Another day, another example of inspirational, working class-led housing in NYC. The Amalgamated Housing Co-Operative is in the north-west Bronx, just south of Van Cortlandt Park. It’s been there since 1927, one of the oldest housing co-ops in the US.
The Amalgamated was established by and named after the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, the early 20th century trade union representing people in the garment industry, many of them Jewish immigrants living in overcrowded, insanitary tenements in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There’s more about the history here.
One of the driving forces behind The Amalgamated and thousands of other co-operative homes across the city and state was Abraham Kazan, who said he wanted to “demonstrate that through cooperative efforts we can better the lot of our co-workers (and) show that where all personal gain and benefit is eliminated, greater good can be accomplished for the benefit of all”.
Kazan’s vision has stood the test of time. The Amalgamated now has about 1.500 homes, providing good quality housing to people on moderate incomes, at rents that are significantly below the extortionate market (the co-op rents average $280 per room, per month, so at least 30% less than many NYC private tenants would pay). The waiting list is open to all, providing they fall within the lower and upper income thresholds, but it can take 10 years to receive an offer (income limits are typical of most forms of non-market housing in the US, including public housing, an issue that can sit uncomfortably from a UK perspective, but is increasingly drifting across the Atlantic). The Amalgamated employs 100 staff, has annual income of about $20million and assets of about $60million (although it’s easy to see it could be worth considerably more to an avaricious private developer). As well as providing housing, in non-pandemic times, the organisation runs a host of social activities, continuing the tradition of NYC co-ops that don’t see housing as an end in itself.
On Monday, I met Ed Yaker, a former maths teacher, who has lived at The Amalgamated for most of his 77 years. Ed reflects on those times with a recognition that things have changed and that some of Kazan’s founding idealism is hard to sustain. New residents are informed about “the spirit of cooperation” and expected to adhere to them, but the multiple pressures and distractions of the 21st century make participation as difficult at The Amalgamated as it is for many similar organisations.
I asked Ed about the importance of Judaism in the organisation’s culture, but although a significant number of current residents are Jewish (most are not), he says that many of the early members were “anti-religious Jews”!
We went for a stroll. The rock-solid, but beautifully designed buildings and landscaped gardens of the early phases of the development are immediately striking. The Amalgamated also has two 1970s tower blocks, which may be less aesthetically pleasing to some, but like all the apartments Ed showed me, had very generous room sizes and fantastic floors! Wearing my former housing manager hat, I couldn’t help noticing that all of the communal areas were immaculate.
Ed (who is the co-op’s treasurer) attests to the many financial pressures the organisation is under, something the various political authorities seem unsympathetic to. Like council housing advocates in the UK, Ed’s is at pains to say that The Amalgamated is not “subsidised”, or at least, doesn’t receive anything like the public handouts the private market receives. But as well as the complex social forces that may miltate against re-capturing the early spirit of places like The Amalgamated, Ed points out that land and labour were much cheaper back then.
But it’s impossible to leave The Amalgamated without thinking its importance should not just be about the past, but the future. As the housing plight of millions in New York and beyond worsens, the words, from 1927, of another pioneer of the city’s co-operative movement, Sidney Hillman have an eerie echo:
“The slums are still there and large numbers of people in the richest city of the world’s richest country are living under the most distressing of housing conditions.”. There is an alternative.