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Borough of Roosevelt Historical Collection: History Of Roosevelt, New Jersey

Introduction

Roosevelt is a small community in central New Jersey located fourteen miles east of Trenton. Although in some ways a typical suburban town, Roosevelt is nevertheless a product of its colorful and unusual past.

The National Industrial Recovery Act

Originally known as Jersey Homesteads, Roosevelt was one of ninety-nine communities across the country created by the federal government as part of a New Deal initiative. In early 1933, Title II, Section 208, of the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) created the Division of Subsistence Homesteads, the purpose of which was to decentralize industry from congested cities and enable workers to improve their standards of living through the help of subsistence agriculture. Jersey Homesteads was unique, however, in that it was the only community planned as an agro-industrial cooperative which included a farm, factory and retail stores, and it was the only one established specifically for urban Jewish garment workers, many of whom were committed socialists.

Benjamin Brown's Early Role

Jersey Homesteads assumed its particular character because of the influence of Benjamin Brown. Brown (1885-1939) was a Ukrainian-Jewish immigrant who had established rural cooperatives and became wealthy through setting up a poultry exchange between the Western states and New York. He was inspired by the agricultural colony of Biro-Bidjian in the Soviet Union, which he visited in the late 1920s. (1) Upon the announcement in early 1933 of the new program, Brown set up the Provisional Commission for Jewish Farm Settlements in the United States, which included prominent Jews, such as Albert Einstein, and representatives of various Jewish charitable and labor organizations. Brown and the Commission applied for a $500,000 award from the Division of Subsistence Homesteads to establish what became Jersey Homesteads, which was approved in December. Brown then purchased land in Millstone Township, Monmouth County, New Jersey (not far from Hightstown), and began taking applications for 200 settlers at $500 each to raise an additional $100,000. Five hundred acres of the 1,200 acre tract were to be used for farming, and the remaining portion for 200 houses on 1/2 acre plots, a community school, a factory building, a poultry yard and modern water and sewer plants. Max Blitzer was appointed Project Manager, and Samuel Finkler was given the task of selecting suitable families from among the applicants.

The Federal Subsistence Homesteads Corporation

The Federal Subsistence Homesteads Corporation was established wherein local homesteads were subsidiaries of the parent company whose stock was held by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, or, more specifically, by the federal government. Benjamin Brown and several members of his commission were appointed as the Board of Directors for the Jersey Homesteads project. During the winter of 1934, however, Comptroller General John R. McCarl began to question the constitutionality of the Division of Subsistence Homesteads' corporate structure and limited its effectiveness through a series of decisions. At the same time, the representatives of the Jewish charitable organizations and of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) resigned from the Board, feeling that Brown was too autocratic. These events led M.L. Wilson, head of the Division and an old friend of Brown, to issue an order centralizing control over Jersey Homesteads and demoting the Board of Directors to a Board of Sponsors which would play an advisory role. Soon afterwards M.L. Wilson was replaced by Charles Pynchon, and ILGWU president David Dubinsky came out publicly against the project, because it would involve the removal of jobs from New York City. Although the prospective settlers were all union members, he feared a competing shop outside of the union's sphere of influence. Concerned about the delay in establishing the colony, in January 1935 the prospective settlers established the Provisional Executive Committee of the First Choice Applicants for the Hightstown Project to represent their interests.

The Resettlement Administration

In 1935 the National Industrial Recovery Act was proclaimed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court and Section 208 was transferred to the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act which established the Resettlement Administration (RA). Under the direction of Rexford Tugwell the RA excluded Benjamin Brown from all economic decision-making and assumed direct authority over Jersey Homesteads. Soon afterwards, terms were reached with the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union when it was agreed that the Jersey Homesteads factory would be a new cooperative run by the settlers themselves, so would remove no union jobs from New York.

Architect Alfred Kastner

The new community's problems were far from resolved. It was revealed that the houses in Jersey Homesteads, which were built out of prefabricated concrete slabs manufactured on site, were collapsing. (2) In December 1935, the Resettlement Administration hired Alfred Kastner, a German-born architect and city planner who was known for his designs for low-cost housing, as Principal Architect. Kastner, in turn, hired Louis I. Kahn, then a young architect, as his assistant. In designing the community, Kastner was influenced by both the English Garden City Idea and by the German Bauhaus style. Jersey Homesteads' buildings are characterized by their spare geometric forms and use of modern building materials (including cinder blocks). The houses are integrated with communal areas and surrounded by a green belt. (3) Although it appears rather stark today, Kastner's design was considered innovative at the time.

The Economic Cooperatives and Initial Settlement

Jersey Homesteads was set up as a triple cooperative, comprised of a farm, retail stores and a factory. The farm, consisting of general, poultry and dairy units, was known as the Jersey Homesteads Agricultural Association, and, like the other cooperatives, was run by a board of directors. The retail stores--a clothing store, grocery and meat market, and tea room--were run by the Jersey Homesteads Consumers' Cooperative Association. The Workers' Aim Cooperative Association had overall responsibility for the factory: the trade name for its products was Tripod, signifying the triple cooperative. In the spring of 1936, machinery was procured for the coat and suit factory, managerial and sales forces were hired, and showroom and office space was rented in Manhattan. Seven houses in the community were ready in July 1936 and thirty-five more were completed and occupied by late fall. The factory opened the same year in August. Because of the delays in housing construction and the consequent shortage of workers for the factory, the first year was disappointing; an air of demoralization lasted well into 1937 when it became clear that the settlers had lost their initial investment.

The Farm Security Administration and the Failure of the Cooperatives

In the spring of 1937, the year in which Jersey Homesteads was incorporated as a borough, Benjamin Brown invested $50,000 of his own money into the community and organized a network, the Jersey Homesteads Cooperative Distributing Association (Tripod Coat and Suit, Inc.), to promote and distribute garments through cooperative outlets all over the country. When the first year of this plan proved unsuccessful, the federal government granted the settlement another loan, this time for $150,000. In order to qualify for this loan, the factory was reorganized as the Jersey Homesteads Industrial Cooperative Association (the workers) and the Consumers Wholesale Clothiers, Inc. (management and distribution), the board of which included representatives of other cooperative associations. In addition, the factory was expanded to produce men's and children's clothing, as well as women's apparel. Also at this time, the Farm Security Administration (FSA)--formerly the Resettlement Administration--proposed to sell the houses and give the water and sewer plants free of cost to the residents with an additional annual subsidy of $10,000. The proposal, however, was rejected by the borough because many of the homes were still vacant and most settlers were unemployed. In April 1939 the FSA declared the factory a failure and auctioned off the fixtures. They only sold a few items, however. By September, the FSA began renting houses to non-participant families, creating some bitterness among the original families who had invested their savings in the project. With many settlers destitute, the Borough Council established an Economic Planning Committee to investigate alternatives and attract private business to the borough. They secured a lease and agreement with Kartiganer and Co. (millinery manufacturers) but were temporarily obstructed by government restrictions. By early 1940, however, negotiations with Kartiganer and Co. succeeded and the company began operations at the Jersey Homesteads factory. Proving to be no more economically successful than the factory, the settlement's agricultural cooperative ceased operations in 1940. Although the clothing store failed with the factory, the borough's cooperative grocery and meat market endured into the 1940s.

Community Life

Despite conflicts and hardships, the residents of the borough did manage to build a close-knit community--working, playing and developing the land together. Indeed, in the late 1930s the Community Manager, through the Works Progress Administration (WPA), developed recreational programs of adult education, arts and crafts, and founded a library. The borough also had many clubs and societies. The Orthodox synagogue (Congregation Anshei Roosevelt, later affiliated with Conservative Judaism) did not seem to be of central importance but religious services were held at various locations until a synagogue was built in 1956. Many of the homesteaders spoke Yiddish and, in general, all nurtured the community. Through the Mayor and Borough Council, the residents showed interest in national and international events. They discussed the plight of refugee children in Europe, and in 1938, for example, the Council expressed horror at the atrocities committed against Jews and Catholics in Germany. In 1948 the community urged the President to support Palestine as a Jewish State.

The War Years

The war years were economically stable with the exception of some shortages. The residents who did serve in the armed forces were dearly missed. In November 1945, following the death of Franklin Roosevelt earlier in the year, Jersey Homesteads was renamed Roosevelt. During this period, however, the community experienced tensions with the federal government, marked by several overtures to abolish the project and its federal subsidies. In 1943, the Federal Public Housing Authority (FPHA) offered to sell the houses to the settlers at $2,900 each and the utilities free of cost. The residents, through the Borough Council and an ad-hoc Housing Committee, drew up a counter-proposal which indicated the town's interest but outlined several problems. This correspondence went unanswered. On September 28, 1944, the FPHA, representatives of the community, the Housing Committee and the borough attorney met to hammer out an agreement. By January 1945, the Borough Council sent another proposal to the Community Manager, who served as federal representative, but again received no response.

Withdrawal of the Federal Government

In 1946, without consultation with the ad-hoc Housing Committee or the Borough Council, the government re-appraised the houses at $3,900 and announced plans to dispose of the project, requiring all residents to either buy or vacate their homes. Indeed, the sale of 1947 represented a country-wide federal action to divest itself of all subsistence homesteads projects. The announcement caused considerable distress throughout the community. By the end of 1947, however, the homes were sold and the borough was no longer affiliated with the federal government.

Reputation as an Artist's Colony

The middle years of the twentieth century were years of relative stability for Roosevelt. There was little development, and the community remained fairly homogenous, except for an influx of artists which gained Roosevelt a reputation as an artists' colony. In 1936, Alfred Kastner had invited the artist Ben Shahn to paint a mural on the wall of the school depicting the founding of Jersey Homesteads. Ben Shahn and his wife Bernarda Bryson settled permanently in Roosevelt in 1939 and attracted other artists, including former chairman of the Pratt Institute's Fine Arts department Jacob Landau; painter Gregorio Prestopino and his wife artist Liz Dauber; graphic artist David Stone Martin and his son wood engraver Stefan Martin; photographers Edwin and Louise Rosskam; and others. Additional artists associated with Roosevelt are pianists Anita Cervantes and Laurie Altman, opera singer Joshua Hecht and writers Benjamin Appel, Shan Ellentuck and Franklin Folsom.

Commemoration of FDR

It was Ben Shahn who had the original idea to build a monument to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945. Although he was unable to raise enough money at that time, in 1960, on the eve of the borough's 25th anniversary, a new Roosevelt Memorial Committee was formed which was able, through fund-raising and donated labor, to create a memorial to the man who was seen as the town's inspiration. Ben Shahn's son Jonathan sculpted a bust of the president, while landscape architect Marvin Feld designed the amphitheater and park where it sits.

Demograhic Changes and Community Challenges

By the 1970s, the demographics of Roosevelt had shifted, as the original settlers retired and moved away, and their children left Roosevelt. With the rise of the automobile and commercial shopping centers, Roosevelt became suburbanized and the residents became less dependent on the community to satisfy their needs. A new generation of professionals settled in Roosevelt, gradually altering the Jewish working class homogeneity of the community. These changes led to conflicts between some of the longtime residents, who wanted to preserve the community as it was, and new arrivals who supported more industrial and residential development. By the early 1980s, however, it became clear that some development was necessary to create a tax base which would support the infrastructure of the community. Roosevelt's water treatment and sewage disposal plants, state-of-the-art when they were built in the 1930s, were found to be inadequate according to a 1978 New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection survey using new, more stringent standards. The state mandated that Roosevelt overhaul its sewage plant, which was polluting the nearby Assunpink Creek, by 1992. Because of disagreement on the Borough Council about what measures should be taken, Roosevelt lost the opportunity to obtain grant funding, so was forced to pay for the new plant by raising taxes. Similarly, a drop in the school age population in Roosevelt in the 1980s put pressure on the taxpayers and led to talk of school regionalization. To date, a number of new homes have been built in Roosevelt, including the Roosevelt Senior Citizen's Solar Village complex, constructed in 1983. (4)

Historical Awareness and Preservation

In spite of changes, Roosevelt citizens maintained a keen sense of their own history, reflected by the work of the Roosevelt Oral History Committee, which interviewed original settlers and their children and collected memorabilia in the early 1980s. In 1983, Roosevelt was named to the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1991 the Borough Council created the Jersey Homesteads Historic District Advisory Council, which oversaw the collection of historical materials and their transfer to Rutgers University.


(1) Kimberly A. Brodkin, "From the Jersey Homesteads to Roosevelt: Community and Identity in a New Deal Settlement," unpublished American History Senior Honors Thesis (University of Pennsylvania, 1992), p. 7.

(2) Jason H. Cohen, "From Utopia to Suburbia: the Architecture and Urban Planning of Roosevelt, New Jersey," unpublished Henry Rutgers Honors Thesis (Rutgers University, 1994), p. 41-47.

(3) National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form for Roosevelt Borough, p. 5-6, in: Publications and Articles about Roosevelt, Borough of Roosevelt Historical Collection, Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries.

(4) Cohen, p. 83-85.


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