Last week the Washington Post reported on “slugging“: a form of cooperative ride sharing that combines attributes of carpooling and hitchhiking. Coincidentally, I was doing oral history interviews last week with several original members of a Silver Spring housing cooperative founded in the early 1950s by a group of federal workers who wanted to abandon their Washington apartments for suburban homeownership. Carpooling quickly became a commuting mainstay and it became a vehicle for creating social networks in the new subdivision and between emerging suburban developments.
The Housing Act of 1950 enabled the Federal Housing Administration to insure mortgages for cooperative housing developments by nonprofit entities. Between 1950 and 1955, 292 projects were approved by the FHA. Most of the projects approved were built in New York City and its suburbs. Three of the Section 213 projects were built in the Maryland suburbs: the Booker T. Washington Homes in Seat Pleasant, Prince George’s County; the Naval Ordinance Laboratories’ Burnt Mills Knolls cooperative; and, the Northwood Park Housing Cooperative development in Silver Spring.
The cooperative housing model opened up homeownership to diverse groups of people unable to buy homes using traditional financing tools. Section 213 cooperatives were divided into two types: management and sales cooperatives. Management cooperatives were multi-story, multi-family apartments and sales cooperatives were single-family residences. Many cooperatives were organized by veterans, labor unions, government employees, teachers, and religious groups. Membership in a housing cooperative ensured a guaranteed mortgage, low housing costs, and a place in a voluntary community with others who shared common goals and identities.
In 1951 a group of mainly Jewish federal workers founded Northwood Park Housing, Inc., and bought 10 acres of Silver Spring farmland. The cooperative designed and built 44 homes, four of which continue to be occupied by their original owners. I am doing oral histories with residents, including surviving founders, to supplement documentary research for papers I am writing. Leo Gershenson is one of the cooperative’s founding members I interviewed. Leo spent much of his career working for the U.S. Department of Labor and he shared his memories of moving to Washington after the Second World War. He told me how he and his fellow cooperative members put together a business organization to acquire land for the new housing development, secured funding, designed the houses, oversaw site preparation and construction, and built a community. One of the stories Leo shared involved how he and his fellow federal workers adapted to life in the suburbs vis-à-vis being suddenly dependent on cars for transportation to and from work. Many of the families who moved into the Northwood Park subdivision owned only one car. In this video clip from last week’s interview, Leo talks about how the carpools worked.
Carpooling is a significant social activity. The trip to work, wrote Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, “is the single most important trip of the day.” (212). Despite its significance, there appears to be little published on carpooling as Washington’s automobile suburbs exploded after the First World War. If you know of sources on the history of carpooling in Washington and its suburbs, please drop me a line:
© 2010 David S. Rotenstein