• U.S.

THE ADMINISTRATION: The Greenbelt Mystery

6 minute read

For the privilege of living in one of the New Deal’s three Government-owned utopian “planned communities,” residents had to do much of the planning themselves. Abraham Chasanow, a $1,800-a-year clerk in the Navy’s Hydrographic Office, found this out soon after he moved his family into a six-room, $36.50-a-month row house in Greenbelt, Md. in 1939. For 13 years Chasanow worked hard at his civic responsibilities. His hard work eventually led to serious trouble: last July the Navy suspended him as a suspected security risk. Chasanow, now 43, decided to fight the charges. He is still fighting them.

Hanging the Wash. In the late 19305, Dr. Rexford Tugwell’s Resettlement Administration built a model town seven miles northeast of Washington at a cost of $14 million. Because its 900 dwelling units covered a 2OO-acre tract surrounded by 3,100 acres of Maryland countryside, the town was named Greenbelt. Greenbelt’s residents, including Abraham Chasanow, set about electing a local government, operating an consumer co-op to run the town’s stores, organizing a health insurance plan and a recreation center.

Every Greenbelt citizen was caught up in a continual flurry of supercharged issues. For a time, the price of everything in the town’s stores, from haircuts to hosiery, had to be set after community argument. Painful decisions were made about keeping dogs (prohibited) and hanging out the wash on Sundays (approved). Soon 57 committees were functioning in little Greenbelt.

Men with professional training were rare in the community. Since Abraham Chasanow had earned a degree at Washington College of Law night school, he was put on six assorted committees. Lawyer Chasanow also served on the draft board, the Health Association, the Citizens’ Association. He took part in the P.T.A., the Lions, the Jewish Community Center. He did legal work for the town’s 1,000-unit expansion in 1941 and contributed to the local newspaper, the Cooperator, of which his wife Helen was once church editor. The Chasanows also raised four children.

After the war, the Government began to think about selling Greenbelt. Fourteen hundred Greenbelters, including Chasanow, formed an association to buy the town. But the other 450 tenants refused to sign up, in the hope that the Government would decide not to sell and would continue to subsidize their rents.

The stormiest battle in Greenbelt’s squally history was joined.

In 1949 Congress ordered the town sold, no ifs, ands or buts. As the Greenbelt Veteran Housing Corporation and its legal adviser Abraham Chasanow fought for private ownership, tempers flared and rumors burgeoned. From house to row house, the word darted that the veterans’ group was led by “Communist Jews and longhairs.” Someone scratched at the sign over the Jewish Community Center to make it read “Jewish Communist Center.”

At length, in the summer of 1952, the U.S. sold Greenbelt. Chasanow’s corporation gave tenants a year to decide whether to make purchase payments on their homes or move.

Helping the Orphans. The year was almost up when the Navy, out of a clear sky, handed Chasanow a set of charges and ordered him removed from duty. In 23 years in the Government, Chasanow had risen to become an $8,360-a-year chart inventory and distribution expert. Among the Navy’s charges: ¶Contributing to the United American Spanish Aid Committee, a subversive group. ¶CJ Subscribing to “the Communist newsletter In Fact.” ¶ Belonging to the National Lawyers’ Guild, cited as a Communist-front organization. ¶Having on his desk the names of two men, one a Communist, the other a National Lawyers’ Guild member. Contributing to the Cooperator, which had been “listed as a member” of a sub versive book association. To these charges, Chasanow answered: ^ In 1941 he went to a party, attended by Greenbelt’s mayor, where games were played to raise money for “Spanish war orphans.” Chasanow’s contribution: 50¢. EURJ He had paid 50¢ for a one-year subscription to In Fact twelve years ago: “I thought it sensational, badly written and unreliable.” ¶ In 1939 he applied for a job as a Government lawyer. He was advised by the Government lawyer who interviewed him to join the National Lawyers’ Guild, which, for $1, he there & then did. He did not get the job, never went to a Guild meeting, made no further payments. ¶ The names on the desk were two of 407 on a telephone list. One was once Chasanow’s opposing counsel in a lawsuit. The other, introduced to him by his brother-in-law, “talked like a Communist.” When the brother-in-law invited the man to the Chasanow home, “my wife put chairs in the yard and [the man] visited with my brother-in-law while I remained in the house.”

Last October Chasanow’s case was heard by a security board. Chasanow had 97 character affidavits supplied by friends and associates, and ranging from admirals to the Greenbelt postman. The board cleared him on all accounts and affirmed in detail his answers to the charges. The board said that there was no evidence that the Cooperator had “leftwing tendencies.” It found that Chasanow was “a moderating, constructive and conservative influence” in Greenbelt.

An Ugly Screen. Thankful for this cle.an bill, Chasanow expected to be called to duty. But no call came.

Then last January, another Greenbelt resident was suspended from his job at the Hydrographic Office. Among the charges: he had associated with famed Architect Frank Lloyd Wright, had criticized the American Legion, and, at a 1943 meeting in Greenbelt. had advocated Bible-burning. He denied that he had ever advocated” Bible-burning, said that all his life he had practiced the Jewish faith and is an official of the Greenbelt synagogue.

When this case arose, statistics of Hydrographic Office security cases showed a disturbing fact: the office had 13 employees who lived in Greenbelt. Five of them had been suspended as security risks. All the suspended men, but none of the others, were Jewish. (Greenbelt is about 8% Jewish).

In Greenbelt. where most of the residents are Government workers, the suspensions cast a pall of fear and dismay. A fight over rents appeared to have been projected on a far larger, uglier screen.

Last month Assistant Navy Secretary James H. Smith Jr. informed Employee Chasanow that the Navy’s Security Appeal Board had reversed the lower board, found him unfit for service. Smith said that, from his own review of the case, he agreed. Chasanow, refusing to give up, demanded a new hearing. This week the Navy reopened the case of Chart Distributor Abraham Chasanow, civic leader.

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