The walking tours are inspired by Cincinnati: A Guide to the Queen City and Its Neighbors, a book published in 1943 for the Federal Writers’ Project. This book was a part of the American Guide Series, also known as the WPA guides, which was a program funded by the New Deal to employ writers during the Great Depression. Today, the book serves as a snapshot of 1943 Cincinnati, when the city’s population was 455,610 and now-iconic structures like Carew Tower and Union Terminal were just a decade old.
This time period was “a bit of an ‘amber’ moment” in Cincinnati’s history, Grinnell told UrbanCincy, “as this was the Queen City at its industrial peak. I consider [Cincinnati’s WPA guide] one of the better city guides produced by the Federal Writers’ Project.”
This will be Grinnell’s forth time hosting a Cincinnati walking tour of this nature. Grinnell says he has refined the concept over the years, adding in even more historical context from other sources. “I’ve also done a bit more original research through local papers, business directories, and photograph archives from the University of Cincinnati,” Grinnell told UrbanCincy.
Max Grinnell is an author, historian, and professor who enjoys sharing unique perspectives of American cities. Last summer, he visited Cincinnati to host a series of walking tours that offered a historical look at the city’s urban core. This June, Grinnell is bringing back the tour, which compares the Cincinnati of 1943 to the city today.
The walking tour is inspired by Cincinnati: A Guide to the Queen City and Its Neighbors, a book published in 1943 for the Federal Writers’ Project. This book was a part of the American Guide Series, also known as the WPA guides, which was a program funded by the New Deal to employ writers during the Great Depression. Today, the book serves as a snapshot of 1943 Cincinnati, when the city’s population was 455,610 and now-iconic structures like Carew Tower and Union Terminal were just a decade old.
“I consider it one of the better city guides produced by the Federal Writers’ Project, and that’s significant, considering other volumes considered New Orleans, Philadelphia, and others,” Grinnell told UrbanCincy.
The 60-minute tour will be similar to the ones Grinnell hosted last year, but also include some new elements, such a focus on the Netherland Plaza Hotel and its intricate details.
Max Grinnell is an author, historian, and a professor who is experienced at sharing unique perspectives of American cities. He has given a number of talks and led walking tours in cities across the country, focused on urban innovation, public art, and travel. Next week, he will be coming to Cincinnati to give us a look at the city from a historical perspective.
Grinnell’s tour will be based on Cincinnati: A Guide to the Queen City and Its Neighbors, a book published in 1943 for the Federal Writers’ Project. It is a part of the American Guide Series, also known as the WPA guides, a program funded by the New Deal to employ writers during the Great Depression. Today, it serves as a snapshot of 1943 Cincinnati, when the city’s population was 455,610 and now-iconic structures like Carew Tower and Union Terminal were just a decade old.
UrbanCincy was able to ask Grinnell a few questions about why he was inspired to come to Cincinnati for this event.
UC: You’ve given walking tours of many other cities, and have upcoming tours scheduled for Chicago and Boston. What drew you to Cincinnati, a comparatively smaller city, for a tour?
MG: I started coming to Cincinnati five years ago to work as a grader for the AP Human Geography exam. I’ll be honest: I didn’t know much about Cincy before I got here. Probably thought about chili, Pete Rose, and that’s about it. Now? I’m a totally Queen City booster: I tell people about Mount Adams, the streetcar, the walkable neighborhoods, the great food scene, the alleys (yes, the alleys), and more.
UC: What inspired you to create a tour centered around the 1943 WPA Guide to Cincinnati?
MG: Taken as a whole, the Federal Writers Guides are nothing short of amazing. Imagine the government putting writers back to work in the Great Depression by writing about their cities, states, regions, and more. Truly a fantastic undertaking, and the Cincinnati guidebook was the last big one to be released.
The guidebook cover all of Cincinnati, plus northern Kentucky, the far reaches of Hamilton County and more with an eye for spectacular details. Historic homes, obscure technical schools, evocative park descriptions, and just about anything else was grist for the mill. Today, travel guides don’t get into that type of detail, which is a same.
Also, it’s a bit of an “amber” moment, if you will, as this was the Queen City at its industrial peak. I consider it one of the better city guides produced by the Federal Writers project and that’s significant, considering other volumes considered New Orleans, Philadelphia, and others.
UC: For people who have been following the many changes in Cincinnati’s urban core in recent years, what new perspectives might they gain from the tour?
MG: I think they’ll gain a new perspective courtesy of the past, if you will. We’ll be hearing about how businesses like the Netherland Plaza Hotel, the Billboard Publishing Plant, the James Book Store and more gave the downtown character. As someone who teaches urban studies for a living, I think we’ll also be talking about how the various buildings have been repurposed over time and how various civic leaders have seen visions both realized and unrealized come and go.
Greenbelt, Maryland is a small town north of the Nation’s capital which carries a legacy larger than its hamlet appearance. As one of the nations four Green Towns built between 1935 and 1937, Greenbelt stands as a National Historic District and lasting testament to the FDR administration in its commitment to providing social programs, in particular, public housing through the New Deal.
The Garden City Movement in the United Kingdom, which valued open space, nature and balanced planning principles, and a pressing housing shortage during the Great Depression inspired FDR to action. Planners of Greenbelt and its sister towns Greenhills, Ohio and Greendale, Wisconsin, sought to create a new model of development: the suburb. Led by the newly established Resettlement Administration, the body focused on creating housing for federal workers.
These projects, in the words of Greenbelt Museum Education Coordinator Sheila Maffay-Tuthill, embodied the “coming together of urban and rural,” providing opportunities to experiment with housing, land use, and transportation policies simultaneously. In a recent tour of the site, led by Maffay-Tuthill and Megan Young, the Director of the Greenbelt Museum, staff of the National Public Housing Museum was able to see first hand the implementation of these policies.
Informed by its counterparts in Europe, the FDR Administration moved to make direct investments in public housing, a public good previously provided in large part by benevolent social organizations albeit never meeting demand. Due to its proximity to Washington and Eleanor Roosevelt’s championing, public policy experts consider Greenbelt as the most fully realized of American Green Towns with its project budget largely shielded from cuts throughout its development.
But even with this support, the Resettlement Administration did not realize the scale and vision of Greenbelt. Today, the town prides itself on its rural feel with low densities of cinder block Bauhaus-inspired row housing, modest apartment buildings, a school and community center, a shopping center with a Co-op grocery store, a bank, and a movie theater. A pathway network apart from the street network creates a peaceful walking environment completely separate from automobile traffic among plentiful trees and brooks.
While some decried the town as the epitome of federal largesse, a common criticism of many New Deal-era policies, the federal government thought methodically about shaping each Green Town. In the case of Greenbelt, all residents needed to fit within strict income and desired family demographic parameters. Planners conducted research in Greendale, Wisconsin about how wide to make pathways to encourage conversation and interaction, a fact ever apparent in the cozy sidewalk widths of Greenbelt. Public art adorns the school and community center building.
While the shovel hit the dirt for these central pieces of the Green Town vision, the plows did not hit the soil of farms outside of Greenbelt’s greenbelt of trees. As originally planned, larger farms, in addition to smaller allotment plot gardens for families would provide food for Greenbelters. Here the Green Town model would provide the amenities of a city within a decidedly rural context – a community spirit that arguably survives, if not in built-out plans, in Greenbelt’s legacy of co-op businesses, complete with a volunteer-run newspaper.
As Maffay-Tuthill reminds us, the first residents of Greenbelt, “were chosen for being idealistic people – they bought into what was being done here … they wanted this to succeed.” With such an engineered social and physical fabric, it is not surprising the various Green Towns met with varying levels of success. The monumental cost of the Green Town model and changing views on housing contributed to Greenbelt’s sale in 1952, much of it to the residents of Greenbelt.
Upon its sale and later private development of single-family homes starting in 1954, a new group of residents, less committed to the idealism of Greenbelt’s original inhabitants, reshaped the Utopian undertones. A policy shift away from the Green Towns model, coupled with the changing perception of these places presents preservationists with the question of how best to preserve the legacy and intent of these original towns.
With much of the nation’s public housing stock currently approaching the 50-year old threshold for eligibility to the National Register of Historic Places, it is imperative current planners understand the importance of these places in telling the broader public housing and American story.
Like the telling of any national narrative, there are many questions on how to best tell the story and which examples provide the best understanding of the subject. In Greenbelt, the excitement with which our tour guides present the knowledge of their community and its spirit reminds us of the promise of public housing and its ability, when planned and fully implemented, to foster a greater sense of community and affect personal change in the lives of its residents. Undoubtedly there are many more stories to be told – and, like Greenbelt, more than anything these stories require champions.
Daniel Ronan works as the Site Development & Engagement Coordinator for the National Public Housing Museum in Chicago, and is the creator of ResilientHeritage.org. His interests include, historic preservation, transportation, and resilience. In his quest to study this issue in greater detail, Ronan will be visiting Cincinnati the weekend after Thanksgiving. Those interested in joining him for a tour of Greenhills can do so by contacting him at email@example.com.