The town of Roosevelt was established by the federal government—one of the many planned cooperative communities created under President Roosevelt's New Deal during the Great Depression. Originally called Jersey Homesteads, the name was changed shortly after President Roosevelt's death. Among these planned towns, Roosevelt was unique for three reasons: it consisted of a triple cooperative of industry, farm, and retail; the settlers were all Jewish garment workers from New York City; the flat roofed architecture and other features of the homes were inspired by the European Bauhaus movement. Another interesting, though not unique, feature of the town was that it incorporated the Garden City town planning model, providing ample green spaces within the town and a protective greenbelt surrounding it.
Between 1936 and 1938 a total of 200 housing units were built—a mix of single and attached, one and two story homes, all with distinctive flat roofs and oversized windows. Utilizing a roughly circular site plan, this small, then-isolated town sprang up amid the farms of southwestern Monmouth County about five miles from Hightstown in central New Jersey. The single most important person for bringing this town into existence was Benjamin Brown, a local farmer, businessman and Zionist. Princeton resident Albert Einstein also gave the town his political and moral support. The town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the only town in the state to be included in its entirety. In 2010, Roosevelt contained roughly 340 homes and apartments, three factories, and one commercial building. With nearly all of the surrounding greenbelt having been preserved as farmland, virtually no building lots remained.
In 1937, the artist Ben Shahn was commissioned by the government to create a wall-long mural in the lobby of the town's school. What he created, with the help of his wife Bernarda Bryson Shahn, is recognized as one his masterwork's, weaving together the stories of immigration to the New World, the growth of the trade union movement, and the planning of the new community. It continues to be a source of great pride not only to the school but to the entire town.
Shahn found Roosevelt a congenial place, and soon became a resident of the community. His presence attracted other artists, a trend which over the years led to an unusually large number of artists, writers, musicians and artisans of all types calling Roosevelt their home. While Roosevelt's farming, manufacturing and retail cooperatives all failed after only a few years for many different reasons, and while suburbia has nearly swallowed up the once-isolated village, Roosevelt has endured and thrived, if not as a social experiment, as a singularly closely knit, attractive place to live.
Other Roosevelt Links
Inventory to the Borough of Roosevelt Historical Collection - Rutgers University Library
Natural, Social, and Historic Resources of the Borough of Roosevelt
Generations of Artists: Roosevelt, NJ, a documentary film by Ilene Dube.
Jersey Homesteads: In the Architectural Vanguard - Ben Johnson on Roosevelt architecture
Benjamin Brown: In Pursuit of the Cooperative Dream - 2 hour, 17 minute multi-media documentary reading by Ben Johnson
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