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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

America today.

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

District.

Festival of the Arts, Roosevelt Arts Project, Roosevelt

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

p.m.


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