November 17, 2004
Those courtyards are really lush. Trimmed bushes. Blooming flowers. Shady trees. Why can’t modern housing projects look like these?
These were my thoughts as I concentrated on the photographs inches from my eyes. I was close seeking lost details in the grain.
Out of the corner of my eye, a figure approached. Fast. Like a bullet, it was bearing down on me. Maybe I was too close to the display. Maybe I shouldn’t be taking photos. I started to step back to turn away from the imminent confrontation, but I was too late.
“That was where I grew up!” she said. “My father’s union built it and my mother was active in the day camp in the park. I don’t know what they call it now.”
Her father’s union was the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, a union of secular Jewish immigrants, who brought socialist ideals to America from their eastern European homes. They built the Amalgamated Housing Cooperatives. They rejected the squalor of the tenement of the Lower East Side and founded a little utopia in the Bronx, where millions of immigrants saw the Bronx as the next stepping-stone to the American Dream.
The Bronx? This is the not Bronx of fires, rubble, and urban despair. Not yet. This is the late 1920s and the Bronx is an attractive destination for families with its spacious rolling farmland and easy accessibility to the city by the recently extended subway line.
So in 1927 the trade unionists also saw a cooperative as the first step to achieving a world where cooperation prevails over profit. They wanted to a communal place where families could pool their resources, live in comfort, and enjoy study, culture, and play. This was the beginning of their revolution.
The 87-year-old Jeanette Mendelson grew up in these buildings and she stood, wide eyed and mouth ajar, at the photos of her childhood home.
“Isn’t this exciting?” she said, as her eyes darted around the room taking it all in. She had been with her walking club making their Tuesday three-mile trek in Central Park and she decided to stop by the Museum of the City of New York to see what was new. She had no idea that her childhood home would be featured in their new exhibit, Radicals in the Bronx*.
The structures were built inexpensively and with no frills, but they produced an attractive and comfortable environment for families and community interaction. Plus they had style. Similar to housing projects of today, they were a series of interconnecting high-rise buildings, organized around communal public space. But back then, the developer and the architect made an effort when it came to design. The public spaces were green spaces with paths, shaped gardens, and fountains. The buildings were designed in a Tudor style with large windows.
We spent the next hour walking around the hall, soaking it in, with strains of the Internationale playing in the background. She hardly had a single specific memory of her childhood there. She went to camp in nearby Van Cortland Park. She was the first female stewart in her union shop in the garment industry. She lived there till she got married (“I was so revolutionary – I married a Negro!”) in 1941. She went to Rutgers to study sociology when she was a grandparent. She has never been back to her childhood home. She says she would need a passport now to get into the Bronx.
Her brother also lived there, but he died in the Spanish Civil war in 1937. He was one of the many thousands of Americans, who joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the late 1930s to fight fascism in Spain. A fascinating time in the left, communist and anarchist societies and militias popped up all over Spain and began to, to use an old expression of the Wobblies, try to build a new world in the shell of the old. Read Orwell for more on this.
We walked by a blown-up photo of a young boy sitting on his father’s shoulders at a May Day march, the worker’s day. He pumped his fist in the air and his expression was one of complete pride. She pointed it out and laughed. I asked her if she marched as a child. She just looked at me like how could I ask such a stupid question.
I am fascinated by the history of radical thought and utopian ideals in this country. So much of our country’s best aspects were developed by people who refused to let their dreams die. Worker’s rights, woman’s rights and civil rights were won because a radical started the fight. What may have seem like an impossible idea could come true. A worker could be paid a living wage. A woman could vote. A black man could go where he wanted. Our current struggle: a gay’s right to marriage.
Radicals may be self-righteous and downright frustrating, but they are necessary for a society to progress forward. My new friend’s family and their neighbors fought for higher wages and better working conditions. They fought against eviction and slumlords. They fought for a better world, because they had already seen the worst and knew there was only one-way for them: up. And they wanted it not only for themselves, but also for everyone else.
However their major contribution to society was the idea of cooperative apartment building. While it has transformed over the years in two very divergent directions: the modern coop and the city owned housing project, the spirit still remains in union constructed housing, where community and affordability are the key factors.
“I hope my parents are looking down from heaven and can see me here today,” she said, smile ever growing wider. “They taught me a lot, but mostly that the union is good. It is your soul.”
* Jeanette does know that I would write about her and her family on this blog. She gave me permission. I mention this only because I was scolded for not revealing my quasi-journalist self to an artist at the Gowanus Box Factory, who later found herself quoted on my site.
Other facts of interest:
• There were three other similar housing cooperative in the Bronx:
Sholem Aleichem Cooperative
United Workers Cooperative Colony (Allerton Coops)
• Many closed in the late 1930s. Allerton kept going ‘til 1943, when it foreclosed. Part of the Amalgamated houses still stand today and remain a limited equity cooperative.
• The Jewish cooperatives had schools, grocery stores, credit unions, laundries, and day care centers.
Note (4/26/07): I received this email from a reader:
"I read your interesting piece on the Amalgamated Co-operative Housing. I want to tell you that while the largest part is accurate, you made a couple of mistakes that perhaps you might want to correct. The Amalgamated still stands and is thriving. The original First Building has been torn down, but it was replaced by the Towers in the 1960's. The remainder of the buildings have continued to be inhabited, and there is a long waiting list for prospective co-operators
It was never, and is not now, a "Jewish co-operative". Although it is true that the majority of the population was made up of Jewish people, it was non-discriminatory and non-sectarian. It is true that Jews brought other Jews to learn about the neighborhood, and the unions from whence they came were for garment workers who also were predominantly Jewish. This was a socialist concept of housing, and Jews were liberals encouraging their friends and families to move into the co-op. But they moved in as individuals and families based on their income and interest in being a part of this community. It is now totally diverse, with a smaller percentage of elderly Jews living there, as well as people of all walks of New York life."
Thank you for your comment.Posted by alexis at November 17, 2004 10:30 AM