If you look through the trees along the northbound side of the Garden State Parkway northbound, just before exit 136, you might notice an enclave of small dwellings, many connected to each other. These nicely kept one- and two-story buildings look a bit like modular housing, yet there's an air of permanence to the entire area.
You've just passed the town of Winfield, a proud enclave of just under 1500 people on a triangular 0.177 square miles of land bordered on two sides by the Rahway River. It's basically a sliver of land between Cranford, Linden and Clark, so small there are only two roads in and out of town. Many in Union County know it as a tight community where generations of families have lived in what was originally built as temporary defense worker housing during World War II.
That's partially true: residents have always been close-knit, and the town was built for defense workers, but the houses were always intended to be permanent. And Winfield holds a unique distinction among American towns: it's the only defense housing project to be established as a separate municipality.
Winfield has its roots in the months before America entered World War II. The U.S. Government's Federal Works Agency had created the Mutual Ownership Defense Housing Division to build suitable dwellings for the multitudes of workers who were being hired by manufacturers and shipbuilders supplying the armed forces and America's allies. The low-cost, permanent housing would be a boon for people who lacked enough money for a down payment: the government planned to sell the developments to their resident-owned and operated housing corporations.
Need for housing was particularly acute for employees at the Federal Shipbuilding and Drydock Company on Kearny Point, and the FWA set to work to find a large enough piece of land on which to build 700 housing units. Another 300 were built in nearby Newark and Harrison.
Actually locating the development wasn't easy, for both logistical and political reasons. The ideal location would be close to utility networks but in a community where those facilities were underused and land was inexpensive. Open tracts in and immediately around Kearny were largely marsh and easily ruled out as too difficult to develop quickly, forcing the FWA to look farther afield. Ultimately, they investigated seven different communities as possible locations.
Nearly 20 miles away, a small bit of land by the Rahway River in Clark looked ideal. Then the political challenges emerged. While Clark officials had courted the project, their constituents were concerned that the influx of new residents would change the town's character. Taxes were anticipated to double as the cost of services would increase while no new rateables would be built with the community. The issue became so contentious that the entire slate of officials who'd encouraged the project were voted out.
With local government now led by sympathetic officials, opposition leaders then came up with a plan to ensure the defense worker community would have no impact on the town's finances. If they couldn't stop the project, they'd find a way to get it declared an independent town with its own budget, taxes, services and public works obligations.
That's exactly what happened. Just after construction began on the project in June 1941, one of Union County's state assemblymen introduced a bill to establish Winfield Park as a municipality. Through legislative sleight-of-hand, the bill was rushed through both houses without opportunity for discussion or public comment. Governor Charles Edison refused to sign it into law, declaring it to be counter to the needs of national defense, but his veto was easily overturned. For better or worse, Winfield Park was now a municipality -- the only one in New Jersey owned lock, stock and barrel by Uncle Sam.
Opponents inadvertently helped create a sense of camaraderie and self-determination among Winfield residents, starting when the first pioneering 145 families moved into the incomplete town in November 1941. What they found when they arrived was less than ideal -- shoddily built homes with inconceivably poor plumbing, muddy roads and sidewalks, and no electricity -- but they made do. After residents went on a rent strike to underscore their grievances, Federal investigators found the contractor guilty of fraud and bid manipulation, forcing the FWA to hire a new company to finish the project.
Still, Winfield Park residents soldiered on, creating a town from scratch. Defense workers headed to work on a government-supplied bus (when it wasn't broken down) as their families got to know each other. Friendships grew and clubs formed, along with a volunteer ambulance squad and co-op grocery store. A grammar school opened to much fanfare in 1943. And as was originally envisioned, the Winfield Park Mutual Housing Corporation purchased the entire town from the U.S. government in 1950, paying off the mortgage in 1984.
Inevitably, with the arrival of the Garden State Parkway and greater suburbanization, the land on which Winfield sits became more valuable than the homes and small commercial area sitting on it. Though developers have periodically approached community leaders with various proposals for redeveloping the area, the residents have always said no. It appears that they like where they live and who they live with. Why change it now?