Recorded November 21, 2015. It is ironic that today planned communities are private affairs, such as gated communities for the fearful well-to-do or age-segregated retirement resorts for get-off-my-lawn geezers or even large scale condominium developments. But in the 1930s, the New Deal had ambitions to build nearly 100 new towns that were intended to relieve destitute poverty and slavish conditions of industrial employment. Influenced by the British garden city advocate Ebenezer Howard (who in turn was greatly influenced by Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, a work that in turn had helped inspire Eugene V. Debs and the socialist movement here in the States) and by the ideal of Jeffersonian agrarian independence, these communities were intended to provide all the means of livelihood without the residents having to commute elsewhere. Not everyone in these towns might be self-employed, but economic depressions and recessions and capitalist greed would be cushioned by backyard agriculture and cooperative community enterprises. Thus these new towns were called “Subsistence Homesteads”.
One of the more successful examples of a subsistence homestead was Norvelt, Pennsylvania. Originally named Westmoreland Homesteads when ground was broken in 1934, the residents renamed the settlement in 1937 on the occasion of a visit by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, combining the last syllables of her name. As a relief measure, these settlements were an outstanding success. The residents knew it. They appreciated it. They voted for it. Fast forward to the 21st Century, and Norvelt has become deeply conservative, Republican territory, a politics that would not ever consider, never mind tolerate, a government program like subsistence homesteads. What happened?
This episode of Talkin’ Socialism examines Norvelt and the subsistence homestead program through the lens of this question. It features Peg Strobel in conversation with Margaret Power, co-author with Timothy Kelly and Michael Cary, of Hope in Hard Times: Norvelt and the Struggle for Community During the Great Depression, wherein this still-unfolding story of transformation is examined. In this episode, Margaret Power explains how her own personal history intersects with the history of Norvelt and offers some of her ideas about the changing politics of the area.
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