Tuesday, April 14, 2009

History Matters: West Acres Subdivision and Federal Stimulus Programs

Westacres, West Bloomfield’s innovative residential development on Commerce Road begun during the Depression, brings together two seemingly disparate subjects -- Federal stimulus programs and the slow foods movement that encourages people to grow and raise their own foods and consume seasonal foods from nearby. Both topics were as important in the 1930s as they are once again today.

The following excerpt from an unpublished chapter written by Pam Powell for Song of the Heron – Reflections on the History of West Bloomfield explains West Bloomfield’s critical role in a Federal stimulus program of the 1930s.

Next, I have cited Midwestern Landscape Architecture by William H. Tishler in explaining the important role of self-sufficiency in agriculture – as well as other areas – in the innovative landscape design of Westacres.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal

As FDR’s plans for pulling America out of the Great Depression got underway in 1933, one program in particular probably had the most impact on West Bloomfield Township: the Federal Emergency Relief Acts of 1933 which proposed, in part, the construction of affordable housing for low-income families. Indeed, the New Deal’s revitalization programs led directly to the development of the township’s Westacres housing project.

Westacres – the forerunner of modern suburban developments

The Westacres subdivision of West Bloomfield Township is often recognized as the forerunner of modern suburbanization and residential development, not just for the township but countywide. A revolutionary concept in neighborhood design, the Westacres development was intended to provide affordable housing for factory-wage families and to boost a sagging economy as part of FDR’s New Deal.

Land in other areas of Oakland County had been subdivided prior to 1936, but mainly by land speculators who anticipated future building. Senator James Couzens and the New Dealers paved the way for modern residential development, but “Westacres was the first in which one company designed, platted, built and sold the properties.”

The self-sufficient, weekend farmer

Clearly, the Westacres subdivision brought about the township’s first intensive residential development project and also gave rise to a new phenomenon that would prove popular, successful, and long-lasting in the Oakland County community: the weekend farmer.

Oakland Housing, Inc., was formed in 1935 as the development’s real estate agent. The nonprofit benevolent corporation would carry out four related purposes: “To construct well-built, low-cost houses for industrial workmen within the annual income range of $1,200 to $1,800, who are subject to seasonal unemployment; provide a large enough lot for each house so that the owner may grow a sufficient quantity of vegetables to supply his own family; encourage with loans the residents of the project to engage in enterprises developed upon the corporation’s property which will enable them to make supplemental earnings during periods of unemployment or after hours; and, to assist the residents in a sound and satisfying development of their communal life.”

According to an original brochure provided to prospective buyers and obtained from original Westacres resident Hugh H. Benninger, the realty agents specifically sought out potential buyers who could and would cultivate the soil to produce adequate vegetables to supply the families year-round, and also provide supplemental income to the factory workers.

Still, the whole Westacres project may have never been launched if Michigan’s U.S. Senator James J. Couzens had not pledged his support—and his $550,000. Many of President Roosevelt’s New Deal projects did not sit well with Couzens; he viewed them more as mere social welfare programs rather than as economic development programs. However, the subsistence homestead projects of the New Deal housing program did intrigue Couzens, primarily because of their similarity to a housing plan he had previously considered, along with Henry Ford, for the Dearborn area.

Thrift gardens at each homesite

Emma Genevieve Gillette, a famous Midwestern landscape architect, was recruited by President Roosevelt and Senator Couzens to implement the plan for the 874- acre site. Gillette was intrigued with its platted , rectilinear street plan, featuring two rolls of widely spaced houses at the front of long, narrow lots. She saw the possibility for each homeowner to enjoy a large backyard and additional room for a thrift garden in the back. Each family had enough land to raise fruits, vegetables and poultry for its own consumption.

Also in her design was room for recreation areas, a school, community building and stores. Gillette and R.D Baker, project engineer, worked together to make the engineering and landscape development compatible, including the dredging of the nearby lake, where the rich muck was spread over the poor soil. She chose a variety of tree plantings, selected and placed plantings for the thrift gardens in the rear of each lot, and even established a cooperative on-site nursery. So many people wanted to see the progress of the project that a chain link fence had to be erected to prevent vandalism.

Westacres a success

The Westacres development was clearly a success. By 1937, the community had 84 school-age children attending the local Union Lake School, while the neighbors banded together to form a civic association that held as its chief concern the beautification of Westacres. In its early years, Westacres residents worked together to make the development a nearly self-sufficient community. Local organizations included the fire department, Boy Scouts, a cooperative store, the Westacres Credit Union, Blue Birds, Camp Fire Girls, Westacres Community Association, Child Study Clubs I and II, the Westacres branch of the public library, Sunday School classes, and a sewing club, most of which merged in 1943 to become Westacres Activities Association, with Harold Welch serving as president, with dues of fifty cents per month. The community also supported its own newspaper, The Westacres Weekly.

12 comments:

  1. I grew up in Westacres (1940 - 1960). I am 72, retired and live in Georgia. Westacres, today, is a relevant example (and has been) worldwide. Community spirit was the key. It was a letdown for most children my age leaving that environment for 'greener pastures' and missing the service tone we grew up with. When they meet again the conversation goes right there. I have begun to search for some of the early records so that it does not disappear. Much probably has.

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  2. Thanks for the comment about your past with Westacres. Please let us know if you discover more information.

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  3. We are planning a 75th anniversary celebration of Westacres and we are looking for all old records AND residents who may like to join us in 2011. Please contact us at wrightjmj@comcast.net.

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  4. Visit Westacres on the web! Find us at www.westacres1936.org

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  5. Westacres boasts a minimum of 54 second generation people who grew
    up in the neighborhood and have come back as adults to raise our children here. We are in the planning stages of celebrating our 75th Anniversary and we are very excited about it. We are putting together a
    75th Anniversary book and we have uncovered TONS of new historical information and images to add to our history. There is a enthusiastic
    group of folks - old-timers and middle-aged old-timers who are committed to keeping the very special history of Westacres alive for the next generation! Our 75th Celebration is July 29 - August 7, 2001. Mark
    your calendars!

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  6. I'm one of those 54 2nd/3rd generation-ers to return to this special government project. While our 75th anniversary is next year (2011), we will have two events this year, one being a gardens tour. Many of our traditions carry on! More details at our website.

    Who wudda thunk that out of their relative poverty our Westacres pioneers would create a community rich in meaning? And from their many service organizations would they develop the enduring relationships that would weave the fabric of a strong community?

    Perhaps we have something worth sharing as Detroit looks to its future?

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  7. I spent my early years in Westacres on Buckthorn. The Credit Union was a extension of our home - the home office. My father, John Marble & grandfather, Albert Marble (grandmother Dorthy Marble) were involved in the development of the credit union movement. I see it is still in existence and thriving. I plan on attending the event August 2011. I have great memories of the years I spent growing up in the neighborhood. The library, lagoon, tobagonning, and summers at the beach.

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  8. Hi Buzz,
    I live in Westacres and have basically reverted my property to its original function: a suburban farm. I have a CSA (community supported agriculture) where I grow organic vegetables for 20 families and sell my lettuce and salad greens at the Birmingham Farmers Market. I also have a small flock of pastured chickens (battling the township as we speak) that produce the most beautiful, healthful eggs. I intend to farm other yards in Westacres to feed the community, local schools and restaurants in its purest sense! I encourage others to do the same. We need local food, produced where the people are! Check out my blog about my endeavors: www.1acrefarm.blogspot.com

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  9. I was telling my two oldest grandchildren that live in Ten Sleep, Wyoming, about my very special childhood in Westacres. Loved the beach, riding my bike, ice skating at lagoon, the library and so much more. I married and left Westacres in 1965. A very, very unique and special place. So happy others continue to enjoy it & preserve high quality of life there.

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  10. I will add my thoughts. . .I grew up in Westacres having moved there on my 4th birthday. I think, so often, about the desperate times Michigan is facing now.
    Today's upper classes have no inkling of what motivated the founders and builders of Westacres. There was no profit motive there. Those men were motivated by the need to see those so ravaged by the depression find a way to step up and thrive.

    Those gardens grew more than vegetables!!!

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  11. Buzz, This is really wonderful, and the comments are golden.

    I totally stumbled on Westacres as I was looking at Albert Kahn buildings (I'm a Michigan architecture alum), saw the James Couzens mansion, looked him up, and found Westacres. What a story! what a place! what a guy Couzens was! Thanks for the post.

    paul oberst architect, toronto

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