Photographer Jason Reblando’s practice combines both photography and social aspects, creating snapshot images of environments and personalities, which establish a neighbourhood. His upcoming book, New Deal Utopias published by independent German publishers
Kehrer Verlag, documents “model cities” built during the American Great Depression, known as Greenbelt Towns. The book emphasises “the long overlooked importance of Greenbelt Towns in the American landscape,” discussing the effects of social housing through Jason’s ethereal lens.
Below, we chat to the photographer about how the idea for such a mammoth project developed, and it’s importance due to the current shifting change of America’s landscape.
Where did the idea for New Deal Utopias develop from?
The idea for New Deal Utopias originated from my interest in public housing. From 2002 to 2009, I photographed inside Chicago’s public housing, documenting the residents’ lives as the city was implementing its Plan for Transformation, an ambitious and controversial plan to demolish and redevelop public housing complexes. I photographed the residents and buildings at Stateway Gardens, a complex of high-density high-rises on the South Side of Chicago, photographing rituals that hold a community together – proms, funerals, barbecues, sports, and similar activities.
After this complex was demolished in 2006, I found out about Lathrop Homes, a public housing complex on the North Side of Chicago, built in the style of the Garden City movement. They looked and felt completely different than Stateway Gardens. Instead of monolithic towers, Lathrop Homes was comprised of low-rise red brick buildings built on a more humane scale, with lush courtyards. Yet, it too is slated for redevelopment because of its idyllic location along the north branch of the Chicago River and proximity to desirable shopping centres.
It was because of Lathrop Homes that I learned about Sir Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City principles. He wanted to solve the problem of urban slums of late 19th Century London with the creation of new cities that would combine the best attributes of a town, such as the social and employment opportunities with the fresh air and open green spaces that the country offered. After more research about government housing in the 1930s I found out about the Greenbelt Towns, which became the focus of New Deal Utopias. The three Greenbelt Towns were built by the short-lived New Deal agency, the Resettlement Administration, and I became so fascinated with this Garden City designation that I felt inspired to take a road trip to photograph all three towns in one summer. I made multiple trips to each town over the next several years, but with a different aesthetic and conceptual approach as my previous projects.
When did you first come across these Greenbelt Towns?
When I first visited the Greenbelt Towns after photographing for a few years at Lathrop Homes, I felt a conceptual shift. When photographing public housing in Chicago, I focused on the human aspect that I felt was missing in the mainstream public housing narrative of being miserable places to live. I became a familiar face to the community as I visited their homes every week, provided them with pictures, and enjoyed building those relationships. When I made my first visits to Greenbelt, Maryland; Greenhills, Ohio; and Greendale, Wisconsin, I was stunned at how architecturally distinct they were, but also how much some of the housing reminded me of Lathrop Homes. I became very interested in how and why they came about. I kept returning to the thought of what it means to try to build a community from scratch and the human urge to create an ideal world. I think they are very special places, so much so that they inspired me to visit Ebenezer Howard’s first garden cities, Letchworth Garden City and Welwyn Garden City, both north of London, whose construction pre-dated the Greenbelt Towns.
Where are you from originally, how do these towns you’ve captured compare to your own?
I grew up on Long Island, in a suburb of New York City called Westbury. I speculate that the development where my family lived was constructed in the same mold as Levittown, a nearby town famous for being the first mass-produced suburb. I think that post-World War II suburbs and the Greenbelt Towns of the 1930s are closely related, in that they both typified a type of American Dream, a dream of safety, nature, and prosperity. However, I think the Greenbelt Towns had loftier philosophical goals that are reflected in the design and layout of the communities, such as housing whose doors opened up to common green spaces to encourage neighbourly interaction.
Where I grew up would now be considered an overdeveloped urban sprawl, whereas the Greenbelt Towns possess a half-mile thick belt of parks and forestland to act as a natural boundary between cities and as a way to control the growth of the town. Also, the citizens who were selected to live in these towns were screened by the government on the basis that they would participate in a cooperative-minded community. While those screens don’t exist anymore, current residents are very aware about their connection to their New Deal legacy and why the towns were built, namely to face the Great Depression in the spirit of cooperation, not individualism.
What elements were you looking for to photograph?
I went about this project differently than my others. I had the concept of utopia at the front of my head, so I kept thinking about what the planners wanted to achieve by creating new towns. The fact that it was a federally-sponsored project whose design principles were inspired by an English urban reformer, was also fascinating to me. I thought about how people relate to their space, and how different the Greenbelt Towns feel from a public housing tower, and I wanted to create images that have a very airy and atmospheric feel to them.
As I became more interested in the landscape and architecture of the towns, I kept stepping back, and the people became smaller and smaller, almost like the tiny people on scale models. I kept reminding myself how subjective utopia is, and how one person’s utopia can be another’s dystopia. For example, in many photos there is a cool sterility, and I wanted to refer to a clean slate with which utopia visions often start. However, I also wanted to allude to a human presence when depicting the built environment, even with pictures where there are no people.
New Deal Utopias is being published at a time where the USA is going though a number of political shifts, how do you think these towns will be affected?
I can’t say for sure how the towns will be affected during the roller coaster of current events. I can’t presume anyone’s political persuasions. I suppose that’s how the media and pollsters were caught completely off-guard with the election of the current president. However, I feel like it’s the perfect time to visit the history and architecture of the federally sponsored Greenbelt Towns. Back then, during the Great Depression, the government thought it was an ambitious and bold idea to build housing for people who needed it. They were interested in building communities, not walls.
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