I lived in Greenbelt, Maryland, from August 1948 to January 1951. My father and mother, Joe and Betty, married in 1939, but they saw little of each other for a while, thanks to the Army and World War II.
When Dad came home in 1945, they moved to an apartment at Calvert Homes, in Riverdale, Maryland, which was built by the federal government for returning veterans. It was just a few miles from the University of Maryland, where my father attended, on the GI Bill. Somehow, they found their way to 14X Hillside Road in Greenbelt when I was almost seven years old. My brother Bob was just a toddler.
I went to North End School, had Mrs. Baxter for the second grade, and Mrs. Eisenach for both third and fourth. Then Dad graduated and got a job about 60 miles south in Solomons Island, and I had to say goodbye to my friends in the middle of the school year.
A couple of years ago, I interviewed my mother about my family history while visiting her in Easton, Maryland. When I got home, I looked up Greenbelt on the Internet and was shocked to discover its historical significance as a government-planned community. So I bought Cathy Knepper’s book, Greenbelt, Maryland: A Living Legacy of the New Deal. I was fascinated, and proud that I had lived there.
Several months after my mother passed away last January (my father died in 1981), my wife and I spent the day in Greenbelt on our way back to our home in Massachusetts. I was dismayed by the super-sized development along Greenbelt Road, so when I turned onto Crescent Road, I braced myself for a big disappointment. Instead, it was an exercise in time travel.
After a wonderful visit to the Greenbelt Museum, I couldn’t wait to take a walk. We parked in Greenbelt Center, a small retail area I remembered as a kid (the Art Deco movie house is still there). I said to my wife, “I’m going to lead you to my old house.” We “tunneled” under the road (the sidewalks led through underpasses so children could avoid cars), marched up the path, until I said excitedly, “I think it’s right over there!”
In a few seconds, I was standing in front of 14X Hillside Road, wondering how my old row house and yard could have become so small. Suddenly, I remembered all my neighborhood friends and where they lived: Johnny LaMacchia, Jimmy and Bobby Schaefer, the Barlow brothers, Eddie Mangold, Stephen Cunningham, and Lance Walden, who had the first television on the block.
When word got out that the Waldens had a TV, every kid in the neighborhood invaded Lance’s living room to watch Frontier Theater, Captain Video, and Howdy Doody. Then we got one for Christmas, and it was our turn to be invaded when the first Walt Disney special was broadcast.
The more we walked, the more I remembered. We kids used to play King of the Hill behind one of the row houses, but I couldn’t find any hills nearby that seemed big enough for the game, much less a decent one to sleigh ride on, although I know we did that, too. The North End Store was gone, but I figured out where it used to be, and I remembered buying Mary Janes and Kits on the way home from school.
I was also reminded of the time I went trick-or-treating, and a lady invited me in for some cider, and then proceeded to pour it directly into my bag of goodies. I cried all the way home and told my mother that a witch lived in the neighborhood. And my best memory: when Dickie Barlow gave me his baseball card of Babe Ruth. Too bad Mom accidentally threw it away years later.
When we returned to the Center, we headed into the Community Center and viewed the old photos on the wall, and I remembered even more. Then we had a delicious lunch in the New Deal Café, and I said to my wife, “I can’t believe everything looks so amazingly familiar.”
As I write this five months later, I am wearing a “Greenbelt Is Great” T-shirt, an article of clothing that is responsible for a serendipitous “Greenbelt moment” last month. I was in North Adams, Massachusetts, a city about which I have written two books. I ran into a friend of mine, and she asked me, “What’s Greenbelt, and why are you wearing that shirt?”
When I told her, she replied, “I thought so. I met a very nice lady last year over in Williamstown who used to live in Greenbelt. Her name is Beulah Bukzin, and you should call her.”
I did, and during a delightful visit to her home, she told me that she and her late husband Elliott were Greenbelt residents for over 30 years, and that her daughter Frances, who lives nearby, is about my age and was born and raised just a few blocks from Hillside Road. Several weeks later, I conducted a long interview with Beulah and Frances. You can see it on this site. The story is called: Former Greenbelt Residents Recall “Happy Time.”
For me, Greenbelt has become a living memory, and an important part of my past.