By Susan Vela
The Cincinnati Enquirer
GREENHILLS - Faced with decaying homes and struggling businesses, this village has launched a project to re-create itself to recapture the glory of the 1930s, when it was born as one of the nation's most-promoted "greenbelt" communities.
The village is spending millions to buy decrepit apartments and houses, tearing down some, refurbishing others and hoping to find a developer to build houses that will evoke Greenhills' historic charm.
It's the most expensive and ambitious project the village has seen since the New Deal experiment that created it during the Great Depression.
Next month, officials representing this community of about 4,100 residents will invite developers to build 17 single-family homes - selling for up to $275,000 on Dewitt Street. Greenhills leaders want each home to feature a front porch, small yard and other Depression-era touches.
It was built from 1935-38 as part of the federal Resettlement Administration. President Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, wanted to give unemployed men work building housing for lower- and middle-income families near large cities.
About 10,000 helped build Greenhills, with 60 percent of the labor force coming from Hamilton County's relief rolls.
676 homes were built.
The first families moved in during April 1938.
GREENHILLS NOW *
Population: 4,103 in 2000.
Total housing units: 1,687.
Median household income: $44,886.
Families below poverty level: 25 in 2000.
Owner-occupied housing units: 1,129.
Renter-occupied housing units: 510.
* Year 2000 figures
If no developer steps forward, officials say they'll build the homes themselves. They are that determined to restore the village to its pre-World War II glory, when hundreds of modest-income families flocked to its neat streets and well-planned neighborhoods.
The goal is to attract more middle- and upper-middle-income families. By changing the demographics, the Greenhills hopes to bolster business at village shops.
"Our houses are getting old. We have a lot of history and we're going to make history," said David Moore, municipal manager. "It's going to take somebody with some entrepreneurism and some vision. It's going to be hard to get a developer to buy into it. (If not), we'll become our own developer."
Many of the homes here, built during the Depression, still stand, their foot-thick walls showing little sign of wear.
But in recent years, some apartments and duplexes, built with lesser-quality materials, began falling apart. Floors caved in, walls listed and wood was so rotted it could be picked apart with a pencil. At least two structures have been abandoned or condemned.
Alarmed, officials decided to use $2.7 million raised from the sale of bonds to begin buying properties to either fix up or raze.
Village officials acknowledge that the idea carries risks, as did the one dreamed up by the Roosevelts, who put thousands of Hamilton County residents to work building this community 20 miles north of Cincinnati. But they believe it's crucial to begin the restoration now, before problems get worse, and people begin moving away.
Praise from residents
The plan is drawing praise from village residents.
"It's the right thing to do. Just pull them down and get rid of these falling apartment rentals," said Betty Senior, a Briton who was drawn to this village - an island surrounded by Winton Woods - in the early 1960s.
She and her husband, Alwyn, built their home along an almost-desolate Carini Lane. Senior stayed after her husband died of cancer in 1970. Their three young children loved building forts in the woods and walking to school in Greenhills' safe, tranquil surroundings.
"It's not what you might call beautiful architecture," said Senior, who became the first elected president of the Greenhills Historical Society. Depression-era architecture "is functional more than it's beautiful. But that's the way it was supposed to be. You might as well keep it that way. The original village had a certain style."
VickiiLeppert, 28, of Fairfield, grew up in Greenhills and still visits almost daily. She has two young children who attend Greenhills Co-op Nursery School, and two sisters who live in aging apartment buildings that have failing radiators. The women are considering a move because of their older living quarters.
Leppert credits the village for taking control of the situation.
"If they don't, who's going to?" she asked.
One of three 'greenbelts'
Greenhills was one of three "greenbelt" communities - the others are Greendale, Wis., and Greenbelt, Md. - built to put people to work and create homes near large cities for lower- and middle-income families.
Greendale, just outside of Milwaukee, also is dedicated to preserving its New Deal history. The village's historical society wrote a book about its original 572 units, which also show little sign of wear and tear, said Sally Chadwick, a village trustee.
The residences, which have survived ferocious Wisconsin winters, have concrete foundations, cinder-block walls and either lightweight tile or slate roofs in one of Milwaukee's suburbs.
"They're absolutely gorgeous," Chadwick said. "We need to preserve (them) so that we remember" how the communities came to be.
Workers began building Greenhills' 676 housing units - along with a shopping center, gas station and community building - in 1935 in the thick woods just north of Winton Lake. The town was to be modeled after England's garden cities, with clusters of streets all starting with the same letter.
Only the best materials were used for the Cape Cods and Colonial-style structures that were built in the A and B lots. There was prolific use of brick and the roofs were made of slate.
But cheaper materials were used for the buildings in the C, D and F lots, and that's where the buildings are showing their age.
Many of these buildings became rental properties after the government sold its model village in 1950 to Greenhills Homeowners Association for $3.5 million.
"We're looking to improve the community in more (ways) than one," said Mayor Ockie Hoffmann, whose parents moved to Greenhills from Cincinnati in 1939.
"We'll improve it by replacing housing that's been deteriorated and by (drawing) people who have incomes and can support the village (shopping) centers and the village schools by generating income," he said. The village hopes to at least break even on the rehabbed properties.
Reminiscent of 'Mayberry'
Village officials say it may be the only way to see improvements at the Greenhills Shopping Center, one of the first strip malls in the state. The village once offered to buy the shopping center for $2.7 million, but the owners, Walter Hirshberg and Samuel Huttenbauer, refused to sell.
Yet the old roof is a constant problem and many of the businesses' interiors have water stains.
Alex Byrnside of Byrnside Jewelers is a member of Greenhills High School Class of '72. Like others, he remembers a Greenhills reminiscent of TV's Mayberry. Everyone walked or rode bikes and - like now - spent plenty of summer nights at the Creamy Whip.
Byrnside sees an advantage in improving the housing stock and luring more residents with cash to spend.
"Water goes up, it takes everybody with it," he said.
The real test will come in August, when Greenhills will learn how outsiders take to the idea of preserving its history.
Judith Muehlenhard is a builder, Realtor, and Greenhills resident who said that her own project, Eleanor Place, could be a harbinger.
Almost four years ago, she broke ground on the first residential construction to happen here in 30 years. She had no problem finding buyers for the nine custom ranch "landominiums" that sold for $140,000 to $240,000. All the residences sit on the edge of Winton Woods park.
"Outsiders can't understand it. It's a very different place," she said. But new residents "would be there six months and they would never want to leave."
She stared at a decrepit apartment building along Dewitt Street. The village already has razed two neighboring ones to make room for the 17 homes that could help ensure Greenhills' future.
"I see things a lot differently than what it is now," she said. "It could be absolutely charming to see bungalows with porches. It's something that gets in your blood."
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