Finding Utopia in the Bronx

April 27, 2009 at 9:40 am 12 comments

Hammer, Sickle and Compass above doorway of Coops building "J".

Hammer, Sickle and Compass above doorway of Coops building "J" in the Bronx.

Where are the bohemian communities in the Bronx?

This has been the enduring quest of this blog and is certainly not unfair to ask of the Bronx.  Many enormously accomplished artists took their first breaths here. To find the equivalent of the Left Bank or Greenwich Village seems natural to me, but has not proven readily apparent.

I recently learned about a group of people who could easily fit the idea of Bronx Bohemians.  What I didn’t expect though, was that at home they would speak Yiddish.

First Coops residents.

First Coops residents.

“At Home in Utopia”, a film by Michal Goldman and Ellen Brodsky, tells the story of Jewish garment workers who build their dream home — The Coops, a cooperative apartment complex — on the corner of Allerton Avenue across from Bronx Park East in 1925.

The garment workers, immigrants from Eastern Europe, Russia and Poland, were members of the United Garment Workers Union and living in the squalor of the Lower East Side tenements.

The majority of them were Communist or some degree of very left leaning.

Most of the idea of The Coops took shape during getaways to Camp Nitgedeiget, Yiddish for, loosely, “Don’t Worry Be Happy”, a kind of carefree and spirited camp that the workers owned in upstate Beacon, New York.

The workers would pool their life savings to buy shares ($250 per room) in the cooperative that would be their dream home.  They wanted light, lots of light, a window in every room and trees and gardens. An architect would design all of that for them, including a hammer, sickle and compass on the mantle above the doorway of building “J”.  (It is still there.)

The original founders of the Coops (rhymes with stoops) would come up to the Bronx by subway.  Land in the Bronx was cheap and wide open. The archival photo of the patch of land they bought made me gasp — so hard to visualize a busy street like Allerton Avenue so open and overgrown with weeds.

When the workers moved into the Coops it fulfilled their dreams of being in beautiful surroundings and they lived a very communal life there.

The basement was the hub of social activity with club rooms for youth gatherings, a library and reading room, day care center,  a communal cafeteria, rooms where the musicians could jam and  “shules” where lessons were taught in Yiddish after school.

And no matter what, they could never be kicked out. The Coops had a policy that no one would lose their apartment for not being able to meet rent payments.

All of their board meetings were held in Yiddish.
And they argued and fought bitterly all the time.
On politics.
Stalin’s pact with Hitler.
Khrushchev’s revelation of Stalin’s mass murders.
They would find their communist ideologies continually challenged, creating chasms in the Coops that would never be resolved.

Coops building detail.

Coops building Tudor style detail.

But they were incredibly aware of injustices to people around them and jumped into protest and strike. When tenants in the building next door were being evicted, Coops residents joined in the efforts to block the police from pulling the tenants from their apartment with the women acting as human barricades.  This scene in the film uses actual footage of this event on Allerton Avenue.

Religion was not important to them.
May Day, International Workers’ Day was very important to them.
Jewish holidays were not.
And for some, neither was marriage.
Coops resident Amy Galstuck Swerdlow said that her parents never married, believing that a marriage certificate was meaningless. [She says this during an interview on the DVD.]

The strongest moments of the film, however, are about race.

The people in the Coops, including the children, were well aware of the injustices toward Black Americans. They knew of the lynchings of black men in the South and were in solidarity with the Scottsboro Boys, nine black boys accused of raping two white women while travelling on a freight train in 1931. In fact, William Patterson, an attorney who represented the boys was a member of the American Communist party and a frequent visitor to the Coops.  His daughter, MaryLouise Patterson, is interviewed in the film.

In the 1930s they encouraged a small number of Black families to move into the Coops.  This was quite revolutionary at the time, as Blacks and Whites did not live in the same building in New York, nor anywhere else in America in the 30s, 40s nor 50s.  (Parkchester, for example, would not become integrated until the 1970s.)  And few became very prominent in the Communist party including Angie Dickerson, a new name for me. And Queen Mother Moore, whose name was already familiar to me.

The film tells the story of an incident that occurs when Coops residents take buses up to Peekskill, New York to hear Paul Robeson sing. They are surprised to learn that the outdoor concert is met by the locals shouting anti-semitic and anti-black rants and stone throwing.  The footage of the riot that ensues and the retelling by the residents who were there is entirely compelling.

Boris and Libby Ourlicht.

Boris and Libby Ourlicht.

Perhaps the most moving scene of the film, is Coops resident Boris Ourlicht’s story of his first date with his girlfriend, Libby, who is black. He is in love and driving her down to, aptly enough, Greenwich Village when their date takes an unexpected turn.

I will not spoil the moment as this moment is better expressed in the film, but I’ll just note that the people in the Coops were awakened by these events and stunned to see that America had not moved further along on the issue of race. Even within the walls of the Coops, as much as they all seemed to “get along”, some of the founding residents were not equipped to accept the interracial dating that was happening among the younger set.

But it would be the younger generation, Mr. Ourlicht and his contemporaries who would join the communist party, leave New York and challenge the “Negro question” head on, finding work in factories while waiting for the right time to bring up matters on race with their fellow factory workers.  As resident Pete Rosenblum said, “We were brave and stupid.”

At the end of the film, I envied what they had at the Coops. I respected what they were working to achieve.

In 1943, they were confronted with a critical decision about the future of the Coops.
They had taken out a $2 million mortgage and now found themselves unable to pay.
(As Ms. Goldman, the filmmaker points out, the Coops was greatly underfunded from the beginning.)
Each resident would be required to pay $1 more per room.
If they voted yes to the increase, they would maintain ownership of the Coops.
If they voted nay, then they would lose ownership forever.

This was a hotly debated issue — in Yiddish, of course.

The rationale for the decision they finally make is quite fascinating.
Perhaps they recognized the Coops as an experiment that had run its course.
Or maybe they felt they had seen their dream come to fruition, but recognized that it required a different level of cultivation than they were equipped to commit to.

The parallels between what they faced and what we today face couldn’t be more clear:
A nation in financial crises.
Home foreclosure.
An overstuffed mortgage that can no longer be carried.
A look toward FDR’s New Deal for answers and influence.
A shortage of affordable housing for the working poor.
Urban housing for low income families with trees, greenery and parks.

Sixty-six years later, all of these issues remain headlines in our nation’s papers.
And are critical issues right here in the Bronx.

Coops buildings along Bronx Park East.

Coops buildings along Bronx Park East.

*
The Coops were not the only cooperative housing complex founded by garment worker unions in the Bronx.  At one time the Bronx was home to four, each representing a unique faction of communist and socialist ideology.  The other three cooperatives were: The Amalgamated, largely Socialist, Sholem Aleichem Houses, founded by Yiddishists, was divided between Communists and Socialists, the Farband was Labor-Zionist.  Only The Amalgamated is still operating as a cooperative today.

*
“At Home in Utopia”, eight years in the making, will air across the nation on Tuesday evening, April 28th on PBS as part of the Independent Lens series.  In New York City,  the film will air at 10pm and again early Wednesday morning, April 29th at 3:20 am.

But I highly recommend the DVD.  The additional scenes round out this story even more.

*
Tell a friend, or two, about this post…

Entry filed under: History, The Bronx. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , .

Project Runway Casting for New Season Guitars and Buddha’s Moon over City Island

12 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Inge Kulkowitz Goldstein  |  February 14, 2014 at 1:35 pm

    Erika, you dug up many memories of my life, from age 16 to my early 20′s, hanging out and living in the “coops” . The lessons learned re: race relations, fairness in the work place, loving your neighbor regardless of your color, or differences, speaking up, and taking active positions and protests, were part of daily life in the coops, and have had a powerful and lasting influence.
    I look forward to watching this historical program on PBS>
    Thank you for giving this story so much attention…
    Identifying this great story is consistent with your journalistic bend…

    Reply
  • 2. Pelham Bay - Bronx - Page 4 - City-Data Forum  |  February 12, 2014 at 6:48 pm

    […] The place has a great history.It was built as a co op in the 1920's by a communist affiliated union..the United Garment Workers Union ,actually.The building is decorated with hammers and cycles.There was even a TV program about the rich history of this place.The co op eventually went bankrupt because of their strict policy of not allowing anyone to lose their apartment for financial reasons.So,it's not really a co op anymore. There are a lot of co ops in The Bronx that were built in that era by unions and this was just one.Many of them are still operating but there were others that failed during the depression.Many of them that are still going do not allow mortgages of any kind on the apartments or buildings because of the way in which some of them were lost to foreclosures in the depression. Finding Utopia in the Bronx | Bronx Bohemian […]

    Reply
  • 3. toby z. liederman  |  January 30, 2014 at 6:18 pm

    i love feeling proud of my Jewish heritage!

    Reply
  • 4. Dr.Mik Atoms  |  January 9, 2014 at 8:35 pm

    In spring summer of 1975 I lived in the coops with my girlfriend and her sister. What a lovely apt. bright, and sunny and green. I could feel the history.
    Mik

    Reply
  • 5. Howard Charles Yourow, S.J.D., HDC  |  February 24, 2013 at 2:26 pm

    The Allertons need a plaque as well !

    Reply
  • 6. Brenda Beattie Neuman  |  February 15, 2013 at 1:41 pm

    HI-
    Great article- You may also want to know that The Allerton Coops is also a National Landmark. The Tenant Association Landmarked the buildings in 1984 under the leadership of Brenda Neuman. It has a cultural Landmark to honor the original families.. All it really needs today is a plaque. Hopefully one day we can raise enough money to have a ceremony and put a plaque
    on the buildings.
    Brenda Neuman

    Reply
  • [...] Allerton Avenue Co-Ops, Allerton Avenue and Bronx Park East in Bronxdale, were designed by the architects Springsteen and [...]

    Reply
  • 8. Tonya  |  August 9, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    For the record The Farband is still a coop building that is self-managed. I am a shareholder and have been for the past 10years and in some ways as it is described it is still a “utopia” in the Bronx.

    Reply
    • 9. Bronx Bohemian  |  August 10, 2010 at 12:36 am

      Tonya Thanx for your comment…where is The Farband?

      BB

      Reply
  • 10. Elena  |  May 26, 2009 at 11:57 pm

    Hello! Thanks for the wonderful post about this film. I mention it in my blog this evening: http://elenabella.blogspot.com/2009/05/rebecca-rubin-from-lower-east-side.html

    Happy to find you!

    Reply
    • 11. Bronx Bohemian  |  May 27, 2009 at 9:42 am

      Hello Elena,
      Thanx for the link.
      Maybe the American Girl Doll co will have Rebecca visit the Coops in a later story!

      BB

      Reply
  • [...] dismembered body in his Coney Island apartment on Sunday night. [Gothamist] A review of “At Home in Utopia,” a documentary by Michael Goldman and Ellen Brodsky that tells the story of the Coops, a [...]

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed


Bronx Bohemian…In Search of the Artsy and Boho in The Bronx

Get the Feeds

Recent Tweets

Categories

Bronx Bloggers

BronxMama
a great resource for Bronx parents

Chiz
artist/painter...her book "Alphabet City" published last year. Congrats Chiz!

Boogie Downer
all that's hot in culture & politics. Amazing condo & apt listings.

Tree Museum
public art project in celebration of The Grand Concourse Centennial.

Social Networking site of the Tree Museum
forum created by artist Katie Holten for the Tree Museum project

Bronx Latino
the people and the culture of the Bronx from a Latino perspective

En Foco's Blog
a place to chat about cultural diversity in photography

Bronx News Network
because every neighborhood needs a voice!

From The Bronx
like Facebook but for the Bronx!

site meter

website metrics

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: