After 75 Years, the New Deal Town of Roosevelt Celebrates its Origins

Friday, September 21, 2012


During the Great Depression, 99 towns — a series of public works projects — were created across the country as part of then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s National Industrial Recovery Act, or NIRA. One of those towns was called Jersey Homesteads, now known as Roosevelt, N.J., which is located about fifty miles south and slightly west of New York City.

The agro-industrial, Jewish colony in Monmouth County was a project formed to stem unemployment and to address the searing lack of demand for goods and services that was underway during the Great Depression.  The idea was for people to collectively own a farm and factory where they would work, and live in homes nearby.

“I came here with my parents in 1936,” recalled Helen Barth, an original resident of the town. Her family moved into the town when she was 3 years old. Now 79, she said at the time her family was looking for fresh air, sunshine, and the chance to garden.

“My father saw an advertisement in the Jewish Daily Forward, a Yiddish newspaper, and it painted an idealistic lifestyle,” she said.

Families paid the government about $12 in rent each month for their new suburban homes on half-acre lots.

(Photos: A Jersey Homesteads house then and now. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-USF34-005688-D/Janet Babin/WNYC)

The government sank about $1 million into the project at the time, and the families had to cough up $500, a “move-in” fee, according to Michael Ticktin, the town’s municipal historian. 

The homes — flat-roofed, cinder block ranch homes with floor to ceiling windows in the back — were co-designed by architect Louis Kahn, then a young assistant just starting his career.

“The style of housing used was similar to housing built in Germany in the 1920s and followed the Bauhaus movement, very functional and rectilinear,” Ticktin explained.

The backyards also abutted a common green belt space, in the style of the 19th century British Garden City movement. Combined with the half-acre lots, the design added a privacy component not seen in most developments of the time.

Ticktin said the project benefited from a convergence of trends: the Jewish back to the land movement, the Bauhaus architectural advances and the Garden City movement. 

But other trends were aligning against this utopian project. After three years, Jersey Homesteads factory and farm failed. People got paid less to work in the fields than they did in the factory during the off-season, so many didn’t till the land. Instead outside workers were brought it.

(Photo: A worker in the cooperative garment factory at Jersey Homesteads in what is now Roosevelt, N.J./Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-USF33- 011018-M3)

The government divested itself of the investment and homesteaders had to pay about $4,000 to $5,000 to buy out their homes, while the factory was bought out and started to produce hats.

Helen Barth’s parents decided to buy their Homesteads house.

“They were very happy.  There was a rich community life, and meetings every night that were very emotional and passionate, people would yell and scream at each other,” Barth  said. But, she noted, they would make up the very moment the meeting was over. Barth and other residents say the Jewish intellectual population at the time was keen to debate and argue issues of the day.  It was almost as if they carried with them their New York City roots.

The community’s housing is still largely intact, and attracts artists, writers and musicians  much like it did from the project’s inception, according to residents.

“People will come from all over this weekend,” said Peggy Malkin, a town councilwoman and one of the organizers of this weekend’s town reunion. There will be events like a panel discussion about the New Deal with local lawmakers and academics. But most importantly, she's hoping former residents will return.

“This is a town where everyone knows your name, your children’s name, your dog’s name. When you live here you have an instant family,” she added.

Correction: An earlier version of this story referred to Peggy Malkin as a former town councilwoman. She is a current town councilwoman.

Original plans for the cooperative community of Jersey Homesteads, renamed Roosevelt.
Janet Babin/WNYC
Original plans for the cooperative community of Jersey Homesteads, renamed Roosevelt.
Janet Babin/WNYC
Roosevelt's original factory, now used by a private business. Also where artist Jonathan Shahn's studio is located.
Some of the operators in the cooperative garment factory at Jersey Homesteads, Hightstown, New Jersey.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-USF33-011008-M3
Some of the operators in the cooperative garment factory at Jersey Homesteads, Hightstown, New Jersey.
Inside Jonathan Shahn's studio, located in Roosevelt's original garment factory built in 1936.
Janet Babin/WNYC
Inside Jonathan Shahn's studio, located in Roosevelt's original garment factory built in 1936.
Ben Shahn mural inside the Roosevelt school.
Janet Babin/WNYC
Ben Shahn mural inside the Roosevelt school.
Janet Babin/WNYC
Otto Wester, artist, created these hand hammered doors that are in the school.
Janet Babin/WNYC
Roosevelt's common green space; planted with cherry trees.
Janet Babin/WNYC
The synagogue in Roosevelt.
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, LC-USF33-011049-M4
Visiting rabbi teaching the Orthodox religion to children at Jersey Homesteads, New Jersey .
Janet Babin/WNYC
Roosevelt's municipal cemetery; residents can be buried there for free.
Janet Babin/WNYC
A renovated Bauhaus style house built as part of Jersey Homesteads, now known as Roosevelt, N.J.


Comments [31]

Shirley Hobart (Graves) from Walnut Grove, California

Dr. Rebecca Notterman became my daughters' pediatrician and saw us through a few scary illnesses -- the best doctor I'd ever had. She had been born and raised in the town. Also, Harry Katzenellenbogen, who delivered fuel oil to the residents, sat in my kitchen while the fuel ran into the tank and told me wonderful stories of early Roosevelt when he'd been a potato farmer. His wife was the school nurse, I think. A kibbutz was just on the outskirts of town, training American youth to emigrate to Israel and work on the farms. Wilbur the policeman closed off the town on Halloween every year, making it safe from out-of-town pranks.

Oct. 24 2012 05:18 PM
Shirley Hobart (Graves)

I moved to Roosevelt in 1964 to be closer to my job at RCA Space Center in Hightstown. I was separated from my husband, mother of three young girls, with a housekeeper/nanny in our tiny house on Pine Drive. What will always remain in my memory and heart was the way the town took us in -- a shiksa mother and her three girls. When news of my divorce arrived by certified mail, there was a regular celebration in the postoffice. Sol Berg became a dear friend, and I loved Passover when homemade goodies would fill the front of his store. My second marriage ceremony was performed by the mayor, who said he never had any business because everyone else got married by the rabbi! Love Roosevelt to this very day.

Oct. 24 2012 05:08 PM
Arlene Lowenthal from New York, N.Y.

This small community was the beginning and roots of so many young children during the 1940's and 1950's.
We all grew up together in a warm, safe and loving environment.
The fond memories of all our experiences with family and friends will live in our hearts forever.

Sep. 27 2012 04:19 PM
Sue Finn Alpert from Miami, Florida

I wonder if there is any other town that even came close to the warm, bonding sense of community we shared growing up in Roosevelt. No one mentioned Wilbur, the town "police?". He drove my mom to Monmouth Memorial while she was in labor with me. P.S. I was born in his cab. The 12 of my fellow classmates kindergarten to graduation 1956, still have our own reunions and many remain part of each others lives to this day. Amazing bonds~!

Sep. 24 2012 08:47 PM
B ernice turetsky from hinsdale ma.

the period of time i lived with my cousin joyce bunkin in roosevelt were great, everyone was so friendly, and my other cousins nona and faith as well, you guys were the best. Bernice Turetsky The Berkshires, in western ma.

Sep. 24 2012 02:46 PM
Dave Glassman from Delray Beach FL

It was a wonderful experiment that I don't think will ever be duplicated.

Sep. 24 2012 11:09 AM
Jeannine from Denver, Colorado

Both my parents, Rochelle Spelkoman & Alfred Friedman, grew up in Roosevelt. I always loved hearing the stories of when they were children growing up in this tight-knit community and especially loved when my mother would let me stay with my grandmother, Celia Spelkoman, and my aunt, Anne Holshin, for a week or two when I was a little girl. They would take me around and introduce me to their friends and I remember being taught how to make grannie squares. I also remember going to Sol Berg's corner store to pick up a few things for my grandmother on occasion during my stays. There was nothing as special as those visits and I'll never forget them as long as I draw breath.

Sep. 24 2012 10:56 AM
Meryl Bulkin Wood from Mercer County NJ

AWESOME to see many childhood friends
Awesome to find out where they are, what they are doing and where their siblings are!!
AWESOME Celebration!!

Thanks to all who planned this weekend

Sep. 23 2012 07:37 PM
Helen Barth from Roosevelt, NJ

Janet, Thank you so much for capturing the essence of our town in your reporting. I thoroughly enjoyed visiting with you and sharing my story. As you can see from the comments, you really understood and presented so well what makes our town so special. This was reinforced by the efforts of Mike Hamilton and Peggy Malkin who made it possible for the "alumni" of Roosevelt to come home and reconnect and share in the pride of where we came from.

Sep. 23 2012 05:22 PM
Steve grossman

So many wonderful memories! After reading Ruth Nadler's comments,which feel like from just yesterday ,makes me want to return to that era

Sep. 23 2012 08:38 AM
Sharon (Glassman) Flank from Washington

My grandparents, Adolph and Rebecca Glassman, lived in Roosevelt and had a chicken farm. That communal garden had wild strawberries, and there was wild asparagus near the school.

Sep. 22 2012 10:21 PM
Mazel Linowitz from Syjesville, Md.

The Linowitzes,Judy, Debby, Ricky and Alex,(me too,the mommy), moved to wonderful Roosevelt about ten years after the pioneering days were over. Our kids loved growing up in a place where the entire town was a playground! They are all adults now but still talk in wonder about our fifteen years in that enchanting village. We would have loved attending this great anniversary but are unable to. alas.

Sep. 22 2012 05:48 PM
Mazel Linowitz from Sykesville, Md.

My children spent their elementary school years in Roosevelt and still recount with yearning (now in their fifiies plus) their happy time growing up in that enchanted town! The entire town was a virtual playground!Our fifteen years in the "shtetl" were a blessed tme and ruined us for the ordinary world.

Sep. 22 2012 05:44 PM
Ruth Nadler Barth from Edmonds, WA

My family, the Nadlers, lived in Roosevelt from the beginning of the town until they moved to Princeton, about 20 years later. I spent my early years there and loved every minute. I can remember going to the library, with Mr. Draisin as librarian, the girl scout path into the woods, playing 500 rummy for 2 consecutive summers with Alice Oberlander, Frenchy driving the bus to Hightstown High School everyday and to all the class outings. We sang,"Two Four Six Eight, who do we appreciate, FRENCHY!", hitching on the corner to Hightstown, summer school every summer, walking home on "the path" from elementary school for lunch, and walking to the button factory, playing in the mountains of buttons on the ground and the cemetary (where my grandparents are buried). So many wonderful memories. I can't be there to help celebrate the important occasion. But my heart is there.

Sep. 22 2012 04:58 PM
Barry Schneider from LEWES, DELAWARE

I lived in Roosevelt when I was very young. I had many aunts, uncles and my grandparents that lived there. My father and uncles personally helped build the synagog in town. After my we moved out of Jersey I would spend my summers there with relatives. I remembered the big thing for me as a child was to completely circle the town on my bike. Many memories there and have tears in my eyes writing this and remembering all my sisters and relatives that have now passed and there roots there. One more event to share. I remember as if it was yesterday when Elanore Roosevelt came to the unveiling of her husbands monument and all of the news crews and important people that showed up. Hopefully the Schneider and Margaritov names are still thought about in the community because God knows I think of all my missed family often.

Sep. 22 2012 04:23 PM
Jack Victor

I was an original resident of Jersey Homesteads. My father worked as a WPA worker to build the town and I remember the yellow stucco house, different from most of the white houses that were at the town. I recall starting school with Ben Shahn's murals in the hall-walking along co-op circle to get there. I remember dances where the older kids would mingle and my cousin, Hannah who visited was the main attraction for the older boys. One of the main songs played was Have You Seen My Little Cousin-I always remember that as applying to my cousin. I remember the end of World War II and the spontaneous motorcade going around the block and Lou Stern from next door coming back from the Army.
I remember the huge sunflowers that Mr. Rudin grew and eating the seeds with his son, my friend Buddy. My sister was born while we lived there
I remember thumbing rides to Lake Etra named for the family of my little girl friend Joanie Greenberg (her mother was an Etra) and going to her house to hear Paul Robeson singing Ballad for Americans. I remember playing monopoly with other kids, landing on St.Charles Place. We called it St. Klatzkin's after our friend Charley Klatzkin. Wouldn't you know it he became one of NJs leading real estate developers.

Yes, I have very fond memories of this place and am pleased that you have commemorated it with this story.

Jack Victor from Queens, NY

I went by a few years ago and I couldn't find my old house. Most of the houses were expanded as the original ones were quite small.

Sep. 22 2012 01:11 PM
Diana Kessler Mitchnick from Dix Hills, NY

My grandparents were Isadore and Dora Kessler. They lived in Roosevelt from 1936 until they died in 1965. My Dad was Saul Kessler and my uncle was Seymour. They are all buried there. Curious to know if anyone knew them. I loved this piece and learned a lot from it. I'm grateful that the link was sent to me!

Sep. 22 2012 09:31 AM
jkb from Everywhere

A great piece about a great community. My wife is from Roosevelt and I have visited many times. Best regards to all past and present residents.

Sep. 22 2012 09:30 AM
Mike Hamilton from Roosevelt, Nj

Reporter Janet Babin must have experienced some of the magic of this place! Her reporting captured the cooperative, homesteader spirit of the town which is on the state and national historic register of places in its entirety (a rarity) because of its unique planning.

Although many reporters have written about the town's history over the years, Janet Babin captured some of the spirit and character of Roosevelt which is to be found in its people (the product of its history).

I have lived in the town for several decades now (a relative newcomer) and I have never really seen (or heard) a reporter see through to what is really so special about Roosevelt, the character of the community and those who live, and have lived in its shelter over the years. Janet was able to feel, see and hear the echoes of the past which still live on through the people who live in this special place.

Many these days live in virtual communities (the internet) or in developments surrounded by people they really don't know. They pull into their driveways after a long day's work, and they waive to their next door neighbor on their adjacent 4-acre lot. Sadly, they may never get to know those people and they live their lives surrounded by relative strangers. I can't tell you what a joy and comfort it is to be a thread in the rich fabric of a real community where people live their lives together and get to know each other from a multiplicity of roles, as neighbor, friend, school board member, father, and so on.

Today we celebrate the 75th anniversary of a place that people dreamed of, and were so passionate about their vision, and so fervent in their zeal, that they were able to convince the federal government to bring their dream to fruition.

In its early days, Roosevelt was criticized as being a communist town, and people on the right and left argued, just as we do today, about the proper role of the federal government in our lives. But, out of the great depression arose a great man, and through his leadership the government broke out of its complacency, and took bold, experimental (stimulus) action. It built entire communities with factories and schools. Yes, the factory failed, but how many start-up businesses during the great depression succeeded?

Roosevelt is a living example of a time when the federal government took bold, decisive action to address the needs of its people. Janet Babin, thank you so much for seeing the spirit of place and the character of this community and capturing it in your story!

Sep. 22 2012 05:56 AM
debbie from roosevelt

PS hi Jesse from Vancouver. I still remember the night i camped out in a tent with Jesse's sister, in their backyard when we were 10. when I walk the streets, I still see who lived in the houses 40-50 years ago. funny little town. tomorrow is the reunion and i look forward to seeing lots of familiar faces there.

Sep. 22 2012 01:03 AM
debbie from roosevelt

My grandparents moved to Roosevelt from NY in 1938. My late mother was 10 years old. She met her best friend that year, Elaine, and they stayed best friends til mom was 80, all of her life. As I write this, I sit in the living room of the house my grandparents bought back then.

My brother & I grew up in Roosevelt; cousins too. My mom went to the Roosevelt school, then became a teacher, & taught hundreds of Roosevelt kids. Roosevelt is and was a wonderful little town. Yes it has changed, it is not ideal. But it feels wonderful to be in it, to walk around, hear the crickets and night, not be afraid, know your neighbors, it feels like a town that puts its arms around you at night. It feels very safe familiar and warm.

Sep. 22 2012 12:21 AM
Jesse from Vancouver BC

Here are some fragments from a story in my book.
In 1963 we moved to central New Jersey, a little town called Roosevelt. My dad got his first good job as a research scientist at Bristol Myers.
...Anyway, I could read at last. (I was dyslexic) My life became more stable. There was less abuse; my parents were happier. We lived in the country on half an acre.
My life was stable and I was doing well in school. Then we up and moved to Canada.
Roosevelt is a unique community and it was a great place to be a kid. I went back to NY and NJ in 1985 and it was like being in a dream.
* * *

Sep. 21 2012 11:52 PM
Katrina Drapala Torres from Ocala Florida

I grew up in Roosevelt when we left the doors unlocked at night. Sat on chairs outside during the summer an waved to cars passing by an beeping horns in a greeting. I knew everyone an everyone knew my family. Teachers in school weren't just anyone they were friends neighbors. I grew up in a awesome Town with awesome people who are still my friends today. Im sad ill be missing the reunion but my heart is in Roosevelt still carried by memories of all my friends. Hopefully my Mother and Brother will be there though. Hope is goes well an everyone has a great safe fun day!

Sep. 21 2012 10:51 PM
laura sinderbrand from NYC, NY

I am 85 & among my fondest memories are those of the one week spent each summer with the Grushka family at what is now called Roosevelt, New Jersey. Mr. Grushka was my father's best friend from their childhood in a shtetl in Poland. He tried to get my mother & father to leave The Bronx & settle in "the Homesteads" as it was then called but they couldn't & so I had to content myself with that one precious summer week. I was enamored of the house with floor to ceiling windows, the modern school where dances were held & the mural I never forgot. I saw the factory in operation & the farm where things really grew; a revelation to my city eyes. Many years later I met George Levinson at FIT & found that he & Clara were residents of the community. Kismet, I thought! Clara & George were dear people & I got to see the community once more. It had, of course, changed considerably but all the right ghosts were there for me.

I listened to the program twice today & both times I was transported to the happiest of memories.

Sep. 21 2012 09:39 PM
Sainted_Mother from Red Hook, Brooklyn

So ... this is one of 99. Where are the other 98 today?

I'd be interested to know this too.

I _love_ _love_ _love_ other folks' comments / stories.
Every bit of every town has its tales, and we so rarely sit back and _feel_ them (since we're so busy living them). Cooperative community, however small or large, is one of the things that makes us human. Our fighting, argumentative selves are to be soothed and gentled.

Nice Story! More! Please!

Sep. 21 2012 07:14 PM
Jason from New Jersey

Nearly twenty years ago I wrote my senior undergraduate thesis on the architecture and urban planning of Roosevelt while attending Rutgers University. Needless to say, I was both excited and nostalgic after listening to Janet Babin's wonderful piece on the upcoming 75th anniversary of the community this weekend.

I'll never forget how helpful the community was in providing information and insight for my project. In particular, longtime resident Peter Warren (Borough Council member from 1990-1994 and informal historian) provided invaluable material to me during my research.

Kudos to the homesteaders who had the will and determination to make their ideas into reality. The fact that those ideas did not endure as originally planned does not take away from the accomplishment. That the community survived, and continues to evolve is testament to the ever-changing nature of American society.

Sep. 21 2012 06:21 PM
Jodi from Manalapan

My father and his family lived in Roosevelt. He may be interested in going to the reunion this weekend. Is there any more information about happenings, times? locations? events?
Interesting note: There are pictures of my grandmother and others from the NJ Homestead in the Library of Congress. Little did we know, it was archive week at the Monmouth County Library (in Manalapan) and my family had just moved in. I went to the library to get my sons library cards for school, and there was a picture no one in my family has ever seen of my Grandmother on the wall - felt like she was welcoming me to town! I researched and there are several more pictures by Dorothea Lange of the Roosevelt project in the Library of Congress.

Sep. 21 2012 03:37 PM
george from jersey city

the home and workplace of many great american artists...ben and bernarda shahn, stefan martin, the great jacob landau...please add to the list...

Sep. 21 2012 01:35 PM
barbara ross

My sister, Judy Trachtenberg, (and her dogs !) spent some of the happiest years of her life in Roosevelt. She sang with the Roosevelt String Band, and was surrounded by wonderful, creative, generous people who made her feel very welcome. We now visit the town just to visit her grave, but the sense of community, charm, and peace still remains.

Sep. 21 2012 09:03 AM
Linda Lees from Monmouth Beach, NJ

I visited Roosevelt a number of times to go door-to-door collecting for the Red Cross annual drive. It was a privilege to meet Ben Shahn, one of our greatest contemporary painters, and also to watch the experts from Florence, Italy, removing the fresco from the walls of the public school for repairs.

This little town is such an anomaly in the middle of New Jersey, but a good example of the good and bad of the Bauhaus. When I have mentioned Roosevelt, Millstone Township or the panhandle, nobody seems to know what I am talking about.

Linda Lees

Sep. 21 2012 08:48 AM
CK from Yorktown

A great story with some good news and interesting points. That the community continues and continues to be productive is wonderful. The sense of history must be a point of pride to this community. I would note that they factory (govt. initiated) failed. That is to say, the original collaboration may have benefited from a joint effort with the market. I don't believe the government ever should attempt to create business.

Note too that the residents were expected to pay rent, had a move in fee. This wasn't free: it was supported but expected people to work and to pay their share. Something like Habitat for Humanity. Isn't that something lacking in our current govt. housing situation?

Sep. 21 2012 08:15 AM

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