Finding Utopia in the Bronx

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.

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Project Runway Casting for New Season

I love Project Runway.
I’m always interested to see how the designers sew their way through each challenge.
A new uniform for New York City mail carriers.
A gown made of real flowers, moss and leaves. Or Hershey’s candy bars or car parts.
A tailored ensemble for football player turned reporter Tiki Barber to wear on the “Today” show — one that would flatter and fit his thick neck, broad chest, big arms and “big butt.” (They all failed quite miserably–not a tailor in the bunch.)

Where is the next winner of Project Runway?
In Morris Park, Bedford Park, Throggs Neck, Norwood, Parkchester, Mott Haven or Williamsbridge?
Getting on the 4? or the 6 Express?

The producers of Project Runway are casting for Season 7.
I know we have here Bronxites oozing with creativity and attitude. Who can also drape and make patterns.

Whereever you are, would love to cheer you on!
Applications due April 30th.

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KRAZY! Cosplay

These days, My Favorite 15 Year Old is all about everything Japanese: mochi and daifuku, anime, J-pop delivered by pretty guy-liner eyed boys whose clothing dips deep into cross-dressing. She totes around the yellow and black Japanese for Dummies and by my untrained ear, her accent sounds quite impressive.

Thanks to her, we recently had our first Cosplay experience as part of Japan Society‘s current anime, manga and video games exhibit. I imagine that this is what a Star Trek Convention must be like but with more satin bows. We saw wigs in every hue and height, shiny intergalactic impenetrable fabrics, red contact lenses, seven foot swords, knee socks and samurai, hoop skirts and bustles, even a cascade of LED lights with a battery pack tucked away in a skirt bustle. (Very cool, literally, the tiny lightbulbs weren’t hot at all. I made a note for my next dress up moment.)

I was struck by the number of girls dressed as male characters and by the number of scullery maid get-ups with floppy caps and lacy aprons. “Lolitas” My FF15YO said, adding they’re usually licking giant lollipops or carrying palm sized plushy critters.  “Oh.” I replied.

The party was sold out. Reni, a Cosplay singer, in bunny ears and coquetteish dance moves sang to us in Japanese. I asked around if anyone hailed from the Bronx. Other than us three I didn’t find anyone else.

The costumes were great. The best were the original ones. A few were sewn by the Cosplayer themselves. The mood was upbeat and full of teen (and 20s something) spirit. We had a great time.

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Finally Spring Sightings…

each year spring arrives later and later…
And not with much conviction…Is it still a season?
Last spring I missed the magnolia blossoms
and the daffodils entirely at the New York Botanical Garden.
This year I didn’t.
The magnolias were splendid and lush.
The cherry blossoms are next and even a few lilac buds gave our noses a heady preview.

Before Parkchester

The Holy Angels School -- the car is the travelling library operated by the NY Public Library.  Unionport Road between Hoguet and Storrow Streets.
The Holy Angels School, 1938. The parked car at left is a travelling library operated by the NY Public Library. Unionport Road between Hoguet and Storrow Streets.

Before Parkchester was Parkchester, and before the Bronx was even officially the Bronx, Parkchester was the site of The New York Catholic Protectory, an orphanage for boys and girls.

At the end of the Civil War a sharp rise of children found themselves abandoned and living on the streets. In 1861, the Protectory, outgrowing its Lower East Side location, came up to the country and farmland — The Bronx (then, the area was the town Van Nest in Westchester county) and set up the school and dormitories for the children.

The boys and the girls were taught a trade so they’d be employable once released. (Many of the boys were tough kids living by their own set of rules and often ran away from the Protectory.) The boys  learned letterpress printing, chair caning, shoemaking, baking, carpentry, blacksmithing, wheelwrighting, farming, gardening. The girls learned to embroider, cook and make gloves.

The uniforms they wore were sewn by them in their tailoring department. And the shoes they wore, each child had two pairs, were cobbled on site too.

The boys even had a functioning fire department. But they weren’t able to save the girls’ building when it caught fire in 1875. It was destroyed, but the girls got out safely.

Semi-pro baseball teams rented the fields on the Protectory site for games. High Schooler Lou Gehrig played there with his High School of Commerce team against Dewitt-Clinton. On game days, the number of boys that would most likely run off would drop considerably.

Unionport Road looking south from East Tremont Ave. New York Catholic Protectory, May 1938.
Unionport Road looking south from East Tremont Ave. New York Catholic Protectory, May 1938.

Around 1938, a developer from the Starrett Corporation, a Mr. Robert Dowling, went about looking for land. Seventy-five sites later, he found the land owned by the Protectory. His assessment was that the buildings were “outmoded and dangerously inflammable”. According to his profile in a 1960 New Yorker article, Mr. Dowling, a Protestant, never revealed to the fathers in charge at the Protectory who he was representing. He convinced them that if they sold the site to him, they could find a more cheerful site somewhere else. Mr. Dowling’s company paid five million dollars for the land. He secured the equivalent of fifty-five city square blocks for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company project: Parkchester, the world’s largest apartment house community. The Protectory was razed completely. No original buildings exist.

I worked with a woman who confided in me that she’d grown up in a protectory on Staten Island in the late 1950’s. She was dropped off when she was two years old with her older brother and sister. Her mother had nine children and could not care for all of them.

My friend told me she was allowed to go home certain weekends and holidays, or sometimes she and her siblings would sneak off and go to their mother’s apartment on E. 8th Street, in Manhattan to spend the weekend. My friend was often in trouble for talking or for her “fresh” mouth. She said the nuns would always tell her, “This is going in your file.”

This elusive file was held over her head the entire 15 years she lived there. And she never saw it. Until, seven or eight years ago, her brother got hold of the file. It is 1 1/2″ thick. She showed it to me. Inside are pages, single spaced typewritten pages — daily records of her activities: her “fresh” mouth incidences, her trips to the infirmary, phone call logs, conversations with her mother (who had moved 28 times in ten years all around Manhattan and the Bronx). But the records are not the work of the nuns. In fact only one or two pages addressed my friend’s “fresh mouth”. The records were kept by the social worker assigned to her family’s case. It is a fascinating yet gut wrenching account of her life, not even the most dutiful mother or father could have kept such a detailed daily diary. I told my friend that that file is an odd and extraordinary gift. She said yes it’s true.

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