Chapter 6

The Darkening of the Light

For about two years Arthurdale was a model community. After that, sweetness and light faded.

New York Times (1946)1

By June 1936, 114 families called Arthurdale home, with a population hovering around 660 souls. It was a young town with swarms of children running about, 411 strong and the vast majority under the age of 15. By 1938, by which time the last homes were completed and occupied, 165 homesteads housed about 1,000 people.2 In the beginning, during October 1934, then–project manager O. B. Smart was of the opinion that the homesteaders were “well pleased and thankful for an opportunity to become independent.”3

Arthurdale was once referred to as “the nicest ghetto in our nation’s history,”4 and while the words may sound a bit cruel they are not too off the mark. Like all government housing, there are a number of parallels between Arthurdale and such projects. Yet in some important ways there is a chasm between what Arthurdale was and what we see in government housing projects today. It was the first and therefore the most experimental and extravagant of any housing project in history; no expense was spared. Now, 75 years on, the urge and ability to be creative are long extinguished from the federal housing bureaucracy.

Besides the luxurious nature of its physical plant, another striking difference (and one the press mostly overlooked) was the prodigious labor required of the homesteaders to keep their end of the bargain.5 Half a century ...

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