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Greenbelt is perhaps best known for its metro stop and its proximity to College Park, MD. But visitors to those two places may not know of the lush park winding through the center of the town – and the fascinating history of both the town and the park.
In 1933, the United States was in dire straits. The stock market crash of 1929 led to enormous economic and social upheaval, and 10.5 million people found themselves without work.
However, the government saw an opportunity in the crisis. Federal agencies began creating jobs for those who were out of work – tasking people with building critical infrastructure, writing and illustrating guidebooks to American landmarks, and creating and maintaining national parks, among other undertakings.
That’s how Greenbelt National Park came to be.
An economist named Rex Tugwell drove President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the area where the park and city would one day be built. Tugwell had a radical idea: he wanted to build affordable homes for many who had found themselves without work. But he didn’t envision block after block of dense, high-rise urban apartments. He wanted a town full of open spaces, “surrounded by a green belt of trees.” Building and maintaining the town and its park would provide employment for many types of workers, and the finished product would provide housing that was both affordable and beautiful.
FDR liked the idea, and so in 1934, 3,500 workers were brought in to turn Tugwell’s “radical idea” into reality. Greenbelt was one of the first planned communities in the country, with easy walks along winding trails to the school and community center. Existing trees in the area were transplanted along the thoroughfares, providing both shade and the sense of permanence; the surrounding roads and overpasses were mapped out thoughtfully with an eye for aesthetics.
The first families began moving in by 1937. After many years of renting their homes, residents formed a cooperative and bought Greenbelt from the government in 1952.
More than 80 years later, I found myself in a bind, although on a much smaller scale.
It was a muggy Saturday afternoon in late summer, and days of rain had confined our little family – me, my husband, and our young son – indoors. We were plagued by the humid heat and a sense of restlessness, ready for a change of scenery. When the sun finally broke through the clouds, we knew we needed to take advantage of the break and head outside. We hurried over to Greenbelt National Park before the weather could change its mind and unleash more rain.
As soon as we walked under the cover of trees, the temperature seemed to drop several degrees. A breeze swept through the trees, lifting branches and rustling leaves. Our restlessness was instantly replaced with wonder and calm; it felt like we could take deep breaths again. How strange it is to be so near to nature and yet so far from it sometimes – and how lovely to close the distance with so little effort.
We meandered along trails, some of which boasted retro-looking outdoor exercise stations fit for any park-goers to test their agility skills. We followed along the creek until we emerged suddenly into a wide, empty meadow. For a moment I felt pulled back in time – before the town and park were formed, before the Great Depression, before settlers forced out American Indians and cleared forests to plant crops. I imagined what this land was like when the Algonquin Indians and other tribes lived in the region, , hunting wildlife and foraging for berries.
That’s the best part about visiting a park like this – feeling that connection of history, understanding a little better how this little place has evolved through the centuries, realizing how many people have wandered through it over the generations.
We weren’t alone for long, though. Across the meadow, we spotted two different playgrounds, and my son lit up. He and two other boys roamed over slides and swings and steps until the afternoon faded toward evening.
We left before the rain began pattering against the leaves once more. As we walked toward the parking lot, deer startled and leapt into the welcoming forest around us, their white tails disappearing into the green.
Learn more about the origins of Greenbelt
You can tour a restored original Greenbelt house with furnishings from the period of 1936-1952 at the Greenbelt Museum. Take a walk through history with a tour around the original city and visit the former elementary school, now the Greenbelt Community Center.
Things to do at Greenbelt National Park
The park’s campground offers 174 campground sites with hot showers and bathroom facilities. Sweetgum Picnic Area is open year-round on a first-come, first-served basis. There are two sets of playground equipment, a baseball field with backstop, and a large field. There are four hiking trails in the park, from .8 miles to 5.3 miles in length. The park has a walking club that invites the public to join in the last Sunday of every month.