Greenhills: A New Deal historic landmark strives to attract new residents with community and safety

It could be argued, persuasively, that Greenhills, Ohio was the first suburb in the entire U.S. of A.

Long before New York’s Levittown, declared by history books to be the nation’s first suburb, was built in the early ‘50s, 375 acres of farmland 15 miles north of the city of Cincinnati was planned, platted, and 676 affordable living units designed and built to encourage urban dwellers to move out to the fresh air and green environs beyond the hubbub of the city.

The first residents of the planned community of Greenhills moved there in 1938. The country had already endured 10 years of the Great Depression. FDR, through a series of programs known as the New Deal, was investing huge sums into efforts to put Americans back to work and put money in their pockets. One of these programs was called what today sounds like an almost Soviet-style name: the Resettlement Administration. One of the RA’s efforts was a social experiment to build a series of communities with modern, affordable, community-oriented housing, featuring cul-de-sacs, sidewalks, and well-designed public facilities ringed by greenspace.

“The overall emphasis was on providing a comfortable and convenient living arrangement for lower-income Americans, while offering the amenities and spaciousness commonly associated with upper-income neighborhoods,” reads a U.S. Department of Interior history of the town.

Greenhills is surrounded by the 2,500 acres of Winton Woods, one of the largest parks in the county. The New Deal plan had a utopian aspect to it. Three towns were built before the project ran out of funds and opposition to the program began forming in Congress: Greenbelt, Md., Greendale, Wisc., and Greenhills, Ohio.

Today, the historic legacy of Greenhills is still evident in its narrow, winding streets, quiet neighborhoods, much of its housing, public buildings, and greenspace. Eighty-five years after its settlement, Greenhills is trying to balance that legacy with the changing tastes and demands of early 21st century America.

We got a tour of Greenhills from Mayor David Moore. Moore is a car guy, and as we toured the village in his Tesla Model 3, he related the story of how he moved to Greenhills in 1972. He had just bought himself a brand new, convertible Fiat roadster but didn’t have a garage for it. It so happened that a co-worker at General Electric was moving from Greenhills to neighboring Forest Park and needed to sell. “I said, ‘Well, let me see the garage,’” Moore says. The garage passed inspection, so Moore bought it -- as well as the rest of the house.

He quit GE, got a job as the safety-service director for Greenhills, beginning a long career in municipal government. Now 82, Moore has served as mayor for 10 years, and village manager for years before that. He found a niche in a small town, and now knows almost everyone, it seems, and has married many of the residents.

“I’ve always promoted it as Mayberry,” he says. “A friendly town.”

A few years ago, one of those list-making publications ranked Greenhills as the safest neighborhood in Cincinnati. When a local TV station came out to interview Moore about it, he mentioned that some residents don’t even bother to lock their doors, a comment that drew some rebukes from safety-conscious Greenhillians.  

While four-lane Winton Road runs through the middle of town, there’s really no other through street in Greenhills, and the winding streets and neighbors looking out for each other creates a natural security.

That’s exactly why 29-year-old Elliot Kugbe moved there with his wife, Christelle, and his parents about five years ago. They were renting in West Chester and searching for a place to buy. They found a four-bedroom “pretty, simple, beautiful, small house”  built in 1954 in Greenhills, but what really sold him was the reported lack of crime. The real estate website they were using showed no serious crimes in the community for many years previously. None.

“Like, nothing ever happened there,” Kugbe says. “I was like, is that even possible?”

Many real estate companies have since dropped crime rate data from their websites, but information from shows that the overall crime rate in Greenhills is far below the national average.

“It's very peaceful,” he says. “It’s a very peaceful place.”

Greenhills’ core neighborhood, mainly west of Winton Road, is a National Historic Landmark, thanks to its status as a model community of FDR’s New Deal.  Some of the dwellings built in the ‘30s are two-, three-, and four-bedroom duplexes that came to be known as “the barracks.” These were designed in a modernistic, architectural style known as the International Style with flat roofs and linear design. There are also single-family houses with slate roofs designed in more of a Colonial style. The architects in the ‘30s took pains to vary the styles of the planned community so it didn’t look so … planned.

Residents moved into the New Deal community beginning in 1938.The designers also included a village center with a retail center that still stands along Winton Road, and a community building and a public swimming pool, both still recognizable as structures of the Art Deco era.  

But houses don’t last forever, especially those built by the government during the Depression and designed to be affordable to the working class. Some of the original duplexes fell into the hands of absentee landlords and were allowed to deteriorate. The village eventually acquired many of them, tried without success to sell them, and could not afford restoration. Since the early 2000s, dozens of the original apartments have been torn down. Many that are still standing are rentals and in need of rehab and maintenance.

“They ran over cost, so the government had to reduce the cost, so they reduced the type of housing, the value of the housing,” Moore says. “The government eliminated basements and cut corners in other ways to save money. If they were units that were owned by landlords there were more potential problems for deterioration.”

“It’s a battle” to keep the New Deal housing in decent shape, says Ockie Hoffmann. He’s a Greenhills original, born there in 1940, and has served as mayor and on council in the years since.  “We got rid of some of the blight, but it’s still a battle.”

The village found a developer to build infill housing at the sites of the teardowns, but the 2008 financial crisis ended that plan. Now, in the still-hot housing market, Sibcy Cline is selling new, yet-to-be-built condominiums on Dewitt Street that will have the kinds of amenities many buyers want: walk-in closets, open layouts, deluxe primary bathroom. Another selling point – a 15-year property tax abatement. And a sleek design reminiscent of the Depression-era landmarks that once stood on those lots. The list price for a three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath, two-car garage condo is $325,000.

Design renderings of condos now for sale.It's the kind of development that could bring in new families while remaining cognizant of the historic nature of the neighborhood. Hoffmann would like to see that happen. The 83-year-old has lived in the community his entire life. His father owned a butcher shop in the West End, and moved the young family out to what was a brand new, green community, with modern, government-built housing. “We were called ‘pioneers,’” he says.

They moved into a two-bedroom townhouse, one of the “barracks,” on Foxworth Lane. Over the years, the family grew to seven children, necessitating a move to a larger home on Chalmers Court. Hoffmann eventually purchased the Chalmers Court property from his parents and moved his family into that house.

 A few years ago, he moved again, but stayed in Greenhills, in the district. “I never thought of leaving,” he says. His three grown sons have also stayed in the community, and raised their own families there.

Hoffmann still gives his time to the all-volunteer Greenhills Fire Department, as do two of his sons, four of his grandchildren, his wife, who runs the office, and a daughter-in-law, who handles the financial filings. All volunteers. “It’s sort of a family thing,” he says.

Greenhills is trying to manage its historic legacy with limited resources. Its main source of revenue is its income tax, but its population has declined over the last 20 years to about 3,700 now. It’s in the process of applying to become a “certified local government,” a National Park Service program meant to demonstrate a commitment to historic preservation and protecting cultural resources. The designation could result in funding and technical assistance to help with preservation efforts. It could also bring a more intangible benefit.

“I think it’s a big marketing plus,” says Village Manager Evonne Kovach. “There are already people moving here who want to be in a historic district, and they can be assured that it will maintain its appearance and its value. I think it will keep us on the right track.”

The First Suburbs—Beyond Borders series is made possible with support from a coalition of stakeholders including Mercy Healtha Catholic health care ministry serving Ohio and Kentuckythe Murray & Agnes Seasongood Good Government Foundation - The Seasongood Foundation is devoted to the cause of good local government; LISC Greater Cincinnati LISC Greater Cincinnati supports resident-led, community-based development organizations transform communities and neighborhoods; Hamilton County Planning Partnership; plus First Suburbs Consortium of Southwest Ohio, an association of elected and appointed officials representing older suburban communities in Hamilton County, Ohio.
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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.