Designed and built in the midst of the Great Depression, Greenbelt is an intact example of an experimental planned New Deal community.
Inspired by Utopian collectivist ideals, in which town businesses were owned and managed cooperatively by residents, this Garden City is rare for surviving relatively unchanged. Even a couple of the cooperatives remain at one of the earliest planned shopping centers in America.
With a thoughtful layout intended for pedestrians, a progressive spirit, and crisp Streamline Moderne architecture, Greenbelt is at once historic and futuristic.
When President Roosevelt visited Greenbelt he declared the city to be “an experiment that ought to be copied by every community in the United States.” While that dream didn’t come to pass, Greenbelt remains an optimistic blueprint for what a community can be.
1. NASA GSFC Visitor Center
Greenbelt is the home of a key NASA space research laboratory, serving as the agency’s first and oldest space center.
The Goddard Space Flight Center was established in 1958, and has managed operations for numerous NASA and international missions including the Hubble Space Telescope (launched 1990), and the development of its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (launched 2021).
You can explore these epochal projects at the free visitor center, giving you thrilling details about what Webb means for our understanding of the universe.
Other exhibits deal with space communications, earth as seen from space, the awe-inspiring surface of the sun and moon exploration. Outside, the Goddard Rocket Garden shows off exciting artifacts from Goddard’s history.
2. Roosevelt Center
At the center of Greenbelt’s swirling street plan is one of the country’s first planned shopping centers.
Opened in 1937, the Roosevelt Center was designed to be within easy, walkable reach of all of the community’s inhabitants, with unique underpasses running beneath Crescent Rd. Initially the center included a gas station, grocery store, variety store, barber shop, drugstore, tobacco shop, beauty shop, movie theater and valet shop.
Several of these businesses remain, including the elegant Old Greenbelt Theatre, which has recently been restored. Remarkably, a couple continue to be run as cooperative businesses, including the CO-OP Supermarket & Pharmacy and the New Deal Cafe.
The Roosevelt Center serves as the anchor for activities during the Greenbelt Labor Day Festival.
3. Greenbelt Historic District
You don’t need to be a student of architecture or urban planning to be enthralled by Greenbelt’s center, which looks like few cities in the United States.
For some context, there’s reams of information about the Greenbelt Historic District, as well as an excellent self-guided walking tour published by the Greenbelt Museum.
This walk takes in 18 points of interest, many of which are mentioned in this article. Along with the Roosevelt Center and Greenbelt Community Center you can take a closer look at Greenbelt’s many peculiarities.
There’s the unconventional street plan, pedestrian underpasses beneath Crescent Road, as well as the hundreds of original housing units, all of which are still owned cooperatively after being purchased when the town was sold in the early 1950s.
4. Greenbelt Community Center
A striking Streamline Moderne/Art Deco landmark and necessary stop on any tour is the Greenbelt Community Center (1937), which was an elementary school up to 1991 and is now a community facility.
The old gymnasium and classrooms now contain public event rooms, city departments, artist studios, a nursery and Greenbelt Access Television.
Outside, between the angular fluted buttresses is a series of bas-relief panels by Lenore Thomas Straus, depicting the Preamble to the United States Constitution. On the first floor, the Greenbelt Museum uses the center for its main temporary exhibit.
5. Old Greenbelt Theatre
An entertainment veteran at the Roosevelt Center is this sleek, single-screen movie theater that opened in 1938.
The Old Greenbelt Theatre has been in the care of the non-profit Friends of Greenbelt Theatre since 2015, and was recently given a facelift, adding new technology while keeping its Art Deco character.
The 368-seat auditorium is a special place to catch a classic movie or new release, mixing vintage with the modern.
There’s a 40’ CinemaScope screen and two Simplex XL 35mm projectors, with a Christie 4K digital projector and a Dolby Digital 7.1 sound system.
6. Buddy Attick Lake Park
An abiding joy of Greenbelt’s layout is the way recreation space merges with residential and commercial areas.
This is true for Buddy Attick Lake Park, accessed via the system of paved trails that reaches across the city. Buddy Attick Lake Park is just over 100 acres, about a quarter of which is made up of a lake for birdwatching, fishing and boating.
There’s a 1.3-mile trail around the shore, mostly lined with beautiful mature trees. Facilities include picnic pavilions with grills, benches and tables, a playground with equipment for younger and older children, a tot lot and a basketball court.
The park is named for beloved resident Albert S. “Buddy” Attick, who served as Director of Public Works and whose family lived in the area before it was purchased by the federal government.
7. Greenbelt Museum
If your interest is piqued by Greenbelt’s story you can find out more at this museum based at one of the historic housing units near the Community Center.
At the time of writing, the main temporary exhibit covered the career of Social Realist sculptor Lenore Thomas Straus (1909-1988), whose WPA-funded work can be seen at the Community Center and the Roosevelt Center.
Past exhibits have looked at various aspects of local life, like recreation, fashion, gardening and home decor in the 1930s and 1940s.
You can also take a tour of the original historic home, preserved as it was in the late-1930s, while the museum also conducts regular walking tours of the Greenbelt Historic District.
8. Greenbelt Park
True to its name, Greenbelt was originally intended to be wrapped in an enormous green belt for recreation, and a large remnant of this is preserved in the southwest of the city.
Designated in 1950, Greenbelt Park encompasses 1,176 acres and is managed by the National Park Service. What you’ll encounter here is a relaxing wooded environment for camping, just ten miles from Washington, D.C’s famous landmarks.
As well as 172 campsites, complemented by showers and bathroom facilities, there’s a main 5.3-mile hiking and equestrian trail, with several shorter trails branching off it.
The park hosts free campfire programs in spring and fall, covering the history of local features like the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, College Park Aviation Museum and Greenbelt.
9. College Park
On Greenbelt’s western flank, College Park is the home city for the University of Maryland (UMD).
The vast campus converges on McKeldin Mall, the largest quad in the United States, while the men’s and women’s basketball teams often go deep in the NCAA tournament.
Another intriguing facet to College Park is the country’s oldest continuously operating airport. This was founded in 1909 as a facility for flight pioneer Wilbur Wright (1871-1948) to train the first ever military pilots.
That momentous history is recorded at the College Park Aviation Museum, which has full-size reproductions of the early planes flown at the airport and demonstrates the incredible development of powered flight, from shaky machines to combat capability just a few years later in WWI.
10. New Deal Cafe
A mainstay at the Roosevelt Center is the aptly named New Deal Cafe, which opened in 1995 and is almost unique in the country for being a consumers’ cooperative.
This award-winning restaurant, coffee house and music venue is owned by 200+ member patrons, and is often described as “Greenbelt’s community living room”.
There’s live music almost every night of the week, and monthly exhibitions showcasing local artists. Naturally, you don’t have to be a member to dine or enjoy the cafe’s cultural offerings.
The menu has a contemporary American accent, and is dominated by plant-based options like spicy BBQ tofu, spinach lasagna and vegan mac & cheese, along with craft beer on tap.
11. Patuxent Research Refuge
One of the largest forested areas in the mid-Atlantic region is only 15 minutes from Greenbelt by car.
The Patuxent Research Refuge is on 13,000 acres, protecting woods, wetlands and meadows. The refuge is particularly valuable as a haven for migrating waterfowl in spring and fall.
In Greenbelt you’re closest to the South Tract, which contains the National Wildlife Visitor Center, with compelling interpretive displays about the past, present and future of wildlife conservation, as well as educational films and a bookstore and nature shop.
The center is served by five miles of trails, one circling the beautiful Cash Lake close by. Further north along the Baltimore-Washington Pkwy you can reach the less visited North Tract, with 20+ miles of trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding.
12. Schrom Hills Recreation Center
An ideal place to be active in Greenbelt is this attractive neighborhood park close to the Greenway shopping center.
For a brief rundown of the many facilities at the Schrom Hills Recreation Center there are baseball/softball fields, a soccer field, a basketball court, an exercise trail and a bike trail.
The park also has two separate playgrounds, for kids aged 2-5 and 5-12 respectively, along with a rentable pavilion, grills and picnic tables.
For the curious, Schrom Hills is home to one of Prince George’s County’s Champion Trees, a majestic Longleaf Pine standing more than 50 feet in height.
13. Lake Artemesia
Close to College Park Airport is a lake surrounded by serene natural space, created during the 1970s following sand quarrying for the Washington Metro’s Green Line, which runs down the west side.
The lake is a little under 40 acres, and on its wooded shores there’s a multi-use trail, a special birding trail, fishing piers and planted gardens including a butterfly garden.
The lake is stocked with trout, bluegill and largemouth bass, and the surrounding hiker-biker trails are a small component of the massive Anacostia Tributary Trail System.
From here you can make your way along the Northeast Branch of the Anacostia River to the south, or head northwest along the Paint Branch Trail.
14. Beltway Plaza Mall
This enclosed mall in Greenbelt was developed in the early 1970s around a branch of the S. Klein department store, and took on its current form a few years later when S. Klein closed.
A few of the national stores at Beltway Plaza Mall are Target, Marshalls, Burlington, TJ Maxx, Footlocker and Gamestop, while there’s a slew of locally owned shops and services between the anchors.
For entertainment you’ve got the AMC Academy 8, with comfy recliners at all the screens. In terms of food, the chains here include Boston Market, Subway, Wendy’s, Dunkin, Jersey Mike’s, Baskin Robbins and Popeye’s.
15. Greenbelt Labor Day Festival
Given Greenbelt’s origins, it makes sense that the big date in the social calendar should be a Labor Day festival.
This got started in 1955 as a way of raising money to build a youth center. Now, some 70 years later, the Greenbelt Labor Day Festival is planned by one of the largest all-volunteer organizations in the state.
Mostly set around the Roosevelt Center, there’s a massive range of activities over four days, beginning on Friday.
For a summary you’ve got a carnival midway, all kinds of sports tournaments, an art show, a pet show, a bike ride, live music, exhibits by the Greenbelt Museum and Goddard Space Flight Center, a craft fair, diverse food vendors and of course the vibrant Annual Greenbelt Labor Day Parade from 10am on the Monday.