A Bronx Tale

In 1909, at a library in Manhattan’s Yorkville neighborhood, Abraham Kazan, a twenty-year-old union clerk who had grown up on the countryside estate of a Russian general in what is now Ukraine, and who arrived in the US aged 15 to work on a Jewish agricultural colony in New Jersey, met an older Scottish anarchist named Thomas Hastie Bell. A friend of Peter Kropotkin, Emma Goldman and Oscar Wilde, Bell had recently been arrested for political organizing in France and had once shouted in the face of Tsar Nicholas II. He made a deep impression on Kazan, introducing him to the philosophy of cooperatives – ‘that men can help themselves if they try to combine their forces and work together’. Soon, Kazan joined Bell’s Cooperative League, which met on the Lower East Side and operated a hat store and a restaurant.

As Kazan worked his way up through the powerful International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and, later, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, he continued his studies of cooperatism. In 1920, after successfully wholesaling sugar and matzos to union members, he put his ideas to the test by opening a cooperative grocery store. But his dream was to build cooperative housing that would undercut New York’s notorious landlord class. ‘The question in my mind at the time was, “Why couldn’t 50 people . . . join their forces and put together the required equity money and buy a house and own it, and not be subject to rent increases or any other problems such as confront people who live in somebody else’s house?”’

The passage of New York State’s 1926 Housing Act gave Kazan the chance he needed. The law allowed for the creation of limited dividend corporations, which granted developers a twenty-year exemption from property taxes provided a third of the capital was raised from shareholders, and that dividends and rents were limited. Under Kazan’s initiative, the Amalgamated soon formed the state’s first limited dividend corporation and, only a year later, opened the Amalgamated Cooperative Apartment House in the Bronx, where rents were capped at $11 per month. Thriftily using brick that had arrived as ballast on Dutch ships, yet featuring oversized neo-Tudor façades and dumbwaiters to bring ice to residents’ iceboxes, the development gained a reputation as a worker’s idyll. Kazan himself moved in, and went on to build cooperative housing across New York City. But it took another forty years for his vision of a ‘cooperative commonwealth’, in which workers would live and shop only in collectively owned establishments, to come closest to fruition, when Co-op City opened just a few miles from his Bronx home.

The world’s largest housing cooperative is hidden in plain sight. It is tucked away in the northeastern corner of America’s most populous city, in an area disconnected from the subway. Comprised of over 15,000 apartments in 35 towers and hundreds of townhouses on a 130-hectare site, it caused entire neighborhoods to empty as people clambered to move in. This nearly bankrupted the city and the state, shaping municipal housing policy for decades – yet Co-op City barely appears in the many urban histories of New York.

Co-op City ‘fits awkwardly or not at all into the standard narrative’ of New York’s dramatic postwar decline and revival, Annemarie Sammartino writes in Freedomland, one of two well-researched books that give the development its due. It is an outlier, she argues, because of its consistency in providing affordable housing since the 1960s to ‘residents occupying the hazy space between the working class and the lower middle class’. ‘Even if the color of these people’s skin may have changed in the ensuing five decades’, Sammartino notes, ‘their social and economic position has not’. During this period, as New York City dramatically cut public services, from local libraries to the City University of New York, Co-op City ‘weathered New York’s neoliberal transition in a way that residents of other neighbourhoods often did not’. But it was not an easy path. Its outsized ambition made Co-op City both the crowning achievement of the cooperative housing movement and its swansong.

Robert Fogelson’s Working-class Utopias begins this history earlier, describing the rise of cooperative housing in New York as one of several responses to the city’s endemic housing crises. The Bronx of the 1920s saw a cooperative renaissance. In 1927 alone, the year that the Amalgamated Houses opened, Jewish Communist and Socialist groups inaugurated three other sizable cooperative apartment complexes. The depression and World War II slowed the construction of cooperatives, but in 1951 Kazan formed the United Housing Foundation (UHF) to expand the movement again in the prewar spirit. In 1955, two state senators sponsored what became known as the Mitchell-Lama act to stimulate the construction of affordable housing; five years later, a Housing Finance Agency (HFA) was created to enact the law by offering long-term, low-interest mortgages to cooperatives. As well as seeking funding from banks and the state, cooperatives relied on economic support from labour unions, insurance companies and of course the ‘cooperators’ themselves, as the tenants were endearingly known.

Kazan cultivated a somewhat unlikely partnership with city planner Robert Moses, who was typically hostile to unions but who shared Kazan’s contempt for slums, as well as his conviction that entire neighbourhoods could be razed. Both of them dreamed of scale. In the early 1960s, the UHF significantly expanded its developments: Brooklyn’s Amalgamated Warbasse Houses have over 2,500 apartments; Penn South, in midtown Manhattan, has nearly 3,000; a group of buildings known as Cooperative Village, on the Lower East Side, comprises 4,500; while Rochdale Village in Queens contains nearly 6,000 units. By 1964, the UHF had built twenty-three large cooperatives that provided housing for over 100,000 people in four of the city’s five boroughs, amounting to half of all affordable housing constructed in postwar New York. At the same time, the failure of public officials to rehouse the tens of thousands of New Yorkers displaced by slum clearance had become impossible to ignore. Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr. called relocation the city’s ‘number one problem’. Proposals for redevelopment were met with increasingly intense protest.

No one would have to be displaced from the land where Co-op City would be constructed. The site of a failed American history-themed amusement park called Freedomland, it was a marshy and uneven tract on Pelham Bay. Its vacancy made it attractive, but it would need to be rezoned, and it lacked sewer mains and other essential amenities, necessitating a close relationship with the city and state from the outset. The HFA agreed to provide $261 million of the $285 million the UHF needed to purchase the land in 1964 and build the enormous complex, which required transporting tonnes of dredged sand from Coney Island to fill in wetlands, and driving thousands of steel pylons into bedrock. The city agreed to build infrastructure such as schools and planned to extend the subway to the site (which never happened). The long-term, low-interest loan from the state, and a 50% tax abatement from the city, ensured that apartments would cost an affordable $450 per room, plus around $20 in monthly carrying charges, while Co-op City’s inclusion in the Mitchell-Lama programme meant that cooperators could earn no more than seven times the carrying charges. When the UHF broke ground in 1966, the New York Times reported that ‘officials of the United Housing Foundation say Co-op City will be the world’s largest apartment development, including any built in the Soviet Union since World War II’.

Co-op City attracted fierce criticism for its twenty-four-, twenty-six- and thirty-three-storey high-rise towers designed by Hermon Jessor, whose style Sammartino compares to that of late modernist social housing in the GDR. Sammartino notes that Jane Jacobs, in The Life and Death of Great American Cities, ‘reserves particular contempt for the UHF’s Lower East Side cooperatives . . . She chastises the affiliated cooperative supermarket for its lack of friendliness’. Fogelson recalls that a group of academic architects told the mayor and governor that Co-op City represented ‘the negation of the ideals of the Great Society’. But the old union executives running the UHF could not have cared less. They understood their role as providing ‘the best possible housing at the lowest possible price’ and allowing people to shop at the cooperatively run grocery stores, banks, daycares, pharmacies and opticians that eventually opened in the complex. UHF leaders harboured ‘an almost perverse pride in Co-op City’s lack of charm’, writes Sammartino. As Harold Ostroff, Kazan’s longtime assistant and the executive vice-president of the UHF, explained, ‘We do not subscribe to the theory that people become frustrated, alienated or dehumanized by the size and shape of buildings. What is important is for people to have the opportunity to live in dignity and self-respect with their neighbours’. Less than two months after Co-op City was unveiled, almost 15,000 people had applied to live there. After the groundbreaking ceremony, Ostroff declared optimistically that the UHF was ready to build forty Co-op Cities to solve New York’s slum problem once and for all.

A lot happened between 1964, when the UHF bought the Freedomland tract, and 1968, when Co-op City opened. Co-op City had been promoted as a solution to white flight from urban neighborhoods but came to be seen as a cause of it. Sammartino writes that despite the universalist aims of the UHF, ‘in practice most residents of UHF cooperatives were Jewish, or involved in the labour movement, or both’. In her estimate, Co-op City was over 70% Jewish when it opened, and a large number of these residents moved from the West Bronx, especially the area around Grand Concourse. This alarmed the administration of John Lindsay, the liberal Republican mayor elected in 1965, who was concerned that entire Bronx neighborhoods would be destabilized by such a dramatic demographic shift, and that non-whites would be left out of Co-op City. Herman Badillo, the Bronx Borough president, told Lindsay, ‘Everybody knows that the word “co-op” is a synonym for “Jewish housing”’. Under pressure from the NAACP, the UHF advertised outside of Jewish labour circles to attract more black tenants while continuing to stress that its priority was economic integration. In 1970, when the Black Caucus at Co-op City denounced a board election that saw no people of colour elected, they put forward a controversial resolution that called for an additional seat set aside for ‘any non-white Jew, or any person other than the Jewish faith’. The resolution passed. By 1972, when tenants moved into the final section of Co-op City, the racial demographics reflected those of the city as a whole.

That year, construction costs had run about $150 million over the original estimate. Cracks were beginning to appear in walls in each tower, pylons were sinking, and miles of pipes already needed to be replaced. There were also instances of alleged corruption, such as the hiring of Kazan’s nephew to design a power plant that never worked, and the cost of Kazan’s extravagant, shareholder-backed retirement party in 1968. (He died in 1971.) Perhaps most significantly, interest rates shot up on the government-backed bonds that financed Co-op City, which meant that the UHF planned to pass on the cost of its ballooning mortgage to cooperators in the form of rising carrying charges.

The UHF and Riverbay, the corporation it formed to run Co-op City, required new residents to undertake multipart courses on cooperative philosophy. But as Sammartino and Fogelson both observe, the utopian rhetoric of Co-op City tended to dissipate in the face of mundane matters such as carrying charges, which the UHF, now headed by Ostroff, raised by 15% in 1970, 35% over three years beginning in 1971, and an additional 20% in 1973. Ostroff was just as radical as his boss, Kazan. Raised in the Amalgamated Houses by anarcho-syndicalist immigrant parents, he had wanted to convert even the sprawling cemeteries in Brooklyn and Queens, along with a slice of Central Park, into cooperative housing. Now he was in the difficult position of negotiating with cooperators and tried to blame the rising carrying costs on the state and its mortgages. Yet as Sammartino writes, ‘the majority of residents saw the UHF as part of the same power structure that was imposing the cost increase in the first place’. In 1974, cooperators formed a Steering Committee to address the rising charges, by striking if necessary.

The following year, a charismatic, thirty-two-year-old union typographer by the name of Charles Rosen became head of the Committee. The child of Jewish immigrant anarchists, Rosen was widely read in the history of the left and a member of the Maoist Progressive Labor Party. Carrying charges had gone up 250% since Co-op City opened, and that summer Rosen helped spur a strike. Sammartino observes that ‘the New York Jews who made up most of Co-op City’s population were generally undeterred by his political views, which were – if somewhat more colorful than most – certainly not as far removed from the mainstream as they might have been in many other places in America at the time’. Residents were easy to organize in the lobbies of the towers they had to pass through daily, and support for a strike was overwhelming. Cooperators were instructed to write out rent checks, which were collected and hidden in secret locations, while mimeograph machines churned out literature around the clock thanks to Rosen’s expertise as a printer. Sammartino argues that ‘Rosen’s Marxism was central to his understanding of why the rent strike had to happen and how it would be won’. UHF leaders maintained a paternalistic attitude, criticizing residents for showing a ‘lack of cooperative values’. Despite threats of eviction, and a trial of Rosen and other strike leaders for contempt, cooperators hung on until the HFA made moves to foreclose on Co-op City. Thirteen months into the strike, the Steering Committee and New York Governor Hugh Carey struck a deal that would allow cooperators to run Co-op City if they handed over their checks, which they did, in hundreds of boxes that filled up the Bronx County Courthouse.

While Fogelson ends his book after the rent strike, Sammartino carries the narrative forward to 1995. The Steering Committee ran into the same problems as the UHF. Unable to pay its mortgage or afford construction repairs (which the state eventually funded), Co-op City stopped paying city taxes. In 1979, Mayor Ed Koch threatened Co-op City with foreclosure again before coming to an agreement to gradually raise carrying charges over the next six years in exchange for a state loan to offset operating expenses.

The demographic shifts that had affected so many other parts of New York City eventually reached Co-op City. According to census data, in 1990, the complex’s black and white populations had evened out at 40% each, with 18% of residents identifying as Hispanic (and an additional 2% in none of these categories). Sammartino cautions against understanding this as ‘white flight’, noting that the elderly population of Co-op City was always whiter than the rest of the development. ‘What caused Co-op City to become less white was not so much that white people moved out but that so few white people moved in’, she writes. Nonetheless, some of the conditions that caused white flight in other areas, such as a rise in crime, did touch Co-op City, although not as much, in part due to close coordination of residents, both black and white, with local law enforcement. ‘Two decades after it had been constructed, there were few utopians left in Co-op City. Instead, Co-op City’s residents were hard-bitten realists’. Today, monthly carrying charges for a one-bedroom apartment in Co-op City are well below the citywide average. Co-op City is majority-black and still home to a Jewish community and radical labour leaders such as Bhairavi Desai, the head of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. Charles Rosen lives there to this day.

At the heart of Co-op City is the tension between the old utopianism and the new. Union leaders’ vision of economic equality conflicted with, but eventually accommodated, the demands for racial justice that characterized New York liberal politics of the 1960s. It was this balance that helped it survive ‘the supposed transition between the urban liberal era to the neoliberal era’, argues Sammartino. Another key factor was Co-op City’s sheer size, which gave it political power in Albany, the capital of New York state, and, due to the quantity of its debt, leverage in the rent strike. Sammartino also suggests that the persistence of a belief in the value of living in a multiracial community helped Co-op City residents avoid the racial tension that plagued other New York neighbourhoods. But these ideals were isolated from the broader philosophy of a cooperative commonwealth. Even at the height of Co-op City’s financial troubles and existential crises, ‘Riverbay and others rarely made a larger case about the importance of either subsidized housing or the cooperative model’.

Fogelson’s conclusion is harsh – Co-op City ‘was not the wave of the future, not in New York City and not anywhere else in the United States’ – while Sammartino’s is more optimistic: ‘It is possible to imagine a way in which Co-op City would represent the vanguard of a better America rather than its past’. Yet both authors acknowledge the utopianism at the heart of the cooperative endeavor. Sammartino lingers on Co-op City’s streets, named after figures such Edward Bellamy, Eugene Debs, Theodore Dreiser, George Washington Carver and Sholem Asch. Bellamy’s 1888 novel, Looking Backward, tells the story of a man who falls into a century-long sleep only to awaken in the year 2000 and find the United States has become a socialist utopia. To walk Bellamy Loop and Debs Place today, or for that matter Kazan Street on the Lower East Side, surrounded by thousands of affordable homes, is to tour a past generation’s version of the future. In such moments, one feels that it is those outside of the cooperatives who have yet to awaken from their slumber.

Read on: Alexander Zevin, ‘Unchanging New York’, Sidecar.