The Million Dollar Community Contest

THE Million Dollar Community Contest was announced in the July issue of the Atlantic, which reached the news stands and subscribers on Saturday, June 20. On the following Monday the first trickle reached the Atlantic office of plans that were to seem as numerous as the sands of the sea. All July they drifted heavily in — a flood slackening in August, augmenting in September, until, on the closing date, the long tables behind the editorial rooms were silted white with 8461 entries. Moreover we received corrections, additions, carbon copies, alternative plans, and scores of importunate requests for assurance that such and such a plan had been received. The manuscripts for the contest were carefully segregated and counted, but because of the enormous number the answering of anxious queries about them was all but impossible.

The envelopes bore postmarks from every part of the United States, stamped in towns as disparate as Klamath Falls, Oregon, and Biddeford, Maine; Tempe, Arizona, and Bearden, Tennessee. Canada was amply represented, and England. There were two from Warsaw and from Dublin, three from India, and several from the Philippine Islands.

The form of the manuscripts varied from that of a will, stiff with legal terms, to casually penciled letters addressed to ‘Dear Mr. Millionaire,’‘Dear Good Samaritan,’or even ‘Dear John.’ Entries were often accompanied by additional material,—pictures, newspaper clippings, or pamphlets further illuminating the sender’s idea, — or occasionally, as in the case of the winning plan, by a set of legal forms necessary in setting up the project.

It was with very real emotion that we looked into these thousands of plans, which, in spite of their diversity and the eccentricity of some of the suggestions, represent so vividly the hopes and ambitions of America for its ideal community.

The subjects of the plans fell largely into two main divisions, education and recreation, with two smaller ones of agriculture and the care of the needy. Scholarship plans of infinite variation outnumbered all the rest — traveling scholarships, exchange scholarships, music scholarships, scholarships for bright children to be leaders and average children to be followers. Also under the head of education were schemes for trade schools and vocational training, child guidance, matrimonial instruction, and civic research.

Proposals for recreation provided community centres, elaborate and complete, parks, hobby houses, gardens, forests, and swimming pools. Sanctuaries were suggested for birds, beasts, and for creative people; planetariums, aquariums, gymnasiums. There was at least one plea for a coöperative football team. Music and theatre projects were dear to many contestants, who wished for free concerts, glee clubs, community singing, drama, pantomime.

Agricultural plans included specific assistance against drought, grasshoppers and chinch bugs, as well as agricultural colleges to be operated in conjunction with a model farm or dairy.

The old are neediest, said nearly fifteen per cent of the contributors. Let the donor provide more homes for them, or model apartment houses where they can be together and independent. Children are needy, too — perfect orphanages and modern day nurseries were recommended, also shoes for unshod boys and girls, a year on a farm for every fifth-grade child.

Housing plans formed a large classification that embraced model communities, apartment or small house projects for special groups — the single woman in business, for example, or the unemployed over forty.

Religion dictated many of the proposals — for Bible schools and institutes, for spiritual retreats, for airconditioning the churches, for a sectarian hospital. One competitor wished for a fund to eliminate the collection of money during church services.

More worldly plans advocated a factory to take care of the unemployed in the community, a subsidized newspaper, a fund for cancer research, a taxfree town, socialized medicine, kindergartens, libraries, psychiatric clinics. The editors venture the guess that hardly a conception of human betterment has gone unrepresented in this contest. Merely to enumerate the variety of the proposals would occupy fourteen Atlantic pages.

A few plans were unique — for a goats’ milk dairy; a temple of poetry; one competitor wanted to buy the Parthenon and set it up in the donor’s city, another to build public baths, Roman style, a third to enforce an ordinance requiring a maximum speed for all vehicles of twelve miles an hour.

The 8461 plans were as diverse as the individuals who sent them, and in most cases bore a direct relationship to the nature and occupation of the author. Educators usually advocated scholarships, as did those who have been deeply benefited by education — lawyers and ministers. Doctors wished for hospitals and improved medicine. Many plans for the aged were written by old people or by their children, burdened with their support. Artists desired art centres or endowments for creative work. However, a woman who expressly stated that she was American and white suggested a gymnasium with a swimming pool exclusively for the use of Negroes. The majority of the imaginative and eager plans for recreation were contributed by women, but these were often impractical in nature, perhaps demanding too extensive equipment or a disproportionate initial expenditure. Although more women than men submitted plans in the contest, seventy-three of the hundred semi-finalists were written by men.

The editors watched the shape of a composite Utopia emerge from the mass of ideas and enthusiasms, and looked for a single plan that would be the synthesis of what most of the contributors considered to be of greatest benefit to a community. There were plans for old age, but more for youth; plans for amusement, but more for knowledge; plans to receive something for nothing, but more to give according to one’s capacity and to receive according to one’s need. Many were remedial ideas for the sicknesses of society, but surpassing these in number and cogency were thousands of plans building toward a broader and a richer life.

We perceived then that the winning plan should point toward the future; its beneficiaries should themselves contribute to its success. It seemed to us, as to a great number of the contestants, important that the donor should participate in his own benefaction. It was practical that the equipment and setting up of the project should consume only a small fraction of the million dollars, and that the plan should not depend for its success chiefly on the skillful administration which is not always available.

Five plans were salient from the one hundred best. Two were generous community centre projects, both by women. An English gentleman contributed an understanding proposal to encourage local craftsmanship and creative ability. A foundation or trust for the constructive use of leisure was thoughtfully designed by a New England humanitarian. Finally, a plan for the further education of high-school graduates met our exacting tests, and we awarded it the donor’s prize of one thousand dollars.

Our selection has been made on general principles. It may well be that the donor, with the advantage of intimate knowledge of a particular community, will make another choice. Certainly there is every opportunity here for a fruitful experiment in the difficult art of wise giving.