Honey Gives A Guest A Chance To Write About A New Jersey Utopia

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December 30, 2010 · Posted in Notes from Above Ground 

By Honey van Blossom

(Honey is a Belgian Marxist former strip-tease artiste.)

Editor’s note: Honey is offering Tammy Williams-Anderson her column this month in order to learn that some tried to build a utopia in an unlikely place – New Jersey.

WAS THE HOMESTEADS OF ROOSEVELT A UTOPIA, AND WHAT HAPPENED TO IT?


From personal collection (no date): The home of the Fuchs family in Jersey Homesteads, Roosevelt, New Jersey. Photograph taken about 1941.

Urban Planning attracts idealists. Idealists are always looking for utopia – the opportunity to make improvements in the lives and environments of humans. As an adjective the word utopian is defined as,”Excellent, but existing only in fancy or theory; ideal.”

As a noun the word means,” One who advocates impractical reforms; a visionary” (Funk and Wagnall, 1976). As can be seen by meditating on the definitions for a bit, the word is a sort of contradiction in terms. That makes sense considering the word’s heritage comes from the Greek words ou which means no or not, and topia which comes from the word topos meaning place. The literal translation is “no place” or “not a place” – not to be confused with dystopia, which means bad place (where we may be living in the future if we cannot sustain our life support systems). It would seem that any utopia, by the definition of the word, has only a relatively short life span. But that is not a deterrent to those attempting to affect change.

In the late 19th and early part of the 20th century, cities were filling up with people faster than housing could be provided. The housing demand resulted in greedy building owners looking to turn an improved profit by squeezing as many people as possible into the least amount of space. Without housing restrictions in place yet, apartment owners were free to do as they please and apartment buildings became more like multi-level dungeons then abodes.

The only difference between the two is that the doors of dungeons are closed. The doors along the interior hallways in these tenement buildings (as they became known) were often propped open to allow for extra (though scant) circulation of air since what few windows were designed into the structures were inadequate because the buildings were so densely positioned in relation to each other that air could scarcely pass. To say the tenements were crowded is kind. The housing commissioners concluded that in New York that,”the tenement districts are places in which thousands of people are living in the smallest place in which it is possible for human beings to exist – crowded together in dark, ill-vented rooms, in many of which the sunlight never enters and in most of which fresh air is unknown.”

This mode of living existed from the late 1800’s into the 1920’s and though it was not an experience limited to Eastern European Jews, there were large numbers of them living this way. The other truth of tenement existence was the very hardscape, man-made nature of the physical surroundings. There were no plants, no tilled soil, and an extremely limited evidence of nature. If someone wanted to design a utopia for the people living in these tenements, it would require not much more than vision, coordination, and unprecedented way of doing things.

Many people, certainly those on the West Coast, do not know that just such a utopian planned community was plotted out, designed, and built during times of great uncertainty: during the Great Depression; between two world wars. They do not know that this utopia was just east of Trenton, New Jersey, U.S.A. Known as Roosevelt following the death of its then top-administrator President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945, a utopian planned community began its evolution in 1933 as the Jersey Homesteads, one of many projects the federal government was involved in to deal with the inadequate housing and quality of life many people were facing during the Depression.

After the crash of the stock market in 1929, there was a national reassessment of social and economic conditions. Two of the conditions were lack of adequate housing and an increase in disease and death resulting from the crowded, polluted, and unsanitary conditions of urban life. As a result, many government programs and agencies were set up to tackle these conditions. In bureaucratic fashion, they can be a bit of a maze to navigate and comprehend. The federal government came up with the Division of Subsistence Housing under the arm of the Department of Agriculture to deal with some of the existing conditions. The Division of Subsistence Housing was later transferred to the care of The Rural Resettlement Division, which was established in July of 1935, and in 1937 it was renamed The Resettlement Administration. The Resettlement Administration was only one of the New Deal agencies. The Resettlement Administration would go on to become the Farm Security Administration. These last two were the concoctions of Rexford Tugwell.

Of the 99 or so projects nationally that the newly formed Resettlement Administration started, Jersey Homesteads was the only Resettlement Administration project that targeted an immigrant population, and a Jewish one at that. By our modern standards it would seem like favoritism that one group should be singled out to benefit from such benevolence. It also appears to be an intervention to help a persecuted people or a specific population (in this case: a group fleeing religious and cultural hatred in Europe and Russia), but rather the choice fits a series of coincidences, common threads, and simple timing.

The reason that the Jews were being offered their own utopia is submitted by author P. Conkin: The Jewish immigrant population arrived in the U.S. with less money than comparable immigrant groups (I theorize that this is due to the fact that so much had been confiscated from them by the various controlling groups and governments that they had little left to possess); and, because of occupational restrictions placed on them in their homelands, coupled with the fact that they were mostly illiterate, there were not many respectable occupations for them to enter into, so they ended up in the slums of the city trying to make ends meet by working in the garment industries. Because of the afore-named factors, there was little opportunity to escape the city tenements but, in spite of those factors, the Jewish immigrants persevered and worked hard to have the kind of lives that they had long desired, always in search of a replacement for their idyllic homeland, where they could continue their culture. The Jews have a history of collectivism. Separate from the actions of either local or national U.S. government, these Jews were already forming unions and banding together to support each other, always working cooperatively to solve problems and challenges within their community.

There is still debate out on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s personal position toward the Jewish immigrant population. Regardless of such debate, what is significant is that the Jersey Homesteads project turned out to be a synchronicity of different events either coming together or colliding against one another. It was a period of growing strength of the labor unions and of growing suspicion of socialism. The Jersey Homestead Project was not without its controversies. For example, there is the clashing of personalities and ideologies between players such as Benjamin Brown and union leader David Dubinsky; and between Rexford Tugwell and the press.

Aside from the office of FDR and his”brain trust” of advisors (as they were called even while FDR was still New York’s governor, before his inauguration), there was an individual not associated with the federal government who played a considerable role in establishing the Homesteads. His name was Benjamin Brown and he was a businessman and cooperative movement leader, originally from the Ukrainian part of Russia, who had demonstrated ability establishing working farming cooperatives across the United States. He had long had a vision of a cooperative community that would be carved out of a piece of fertile land, and on this land subsistence farming would occur alongside a local industry. He wanted to establish a cooperative live/work/farm arrangement where immigrant Jews would have a community of their own where they would perform subsistence farming, run their own locally-sited competitive factory, and live in homes built in a healthy, natural setting within walking distance from all aspects of their community and far away from the ills of city life.

Motivated by his dream, he was instrumental in securing a 1,200-acre parcel of land on which the agro-industrial community of Jersey Homesteads would be based [He did this apart from the government – completely on his own]. The general vision of Jersey Homesteads was to have a cooperative community highlighting subsistence farming during the growing season on 414 acres and a small community industry that would perform during the off-season when farming is impossible. The factory would be in a familiar industry in which most residents were already working in the inner city – the garment industry. The residents of the homes that surrounded the factory would run it. Transportation would not be an issue because most necessary tasks could be done within the community by foot. The setting would be surrounded by forest and on the site would have plenty of open space between buildings.

The basis for the idea of the Jersey Homesteads was similar to other projects of the Resettlement Administration: to”check the trend of population movement to the cities and to disperse urban-centered industries.” President Roosevelt himself was in favor of rural life and enamored with its virtues. He believed in the”restful privilege of getting away from pavements and from noise.” Benjamin Brown’s ideas and actions seemed compatible with the plans of the Administration. The comfortable homes would be offered to 200 applicants (though 800 applied) at the price of a $500 subscription fee and an additional $14 per month (a sum of money that would have taken over a year of labor to earn).

And so it was, after meeting with Jewish labor leaders, that the Provisional Commission for Jewish Farm Settlements was established and Brown began planning a community of 200 skilled Jewish workers who would be transplanted from the nearby cities to the countryside. In its early conception the community would be supervised by the federal government, but only slightly. Not six months after Brown had purchased the property himself, he and another intricately involved person by the name of M. L. Wilson were relieved of their positions by the actions of the federal government placing itself in-charge.

Between Benjamin Brown and Rexford Tugwell, an economist from Columbia University and”brain trust advisor” to the Roosevelt Administration, the Jersey Homesteads project was under way and Tugwell replaced Brown as its authority in 1935 under the Resettlement Administration. Though Roosevelt’s idea was more toward a back-to-the land movement, Tugwell insisted that that would not work. Instead, what he wanted to do (which was unintentionally related to what Brown had started) was”to go just outside centers of population, pick up cheap land, build a whole community, and entice people into them. Then go back into the cities and tear down whole slums and make parks out of them.”

Apart from serendipitous events, Jersey Homesteads was plagued with instances of disastrous luck. For instance, the buildings were slab concrete construction that was highly experimental at that time. Some of the first buildings could not stand – the concrete walls and roofs ended up caving in. There is the day that the first families were moving into their homes and there was a thunderstorm; or, the instance of ineffective communication between the applicant coordinators and construction managers when the families were readied for moving-in according to a predetermined date, only to find that construction was not on schedule and the buildings were not ready. Not only had the prospective tenants left their jobs in the cities of New York, but also now they had no homes in New Jersey either.

Because of the complex interrelationships between people and events, there are different reasons why the Jersey homesteads failed as a cooperative venture and utopian community. First of all, as was revealed in the 1980’s film documentary by Kroeling and Nathanson, Roosevelt, NJ: Vision of Utopia, because of the Depression there was little demand for new coats and men’s suits. People essentially held on to their possessions until they were completely beyond repair or unusable. In an effort to keep their costs down, if people did not need something, they did not buy. Because of this conservative approach to consumer spending there was simply not enough market for what the residents were manufacturing, so the local industry was not profitable. Secondly, there were unresolved power and ideology disputes between the residents/workers, conflicting with the cooperative goal.

Again, as is detailed by the memories of the people who were there, the workers in the factories would be at odds against one another because, for example, instruction and suggestions for improvement were rejected because the nature of the business was that all they were all co-owners. No one was a boss over another. A third possible explanation for the failure of this utopia is that, as one resident said on camera, the average age of the residents was too old to be very productive. Perhaps the selection process was one of the problems. Another resident confessed that he thought all people are basically selfish and therefore incapable of being cooperative.

There is a story relayed in the film that talked about a time when the potato crop was ready for harvesting and the weather conditions meant it had to be done rapidly. So some of the ‘coat and ties’ from the factory came over to help with the potato picking. After a short amount of time picking, these individuals decided they should get more money then they were to get for picking potatoes. So, they stopped picking, had a meeting about it, and then decided to just go swimming. One of the film’s interviewees implied that one of the reasons for the failure of the cooperative was that, when it came to labor, it was obvious that some people work quickly and others work slowly. Un-productivity certainly existed there and because of it some people felt that they ‘carried’ the others by doing most of the work (even though they all contributed the same amount of money to invest in the cooperative).

I would be one of those people who could go on forever without knowing about such a place had it not been for the fact that I realized only recently that my mother and her sisters lived there as children, brought their by their Jewish mother and father, themselves 2nd generation immigrants from Eastern Europe. Nana and Papa, my grandparents, moved to this community from the Jewish immigrant neighborhoods of New York City about 5 years after it had been established so they were not part of the original set of applicant/residents. I wouldn’t even know any of this except that through years of doing genealogy research on my family I am now piecing together remnants of my mother’s misunderstood and mysterious past with my own memories of my grandfather, who died while I was still a teenager, and my grandmother who rarely revealed anything about the past. Neither my mother nor my aunts have anything much to say about this experimental community where my grandfather established the family before moving west. Its assumed associations with either communism or socialism stop short any reflective conversations about its utopian aspects (something I find difficult to reconcile given the fact that they could have grown up in the urban tenements of New York City without the benefit of plentiful windows, yards, or private toilets). With regard to my familial associations with the Jersey Homesteads, there is more that I did not know about it then what I knew about it. My mother was born in 1939 in New York and was living in New Jersey when she was about 2 years old (that is all she knows) – her two younger sisters were both born in New Jersey, so I figure she moved to Jersey Homesteads about 1941 and then the two sisters were born while they still lived there. By the time they would have moved there, the cooperative would have been in a philosophical shambles because the main institutions of their utopia had failed – namely, the cooperative farm that supplied crops, dairy, and chickens; and the industrial-retail establishments that housed the workings of the ladies’ garment and hat manufacturing and the shop where they sold some of their coat and hat creations. The associated buildings remained but the fixtures and hardware were sold. There was, however, a grocery enterprise with a kosher butcher that continued on into the 1940s.

When my mother’s paternal grandfather died in 1929 he had been an operator in a coat factory in New York City (according to the 1920 census). I do not know the conditions under which he worked but guess they were similar to other Jewish Immigrant garment workers. I know that he lived in a tenement because it is labeled as such on the census records. After my mother’s paternal grandparents both died, my mother’s father must have felt it was time for a change of scenery – to escape the tenements and factories of the inner city and get out to the country – to where one can smell grass and vegetables growing, and have a lovely view. An opportunity may have arisen when the Jersey Homestead houses – those cinderblock, flat roofed Bauhaus-styled modernist houses with big windows (thought of as ugly by many and completely different from the traditional American wood-frame buildings of earlier years) – became available for purchase to the general public, after the collapse of its industry and the investments of its many members. Looking back now, I can see that my grandfather, by my limited recollection, a man attracted to legitimate opportunities, and to art and culture (who lived in a cooperatively-owned residence in California when I knew him, complete with grapefruit, lemon, and orange trees), would have had the typical character of a resident attracted to the unique foundations of this idealistic community.

In our contemporary times, the Homesteads now has the recognition of being the only historical town in New Jersey, and it is on the National Register of Historic Places. Typically buildings are on the list, even multiple buildings in a particular area, but recognizing a whole town as historically significant is not so common. Additionally, as writer and Roosevelt resident Pearl Seligman says,”Roosevelt is the only one of these Resettlement projects that still functions as a self-governing municipality” (Seligman 2000). The community remains a special home to artists and professionals; gentiles and Jews; originals and newcomers; and an eclectic mix of idealists and opportunists who love the historical nature of their community.

One thing is certain, like the definition of the word utopia; utopias and their adherents impart lessons to those afraid to try to fix societies’ lifestyle issues. Utopias may not last for the long run but they do not cease from inspiring other attempts at utopias. Do utopias work or not? It depends on how you look at it. If you take a political view, like the conservatives of the mid 1930’s, then utopias have a disputable reputation. Some call utopias unflattering names. In this case: communistic and socialistic, for having programs that help the poor, for programs that tackle recovery and rehabilitation, for programs that create unity. For the idealistic few that believe that utopias should be given an opportunity to dazzle or rearrange thinking, utopias are supported by determination and positive thinking, like in the old adage, ‘It’s better to have loved and lost then to not have loved at all.’ I go on to quote from Images of the Common Good, “For Roosevelt, the choice was simple: the federal government had to embark on a mission to save the nation, and in the process it had to assume to role of the agent of change” (American Society for Public Administration, 1993). He was not deterred by the possibility of failure and said so plainly in a campaign speech in 1932. And, to those persons who claimed that Jersey Homesteads was a communist endeavor, Benjamin Brown came to its defense by”declaring instead that it was ‘common sense-ism’ and in line with the Constitution and the American way.” He ventured,” we will not only bring back craftsmanship and pride of achievement, together with security, but we will bring back prosperity based on abundance and not on curtailment”

In the Library of Congress’ archives there is a collection of photographs that were created as a visual journal of the Jersey Homesteads project. They were taken by the famous photographer Dorothea Lange in 1936. In that collection is a black and white photograph (as all of them were) of a bespectacled man in overalls – clean-shaven, button prominently displayed on left shoulder strap – employed in the construction of the cooperative Homestead’s houses during a time of high joblessness. With the photograph comes this caption,”This man is already employed on the project as carpenter, working on the nearly completed first unit of thirty-five houses. He says, ‘Will we succeed? Any people who will go through what we did – any people with such patience – will succeed'”

 

Photo below is from my personal collection (no date): My mother’s mother with my mother as a baby in front of their home in Jersey Homesteads, Roosevelt, New Jersey. Photograph taken about 1941.

 

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