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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Monday, Sept. 1, 2014

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In Travel & Visitors Guide

Greendale was designed and built in the 1930s and was an experiment in social engineering. (PHOTO: FSA Collection, Library of Congress)

In Travel & Visitors Guide

The greenbelt towns were meant to spur employment, the construction of affordable homes and the creation of real-life urban planning laboratories. (PHOTO: FSA Collection, Library of Congress)

A new look at an old book about New Deal Greendale


The reissue of Arnold Alanen and the late Joseph Eden's "Main Street Ready-Made: The New Deal Community of Greendale, Wisconsin," arrives 25 years after the work was first published.

But the book remains relevant, because while Greendale, in some ways, isn't the same as it was in 1987, in other ways, it's not all that different, either.

"If someone had departed Greendale's residential area in 1938," writes Alanen in the preface to the new edition, published in paperback by Wisconsin Historical Society Press, "and returned three quarters of a century later, she or he would have no problem recognizing the community,"

The book is biography of a planned community that was carefully designed in the mid-1930s and was an experiment in social engineering.

Greendale was – along with Greenhills, Ohio, and Greenbelt, Md. – one of three "greenbelt" communities designed by the U.S. Resettlement Administration. The greenbelt towns were meant to spur employment, the construction of affordable homes and the creation of real-life urban planning laboratories.

Initially, the government owned the homes and rented them to families according to income levels, but beginning in 1950 residents were allowed to purchase their homes.

"I had a long interest in planned communities, dating back to my days as an undergraduate and graduate student, which continues to the present," says Alanen who is emeritus professor of landscape architecture at UW-Madison.

When he realized no scholarly books had been written about Greendale, Alanen – who has also studied Kohler and other planned communities – collaborated with Eden, who graduated from Madison with a landscape architecture degree, earned a Ph.D. in urban social geography from University of North Carolina and passed away in 1998.

"When I came to the University of Wisconsin-Madison as as faculty member I already knew how important Greendale was as a model of community planning and design," says Alanen. "Therefore, I immediately began laying the groundwork for the book."

It was a subject, he notes, that was crying out for an analysis.

"Greendale's planners took some of the best ideas of the early 20th century planning – especially as demonstrated by the English garden city and Radburn, N.J., and adapted them to create Greendale. Some of the superior features of physical planning in Greendale are its open space features, human scale, and solid, well-built housing."

Despite the passing of time and an ever-changing world outside in the 20th century, those features have, in large part, endured in Greendale, says Alanen.

"The physical qualities of the original Greendale have matured very well," he says. "Some changes have certainly occurred throughout the business district because of efforts to maintain its economic viability. Some relatively minor alterations have been made to a number of houses in the residential area, but the overall appearance still reveals much of its original character. As stated in the national historic landmark nomination, the original area still 'retains a huge degree of historic integrity' – some of this is undoubtedly due to the solid construction of housing.

"Another noticeable legacy is the open space network, which still allows for pedestrian movement between the neighborhoods and to the business center."

Interestingly, while Greendale was planned as a working-class town, it wasn't long before other social groups saw the results and wanted in.

"While Greendale demonstrates that the physical features of a well-planned working-class community can be maintained over time, those same qualities eventually make the town attractive to upper income people," notes Alanen. "This has happened in Greendale, which now has an overall socioeconomic profile that differs from the Milwaukee metropolitan area."

The biggest changes in Greendale since the initial publication of the book has come in the commercial sector. Initially, Broad Street businesses were hit hard by the arrival of Southridge, which opened a mile away in 1970. Within a few years of the book's arrival in 1987 only seven of 29 retail spaces were being rented.

But that all changed, beginning in 1995 when Reiman Publications opened its visitors center (now the Greendale Visitor Center) on the street. Soon, Reiman would exert a strong influence on Greendale, one that exists even now, a decade after the company was sold to Readers Digest Association.

"The Reiman imprint is quite unusual," says Alanen. "It's possible that if Reiman hadn't arrived the business center would have deteriorated even further, resulting in the need for greater changes. Nonetheless, while the Reiman presence undoubtedly revitalized the economic viability of the business center, the physical dominance of the company's building is uncharacteristic of small communities.

"Because of its scale and design, the Reiman building changed the architectural character of the district."

Alanen, who lives in the same Madison house he's inhabited since 1975, says he gets back to Greendale fairly often. And what does he think when he goes back?

"I try to stop by at least two-three times a year. The residential area is remarkably similar to what I first observed in 1975. The business district only reveals a few similarities when compared to the past."

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