I made a discovery this morning. Three miles east of Co-Op City is more evidence of NYC’s somewhat hidden history of non-market housing. When I first arrived here (the Allerton neighbourhood of the Bronx), I noticed a very distinctive building on the corner of Allerton Avenue and Bronx Park East. I had a quick look around and asked a couple of people if they knew much about it. They didn’t. But today I found out that this was the site of one of the most ambitious experiments in co-operative living in 20th century USA.
It’s a relatively familiar story in NYC (and America), of working class people taking their housing destiny in their own hands. But the building I noticed was once the Amalgamated Workers Cooperatives – “The Coops” – a place where radical Jewish trade unionists attempted to go beyond building better homes, towards a more communitarian lifestyle and society.
Like Co-Op City, the inspiration came from the revolutionary-minded immigrants from Eastern Europe who lived in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, many of them working in the garment industry. With no obvious escape from the slumlord-owned tenements, they got organised in the workplace and at home, collecting money that helped buy the land for The Coops and others like it, many of them designed by Herman Jessor, to include social and communal facilities and – in the case of The Coops – a 20,000 book library.
The residents of The Coops lived their politics, at a time when that could be perilous, organising solidarity support for Republican Spain during the civil war and opposing evictions and racism closer to home. Please read this fascinating article from Jewish Currents for more, including some of the complex politics behind the The Coops story.
As the article describes, The Coops came to a sticky end and walking around it today, there was a slightly sad feeling of unfulfilled hope, made worse by the fact that most residents and locals today probably don’t know its history. But they could be living in squalid conditions in a place that was meant to be an escape from such an environment Predictably, The Coops has fallen into private hands and although there was some evidence of improvements taking place and the grounds were well maintained, appears to have a poor record for disrepair.
But like Co-Op City, this is yet another example of a different approach to housing, at a time of desperate need, not unlike now.