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

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

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

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

The little town of Roosevelt, New Jersey, celebrated its 75th anniversary this weekend. The town was one of 99 communities created by the federal government, as part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Back then - not unlike today , the nation was bitterly divided. Here's FDR speaking to supporters in 1936.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

PRESIDENT FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: Never before, in all our history, have these forces been so united against one candidate, as they've been today. They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred.

(APPLAUSE)

LYDEN: President Roosevelt was elected to a second term; and the New Deal projects, like this New Jersey town, moved forward. WNYC's Janet Babin checks in on the town of Roosevelt 75 years on.

JANET BABIN, BYLINE: Few of Roosevelt's thousand or so residents remember that this town began with utopian ideals, but Helen Barth does. She moved here from the Bronx in 1936.

HELEN BARTH: My father saw an advertisement in The Jewish Daily Forward - it was a Yiddish newspaper - and it just painted an idealistic lifestyle.

BABIN: The federal government built houses, a garment factory and a 500-acre farm; all to be owned and run by the residents. Barth's family traded tenement life for a modern, Bauhaus-style ranch home. The farm and half-acre lots were more open space than Barth had ever seen.

BARTH: I can actually remember going out there, and taking a bite out of those first tomatoes. There was just nothing, nothing like it.

BABIN: Barth's fond memories of this American-style kibbutz outlived the farm and the factory. Town historian Michael Ticktin says after about two years, both had failed.

MICHAEL TICKTIN: They didn't meet their production; they weren't able to produce. 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 that - the government thought that it was mismanaged. You know, of course, the people blamed the government.

BABIN: The cooperative ventures of these New Deal towns fell apart by the 1940s, says L.A. Times columnist Michael Hiltzik. He wrote the book, "The New Deal, A Modern History."

MICHAEL HILTZIK: The entire program was sort of an albatross. It was very, very expensive. And the agricultural progress that the New Dealers thought that they would make - and certainly, the industrial gains that they thought they would see - never really materialized.

BABIN: Hiltzik says most of the other towns no longer exist. But somehow, Roosevelt managed to adapt...

BILL: Hello, Gary.

GARY: Hey, Bill.

BILL: What do we need today?

GARY: I've got one package, I believe.

BILL: OK. And that's six...

GARY: Six-four.

BABIN: ...though it's not much of a town. The hoppingest place is the post office, where the postmaster knows most residents by name. Roosevelt's lone retail store now sits vacant. The public pool is gone. Some of the original homes have lost their curb appeal. But the town's quirky architecture, and reasonably priced real estate, appeal to artists looking for a little isolation - just so long as it's a short bus ride away from New York galleries.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)

BABIN: Jonathan Shahn chips away at a sculpture in his studio, in what was once the town's garment factory. He came here as a kid with his activist father, Ben Shahn, who painted a famous mural in the town school back in the 1930s. Jonathan grew up and moved away but now, he's back - though he says he still prefers cities. Shahn likes Roosevelt well enough, but he says many of the residents are overly nostalgic about the place.

JONATHAN SHAHN: I think they mainly create a little bit of a mythology about it, you know. And people come, people go; and it's much more like a regular town.

BABIN: A regular town with no stores, no traffic lights, that's managed to survive its experimental origins to celebrate its 75th birthday. For NPR News, I'm Janet Babin.

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