Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Dayton's Socialist Suburb

…but don’t tell the people who live there, since they’re not socialists, nor would they consider their little neighborhood that way. The history, however, seems to indicate that Greenmont, in the early days had some strong collectivist antecedents and leanings.
If you’ve ever driven by the place, west of Woodman and south of Patterson, you’d wonder about it, as it looks, well, different. Those little houses, like wood sugar cubes and shoe boxes, all with flat roofs. Some sort of project. Well, it is a project, but unlike any other in Dayton.

Dayton’s Prewar Housing Shortage

After 1939 the economy was reviving in a big way due to spending on military preparedness and Lend-Lease production destined for Britain.

This increased factory job growth (recall the final large prewar addition to Delco downtown was in 1941) and more people migrating to the city. The result was a housing shortage and rent gouging by local landlords.

Since the US wouldn’t be at war until the last month of 1941 there were no rent controls in effect, so workers could be ripped-off with impunity. The CIO, flush with victory in its big organizing drives, decided to take action to help alleviate the housing crisis.

Within the Dayton CIO the first thought was to create more public housing. This was redirected to a different approach, a quasi-socialist concept called mutual housing.

Mutual Housing and Social Unionism

Mutual housing, AKA co-operative housing, is an arrangement where residents hold shares in the development and control the development via a board. Thus the term “mutual”; the project is mutually owned by the residents, versus units individually owned as a condominium.

In the US mutual housing grew out of the union movement. The father of US mutual housing, Abraham E Kazan, was also president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers (ACW) credit union. ACW was one of the founding unions of the CIO, and its founder, Sidney Hillman, was an advocate of social unionism (credit unions, mutual housing, co-op groceries, etc). The movement had the support of then –governor Franklin D Roosevelt, who helped push relevant enabling legislation.

Greenmont is Proposed, and Approved.

So it was an East Coast concept brought to Dayton. The CIO attempt to develop housing was fought tooth and nail by the local real estate industry and also by the Dayton Metropolitan Housing Authority, who preferred rental public housing.

Though surrounded by enemies in Dayton the CIO had friends in Washington. The Lanham Act of 1940 provided funds for war-boom areas, administered by the Federal Works Administration (FWA)

The local CIO Housing Committee got an audience with an assistant of FWA chief John Carmody, who told them to come back with a justification. So the housing committee went back to Dayton, did their research (using union activists to do surveys and documentation of local housing conditions as they had no local government support), and researched other projects as models.

Greenmont was based on a housing project near Camden NJ, but with kitchens re-designed because of suggestions by the local CIO workers wives’

The CIO Housing Committee then returned to Washington and with their justification and project proposal and got their grant.

The total project cost was $20M - $24.6M (2007 dollars), for land, 500 units, infrastructure, community buildings, and landscaping.

Construction contract award was August 1941, construction starting in Sept 1941, first occupancy was in March 1942, and all units occupied by June 1942.

Greenmont was not the only mutual housing project near Dayton. During the war next door Oak Park was intially built as a mutual housing developement, as was Overlook, out east Third. Oak Park eventually went to conventional ownership while Overlook remains mutually owned.

The Greenmont mutual housing corporation was established in December 1942; presumably the Feds transferred title sometime after that.
The housing corporation had a nine-member board, which was initially appointed (perhaps made up in part from the CIO Housing Committee) but eventually was to transition into a partially elected board, with majority resident representation starting in 1949

During the war the place had 50% occupancy from Wright Field military and civilian workers, and 50% occupancy by war workers (presumably CIO members from the various locals in Dayton).

After the war, probably due to the ongoing housing shortage, as late as 1948 there was a waiting list of over 1,000 to get into Greenmont.

Greenmont Life

The community was very organized, as one can see by this organization chart, with various clubs and activity groups forming up. It appears that the board controlled resident selection at first, as well as appointing the manager.

Not shown on the chart is was the co-op grocery (including a butcher shop) and drug store, located in the "Commercial Building". From a booklet on Greenmont available at the Dayton Metro Library history room:

“In a few short, busy years (1944-48), The Greenmont Co-op has grown from a humble beginning in a one-room store to a modern two-store Supermarket and “Drug” Store. Practically every commodity normally sold in such stores is now available on the shelves of the Cooperative stores.

“Success for a Consumer Co-op Association is not based fundamentally on profits and rapid business increases. Consumer co-operation is a distinct movement, conscious of the social, educational, and ethical aims of the people which it serves, therefore its real aim is to serve its members and patrons in the most efficient manner possible. When these precepts are conscientiously followed, increased business and success result.

“The Greenmont Consumers Co-op was organized and is being operated under the Rochdale Cooperative Principles

You could buy it but you could also grow it in Greenmont:

“..Each year approximately 30 acres of land are made available for villagers who want to grow their own flowers and vegetables. A garden plot 50’ x 50’ costs $1.00 (1940s dollars) for rental of space and plowing (apparently the corporation plowed for you). Prizes are awarded for superior gardens. In the past fall festivals have been held for the display for fresh vegetables. “

Greenmont had one of the Lanham Act- funded daycare centers, probably the first involvement by the Feds on behalf of child welfare aside from things like child labor law. One of the surviving ones is part of the Rosie the Riveter National Historic Site in Richmond, CA.

After the war Lanham Act funds were ended. The county refused to continue the day care service, so the mutual housing corporation and Women’s club operated the daycare, until it burned to the ground in 1947 (cause of fire unknown).

Organization extended to religion. In fall of 1942 a Sunday School was organized, the next summer a vacation bible school, and eventually a congregation was organized:

“Since our community included persons of many denominations and many creeds, only a non-denominational or interdenominational school church could meet the needs. Therefore it was decided to affiliate with the Ohio Council for Community Centered Churches…”

And there was a community newsletter or paper, first called the “Greenmont Party Line”, later the Greenmont Forum started up.

Greenmont’s Communist Connections.

One can see how the set-up here was subtly, perhaps unintentionally, promoting values and practices antithetical to capitalism:

  • Non-profit instead of for- profit.

  • Preference for the collective and co-operation instead of the individual (particularly in property ownership and commercial activity)

  • Emphasis on community building vs. social atomization

  • Empowerment of residents through self-government (the plan was for the residents to eventually elect the majority on the board of directors).

Not to mention the place was intended to house union workers, who were getting concepts of solidarity and worker empowerment and such from their union.

One can speculate on the underlying ideas, but this aerial image is a pretty good illustration of one way of looking at the place: the collective housing complex for union workers at the nearby factory, where the workers own & control the housing, and supermarket, the drug store, the church, and maybe the next step the workers own & control the means of production…the factory itself?

Yet this is just speculation. The direct Communist connection is unclear.

However there are some indications. The chair of the CIO Housing Committee that promoted Greenmont, M Miniard, was also the person who pushed the mutual housing concept and negotiated the title transfer from the Feds. Miniard was on the first board of directors and the second operations manager of Greenmont.

And, after the war, either at an Ohio House or Congressional HUAC hearing, Miniard was named as a member of the CPUSA.

FWA chief Carmody, who signed off on the Greenmont grant, was alleged to be a Communist sympathizer due to some USSR visits in the early 1930s. This is very circumstantial.

Reading the Dayton HUAC hearing transcripts (HUAC was here in the mid 1950s investigating the union movement) witnesses had to give names and locations as part of the testimony. Greenmont does appear as the home for some of the alleged CPUSA members. So one can speculate that the UE was housing some of its organizers here.

It is known, though, that the parents of Greenmont’s most famous resident were CPUSA members, and the father was here in Dayton as a labor organizer.

And is who s this “famous” person?

Probably only famous to folk music fans, U Utah Phillips lived in Greenmont when he was a kid and he says that the railroad that ran along the east side of the village (and still does) was an inspiration for him, getting him interested in an early age in railroading, which later translated into collecting & performing old railroad and hobo songs.

Phillips moved to Utah with his folks, and the West has been more his subject; he is probably best known for the cowboy song Goodnight-Loving Trail.

Yet Phillips continues the radical lineage as he also sings old union songs, particularly those from the old IWW, a union movement even more revolutionary and radical than the Communnists, most active out west.

Greenmont Today

Greenmont remains mutual housing, there still are community gardens, the school is stll there as is the community church, affiliated now with the United Church of Christ denomination (and joined by a Catholic parish). The co-op supermarket and drugstore are gone, now part of the little shopping center at Watervleit and Patterson.

And, of course, the houses and landscaping and planning remain, which we’ll take a look at next.


Foreverglow said...

I know some people that live in Greenmont. Good post. Here's a website operated by one of the residents.


Jefferey said...

Hey, that is interesting. I see they link to an earlier version of ths over at Cyburbia.

I've done a bit more research since then.

Admin said...

I'd forgotten about U Utah Philips thanks for stirring up some old brain cells.

I still think you should add a recent comment list to your sidebar here is a link to one design

Greg Hunter said...

Isn't that a picture of old man Gerber?