Mutual Ownership Defense Housing

On January 26, 2014 · 0 Comments

My reference to Audubon Park, New Jersey in For More Birds revealed an historic experiment in middle class public housing. In that instance the earlier residents of Audubon voted the newly-arrived shipyard workers out of their borough which led to the creation of a separate Audubon Park borough. That anecdote revealed a short-lived and little known corner of the United States government’s Federal Works Agency, a unit called the Mutual Ownership Defense Housing Division. Eight housing developments were constructed under the auspices of the program circa 1940-1942, one of which was Audubon Park.



View Mutual Ownership Defense Housing in a larger map

The original idea had been pitched a few years earlier by Col. Lawrence Westbrook within the spirit of a latter phase of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Administration promptly mothballed it. The underlying concept was rooted in Progressivism. In this instance middle class home ownership was considered socially desirable and beneficial, and the government should take steps to promote it.

Increased home ownership could be fostered by mutual or cooperative arrangements according to the theory. The government would leverage its capabilities to construct housing and would then ease ownership over to cooperative boards as residents could support it. This was a type of ownership still not very common in the United States; where co-op boards owned all of the property and leased units back to individual residents, each of whom owned a share in the company. One sees this arrangement in places such as New York City and environs — particularly Manhattan — and only rarely elsewhere, especially for typical suburban settings.

There were other New Deal era cooperative developments elsewhere by 1940. The twist here was the program’s specific focus on national defense. The United States had already began a military buildup in the years prior to Pearl Harbor and U.S. entry into the Second World War. This required a large influx of skilled labor for factories that manufactured the machinery of war, and the workers had to live somewhere. The government dusted-off Westbrook’s idea and he moved forward with several prototypes. As described by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Cooperative housing in the United States, 1949 and 1950.

Under the defense housing program of the Federal Works Agency eight projects (the so called Westbrook projects) were designated for eventual sale to nonprofit housing corporations formed by the tenants. During the war however the dwellings were placed on a rental basis managed under the direction of the Public Housing Administration in order to insure their being available for war workers… By January 1951 the first five had successfully negotiated a purchase contract the sixth was operating the project under a lease and the last two were still under PHA management.

The eight developments totaled 4,050 units according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. They had been designed and constructed with Progressive elements including abundant shared open spaces in park-like settings. Some of them also incorporated interesting themes into their road designs and names, which I’ve done my best to describe based on my observations:

  • Audubon Park (map): Semi-Circles; Birds
  • Avion Village (map): Teardrop; Aviation Pioneers
  • Bellmawr Park (map): Ribs; Trees
  • Dallas Park: privatized – unknown
  • Pennyback Woods (map): Cul-de-sacs; Flowers and Universities
  • Greenmont Village (map): Oval; People who were notable in the 1940′s
  • Walnut Grove (map): Native American Breastplate; Trees
  • Winfield Park (map): Arcs and Geographic Contours; Oceans and Waves

My descriptions probably said more about my psychological point of view than any actually intended shapes. Feel free to provide your own Rorschach interpretations as appropriate.

I already describe Audubon Park in that earlier article so I decided to focus on a couple of other Mutual Ownership Defense Housing properties, both in Texas. One may wonder why Texas had two outliers while other projects sprouted closer to industrial areas of the Northeast and Great Lakes. Lawrence Westbrook was a Texan and he was the boss. That probably explained it.


Avion Village



Avion Village, Grand Prairie, Texas, USA

Avion Village grew next Hensley Field, later Naval Air Station Dallas and now the Grand Prairie Armed Forces Reserve Complex. The first residents of Avion Village were "civilian employees of the North American Aviation Company" who built B-24 bombers and other aircraft for the war effort.


Maxwell B-24
Consolidated B-24 Liberator
By U.S. Air Force photos [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

An historical marker erected at the site provided additional explanation.



Avion Village, Grand Prairie Texas Historical Marker by Nicolas Henderson on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license

As early as the mid-1940s, housing was scarce in Dallas as well as in other centers of defense production and military activity throughout the nation. The private housing industry was unable to keep up with the demand for shelter in these areas. Some federal officials saw the situation as an opportunity for experimentation in architecture and planning, as well as establishment of a pilot program aimed at lowering the cost of quality housing through the use of prefabrication and mass production building techniques. Defense housing officials also wanted to introduce industrial workers to mutual home ownership as an alternative to traditional suburban home ownership.


The Mystery of Dallas Park

I don’t have a map of Dallas Park. Seven of the eight Mutual Ownership Defense Housing properties passed successfully through the intended process and now operate as cooperative enterprises more than seventy years later. Dallas Park failed. The name seemed to have been wiped from the map; I could not locate it precisely through Intertubes searches and the Geographic Names Information System didn’t list it at all. Gone. Vanished. I gave up after longer than I’d care to admit. I’d probably offer a small reward to the first 12MC reader who could locate it on a map with definitive supporting evidence (maybe I’ll write an article about your hometown or something, like I did for Peter).

I found contemporary information from Get Your Own Home the Cooperative Way (1949),

The development of the Dallas Park Mutual Ownership Corporation covers 114 acres and is in Dallas proper… The rental for a one-bedroom apartment is $22.50 per month; and for the three-bedroom single dwelling, from $32 to $34 a month. In addition, the residents pay $6.75 to $8.50 a month for gas, light, and water. Buildings at Dallas Park are of frame and brick and were completed January 1, 1942.

Dallas Park probably reverted to private ownership soon thereafter because the switch was described as having taken place a few years earlier when reported upon in 1955. Privatization was then under consideration for other mutual ownership properties: "Basically, the conversion would involve nothing more than exchange of perpetual use contracts for warranty deeds, with accrued funds due the tenant to be applied toward the purchase price principal."

Building materials became increasingly scarce once the U.S. entered the war as a combatant. Additionally, real estate developers applied political pressure, arguing that residential construction wasn’t a government function. The experiment, while seemingly successful given the longevity of all but one of the mutual housing corporations, lost its sponsorship and support. The Mutual Ownership Defense Housing Division disbanded.

For More Birds

On January 23, 2014 · 4 Comments

I kicked-up a lot of material as I researched Audubon, Iowa in the recent For the Birds. Originally I’d hope to feature several Audubon towns in the United States — and I do believe they are found only in the United States — and was completely overwhelmed by wonderful delights in rural Iowa. Today I present the rest of the story, or at least a trio of standouts amongst the 213 different Audubon features listed in the Geographic Names Information System. Actually, a case could be made that I’ve featured three-and-a-half. One spawned another in a specific instance.

Audubon, Pennsylvania



Audubon Mill Grove House by Montgomery County Planning Commission
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license

I began with Audubon, Pennsylvania since that particular spot had a genuine, tangible connection to John James Audubon through a property called Mill Grove. He moved there in 1803 when he was 18 years old. Only weeks earlier he’d been known as Jean-Jacques Fougère Audubon — He adopted his anglicized name as he boarded a ship to immigrate to the United States. The young Jean-Jacques started with a bit of stigma during his earliest years although he flourished once he arrived at Mill Grove, as the National Audubon Society explained,

Audubon was born in Saint Domingue (now Haiti), the illegitimate son of a French sea captain and plantation owner and his French mistress… he was sent to America, in part to escape conscription into the Emperor Napoleon’s army. He lived on the family-owned estate at Mill Grove, near Philadelphia, where he hunted, studied and drew birds, and met his wife, Lucy Bakewell. While there, he conducted the first known bird-banding experiment in North America, tying strings around the legs of Eastern Phoebes; he learned that the birds returned to the very same nesting sites each year.

The National Audubon Society now manages the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove and operates a museum on the historic site.



Mill Grove, Audubon, Pennsylvania, USA

The adjacent town of Audubon served as a fitting tribute, with streets labeled for birds that starred in Audubon’s artworks: Lark; Owl; Sparrow; Thrush; Cardinal; Wren and so on.


Audubon Park, New Jersey



Audubon Park, New Jersey, USA

Audubon Park also had historical significance albeit of a much more recent vintage, and completely unrelated to John James Audubon. The United States government constructed Audubon Park to house workers employed at the nearby New York Shipbuilding Corporation’s shipyard in Camden during the Second World War. The United States needed ships and workers needed a place to live. Audubon Park offered a solution.

Audubon Park was a part Audubon Borough until the borough held a referendum in 1947 and voted Audubon Park out of Audubon. As New Jersey’s Courier-Post explained,

Secession from Audubon was Audubon’s idea, with the cost of educating Audubon Park’s children a point of contention. Politics, though, was really at the heart of the move… Audubon Village was Democratic while Audubon leaned Republican. Audubon outnumbered its neighbor at the polls and the referendum passed.

Apparently the thought of commingling with blue-collar shipyard workers was too much for original residents to bear. Audubon Park got the boot and became its own borough.

Like the Audubon in Pennsylvania, Audubon Park in New Jersey featured numerous streets named for birds. I counted about twenty five different species.


Audubon, Minnesota



Audubon, Minnesota, USA

Similarly, the Audubon located in Minnesota hid an interesting origin assuming its true. Audubon was one of the many towns that emerged along railroad tracks in the latter half of the 19th Century America. An old book, A Pioneer History of Becker County Minnesota (1907), described How Audubon Received its Name when railroad officials traveled through the region investigating potential routes.

About the middle of August, 1871, Mr. Thomas H. Canfield came through on a tour of inspection, and with him was quite a party of aristocratic looking people, and they camped where the Audubon depot now stands. The prairies were then covered with flowers and lilies, and there were several ladies in the party who were filled with admiration at the beauty of the surrounding country, and I remember that one lady asked Mr. Canfield if a railroad station could ever be established there that it be called Audubon. Another man took out a memorandum book and noted down this request. I afterwards learned that the lady was a niece of John J. Audubon, the great American naturalist.

I have my doubts about the accuracy of an anecdote recalled a quarter-century after the fact from something someone "learned" from someone else. Maybe John James Audubon had a niece who traveled through Minnesota in the 1870′s. I don’t know. I couldn’t find any such niece after a perfunctory Intertubes search for whatever that’s worth. It still made a great story though.

Menacing Island

On January 5, 2014 · 1 Comments

I spied an island full of deviants. What else could explain a cluster of geographic features with names such as Freak, Lunatic, Menace, Germ, Moron, Filthy and Maniac? I plotted my discoveries along with several other bizarre placenames I’d encountered within a single map. This included the only spot in the United States named, and I kid you not, Nazi — as in Nazi Creek — according to my search of the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS). They all tracked to remote Kiska Island, part of the Rat Island grouping in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands chain.



View Kiska Island Oddities in a larger map

I’d found the first couple of features accidentally. Others revealed themselves as I pulled at threads, and pulled some more. Every bump, every crevice, every rivulet, every rock, every windswept plain seemed to have a name. Some were labeled oddly like the ones I marked on my map while others reflected topics rather more ordinary and mundane. They also seemed to cluster alphabetically, with L-named features near other L-named features, and likewise for F and M and so on.

What could possibly account for such an unusual clustering and concentration of geographic features in a place so remote and desolate? The story began to appear as I consulted Geological Survey Professional Paper, Volume 567 (Google eBook) 1967, "Dictionary of Alaska Place Names." For instance, with Lunatic Lake the dictionary said "An arbitrary name beginning with ‘L’ to correspond to ‘L’ grid used by the U.S. Army for tactical purposes during World War II; published on a 1943 Army map." The reference provided a similar explanation for other Kiska Island features and other letters of the alphabet.


I’d stumbled upon the remnants of battlefield planning



Allied troops invade Kiska island in the Aleutians

The Japanese invaded and occupied a part of the United States during a mostly-forgotten phase of the Second World War. It’s been largely overshadowed and obscured by much more famous military campaigns both in the Pacific and throughout Europe during the conflict. Japanese forces captured Attu and Kiska Islands in 1942. While remote, these islands were strategic. They both sat along shipping lanes between North America and Asia. Potentially, whichever side controlled geography through this slot could use the islands as bases to disrupt enemy maneuvers or to launch attacks against the other.



The Pivotal Placement of Kiska Island

Most of a year would pass before Allies amassed sufficient forces and priority to even attempt to dislodge the dug-in Japanese troops from their Aleutian strongholds. Attu’s liberation arrived in May 1943. The fighting and the weather had been ferocious, with thousands of U.S. casualties plus a last-ditch suicide charge that left all but a handful of Japanese soldiers dead.

The Allies learned their lesson and would arrive better prepared when they got to Kiska Island. They amassed a much larger force of thirty-thousand Americans and five thousand Canadians, many trained in the intricacies of winter warfare.


Kiska Island 1943
Kiska Island 1943 in Wikimedia Commmons
via Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license

Operation Cottage would begin with rounds of shelling and bombardment then transition to separate invasions on different parts of the island beginning August 15, 1943. Allied forces stormed the beaches only to discover… the Japanese had abandoned Kiska a couple of weeks earlier. Even so friendly-fire mishaps occured in the fog and confusion, booby traps and mines maimed others, and cold weather took an inevitable toll. Allied casualties amounted to 168 soldiers including 71 killed on the destroyer USS Abner Reed when it struck a mine while patrolling near the island.

The place names I’d stumbled upon marked each of the significant geographic features on Kiska in a logical manner. Those would have served as preordained reference points during the retaking of Kiska had the Japanese not slipped away a few days earlier. I was not able to locate the original 1943 Army map, however, the names and locations survived within the U.S. Geological Survey’s database.


The Place Names Weren’t the Only Artifacts



Japanese Anti-Aircraft Guns by akseabird on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license

Evidence of Japanese occupation and the Allies’ response remained remarkably well preserved within the National Park Service Kiska Battlefield. As described in the Anchorage Daily News, Forgotten battlefield: Museum offers rare look at Kiska war relics:

Kiska is far and away the most significant intact battlefield remaining from World War II… Critical to the survival of Kiska’s relics has been its remoteness. Nearly 1,400 miles west of Anchorage, 800 miles east of Kamchatka, the island was so out-of-the-way that even the intrepid Russian fur hunters avoided it… “You can stand on a hill and look down at the valley and see the piers, the airstrips, the Japanese telephone poles, depressions for the Allies’ tents, thousands of them. It’s massive. And, 70 years later, it’s all still there.”

Hangman’s Ridge, Leper Lake and Mangy Hill might have become well-known battlefield names had events unfolded differently. Now they stand nearly forgotten along with the many physical scars on Kiska’s barren landscape.

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