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This story by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 19, 1999.
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Open House for a Utopia
If Utopia is understood to mean a place that is unattainable,
then Jersey Homesteads — now known as Roosevelt, New Jersey —
was a quintessentially Utopian settlement. Its founders dreamed of
self-sufficiency through community farmland, a cooperative clothing
factory, and cooperative store. Yet by the time Ben Shahn completed
his 45-foot celebratory fresco mural in 1938, both the community farm
and factory were failing.
Nevertheless, Shahn and his wife, Bernarda Bryson Shahn, were drawn
back to Jersey Homesteads to live in 1939. There he and his wife lived
and raised three children until Shahn’s death 30 years later, in 1969.
And the very presence of the charismatic Shahn, his artist-wife, and
their artistic progeny helped transform Roosevelt’s focus from farming
to the arts.
Today Roosevelt is known as a bucolic haven for artists and their
families, just minutes from Hightstown and the turnpike. Shahn’s widow,
Bernarda Bryson Shahn, herself an artist and illustrator, and their
son Jonathan, a sculptor, continue to live there.
During its founding years, this New Jersey outpost represented one
of the boldest and fully-realized American experiments in social engineering.
Ben Shahn’s 45-foot-long fresco mural, executed in the Roosevelt Public
School over a nine-month period beginning in 1937, is arguably the
most comprehensive artist’s statements of community to be found in
Roosevelt has long been a town of concerts, meetings, and celebrations
of all kinds, fortified by home-made cakes. This Saturday and Sunday,
May 22 and 23, Roosevelt celebrates its special spirit, then and now,
with its first official "Festival of the Arts," a two-day
celebration of its arts, artists, and history.
The Roosevelt Public School gym will be transformed into a gallery
to exhibit the work of more than 25 resident visual artists, with
performances by the town’s musicians and poets. The historic focus
of the festival will be a ceremony to dedicate a plaque commemorating
the original Jersey Homesteaders, and the unveiling (Sunday, at 2
p.m.) of the restored metal-relief school doors, created by artist
Otto Wester, that lead the way to Shahn’s historic mural.
Among the highlights of the two-day schedule of events is town historian
and original homesteader Arthur Shapiro speaking on the town history,
and Bernarda Bryson Shahn who will present a talk about Shahn’s mural.
Admission for the weekend is $10 for adults; children free. Collaborating
organizations are the Roosevelt Arts Project, Roosevelt Historic Commission,
and the Roosevelt Public School.
Roosevelt was one of the first of the planned relocation communities
undertaken by the Federal government in the 1930s. Part of newly-elected
president Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal program, it was designed
and financed to provide recovery and relief for garment workers suffering
from the deprivations of the Great Depression. The arts were integral
to the creation of the town. The unique town plan and cohesive design
was developed by architect and town planner Albert Kastner, an emigre
from Germany who had been strongly influenced by the Bauhaus school.
The town’s assistant principal architect and co-designer was a young
unknown Philadelphia architect named Louis I. Kahn. Kastner invited
Shahn to create a mural in the lobby of the town’s school which, then
as now, doubled as a community center.
In 1936, Jersey Homesteads’ first 120 families settled into their
new white bungalows. Individually selected by Benjamin Brown, the
idea man behind the town’s founding, each family had to scrape together
$500 — for many, their life’s savings — to purchase shares
in the community’s cooperative garment factory, farm, and store. Houses
were rented to the workers for the sum of $13 per month.
Jersey Homesteads changed its name in 1945, shortly after President
Franklin D. Roosevelt died, to honor him and his efforts on behalf
of the workers and community. In the 1980s, during the town’s 50th
anniversary year, the town of Roosevelt was named a National Historic
Public School, Roosevelt, 609-426-4583. The weekend celebration of
the arts, artists, and history of Roosevelt. Weekend admission $10;
children free. Saturday, May 22, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday,
May 23, noon to 6 p.m.
Saturday’s arts attractions include: Howie Jacobson, folk musician,
noon; Judy Trachtenberg, folk singer, 1 p.m.; Bernarda Bryson Shahn
gives a mural talk at 1:45 p.m.; Judith McNally and Wes Czyzewski,
poetry reading, 2 p.m.; David Brahinsky, folk singer, 3 p.m.; David
Herrstrom and David Keller, poetry reading, 4 p.m.; Anita Cervantes,
piano recital, 5 p.m.
Sunday’s scheduled events: Rod Tulloss and Dina Coe, poetry reading,
noon; Allan Mallach, piano concert, 1 p.m.; dedication of a plaque
to the original Roosevelt settlers, unveiling of restored WPA doors,
and storytelling by Art Shapiro, 2 p.m.; Bernarda Bryson Shahn, mural
talk, 2:45 p.m.; Cat Doty and Pablo Medina, poetry reading, 3 p.m.;
Ed and Sue Cedar, music and song, 4 p.m.; and poetry open mike, 5
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