and genteel professions to raise their own families. Housing pressure in the region attracted new home buyers. Roosevelt is no longer either working-class or predominantly Jewish. Its oddball quality now comes from a high population percentage of artists, poets, writers, musicians, composers, professors and computer geeks. For the moment, town life remains intimate and intensely active. But all around, the rich farmland grows a new profit-making crop: real estate. Roosevelt may soon be plowed under by development to become still another American no-place place.
Created 10 March 2000.