Few people are aware that 2016 is the centennial of the birth of a movement that remade the face of New York City housing: the non-profit housing cooperative.
It was in 1916 that Finnish immigrants banded together in the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn to address an acute housing shortage. Sixteen families formed the Finnish Home Building Association and their dream was a four-story apartment building on 43rd Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. They got the architect Eric O. Holmgren to draw up plans, chipped in $500 apiece, and agreed to pay maintenance costs ranging from $26.35 to $27.30.
The four-story brick building – dubbed Alku, or “Beginning” in Finnish – opened in 1916, becoming the first non-profit housing cooperative in the country. In the early days, all maintenance work was done by the residents. Work parties, or “Talkoot,” were held twice a year. Subletting and renting were forbidden. Banks were so vigorously frowned upon – along with property managers, lawyers, brokers, and other professionals – that many apartments contained wall safes. Residents were required to pay cash for their apartments, and they were not allowed to sell at a profit. “The idea was to create housing of high quality rather than profit-making housing,” reports The Encyclopedia of New York City.
Alku Toinen, or “Beginning Two,” was soon erected next door, and eventually some two dozen co-ops sprouted in the neighborhood that was first called Goat Hill and later came to be known as Finntown. The housing co-ops were serviced by a cooperative shopping complex featuring a pool room, restaurant, meat market, bakery, and grocery.
The co-op movement was in its infancy, and Finntown was a close-knit, insular world, recall people who grew up there. Speaking to Place Matters, a joint project of City Lore and the Municipal Art Society, longtime Finntown resident Anita Ford recalled: “We thought of the other children in the building as sisters and brothers. We didn’t have to wear shoes to visit our neighbors. There were rules that weren’t in the books, but everyone understood; it was moral pressure. We couldn’t have gardens in the back or barbecues. No noise after 10 o’clock. No shaking rugs out the window. No peddlers allowed. The older people would stand on the roof and watch the block. [We] would call them pigeons. They would sit and have coffee on the roof constantly. Noise was the biggest thing to them.”
Adds John Johnson, another resident: “As a kid, I played stickball on 43rd Street. The organ grinder with his monkey would play in front of the co-op and we would hand pennies to the monkey. Most activity was conducted in Finnish. Most Finns are gone; only a few remain. While the population and residents have changed dramatically, the buildings remain the same, and in good repair.”
The co-op at 570 44th Street, facing Sunset Park, is a prime example. Beyond its close physical resemblance to Alku and Alku Toinen, it still has a handful of Finnish shareholders, and they still observe many of the century-old customs.
“There’s still a cooperative spirit in the building,” says Alan Saly, who moved into the building in 2000 and is now secretary of the co-op board. “People look after each other. The co-op actively discourages sublets, especially if people make a profit.”
Saly was required to pay cash for his apartment, but in 2004, for the first time, mortgages were grudgingly allowed. Other changes have come to the neighborhood, as Latino and Chinese arrivals have supplanted many of the earlier Scandinavian residents. But real estate remains affordable, compared to Manhattan and brownstone Brooklyn, with two-bedroom co-op apartments still available for under $400,000, according to StreetEasy.com.
The neighborhood’s rich history spoke to Janna Kyllastinen, who arrived in New York from Helsinki four years ago and became so infatuated that she began shooting a documentary, Finding Finntown, which is about halfway complete.
“I visited the neighborhood and saw Finnish words chiseled in stone – ‘Alku Toinen’ – and that got the ball rolling,” Kyllastinen says. “For me, the fact that Finntown was such a little-known community was fascinating. Making the documentary is a way for me to explore the experiences of the Finns. Their experiences relate to the struggles of a lot of immigrants – to literally build a home and carve out a space in the city.”