Frank Lovece in Board Operations
In the 1800s, several apartment associations began a form of cooperative ownership similar to a system already being used in Europe. The nation's first of the type we recognize today, employing the "Rochdale Cooperative Principles" model, was formed in Brooklyn in 1918, when the Finnish Home Building Association created housing for Finnish immigrants.
Shortly afterward, other such ethnic or trade-union-sponsored co-ops began going up. The New York State Limited Dividend Housing Companies Act of 1927 gave corporations 50-year tax breaks and authorized the use of eminent domain to acquire sites for apartments to house middle-income families.
Thirteen co-ops were built under the act, including the 2,820-apartment Mutual Redevelopment Houses, better known as Penn South, in Manhattan's Chelsea's neighborhood; the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union's 1,400-unit, limited-equity Amalgamated Housing Cooperative in The Bronx; the 12-building, 4,500-unit Cooperative Village on Manhattan's Lower East Side; and the 15,000-apartment, 50,000-resident Co-op City in the Bronx and the 5,860-unit Rochdale Village in Queens – respectively, the nation's largest and second-largest housing co-op.
But it was the United Workers Cooperative Colony — a.k.a. "The Coops" — that was the country's largest when it was built in The Bronx in 1927, with 740 apartments for, primarily, Eastern European Jewish immigrants. As Utopia writer-producers Michal Goldman and Ellen Brodsky document, most were garment workers and members of the Communist Party, back before its ideals became tarnished with secret-police abuses, political exile, torture and Stalinism in the USSR. That egalitarian ideology led The Coops (pronounced like "loops") to invite African-American families — making this some of the first integrated housing in the United States.
One such couple was Boris Ourlicht, a Polish Jew, and Libby Dickerson, an African American (see at right). Ourlicht, in the documentary, recalls their first date, in 1947. Even in New York City, an interracial relationship then was risky, and the couple, driving to Greenwich Village on that initial outing, were arrested and verbally abused by an NYPD officer. But at The Coop, the young couple was perfectly accepted. Their marriage lasted decades until Dickerson's death in 1995.
The United Workers Co-op (spelled different ways in contemporaneous documents, without and and without a hyphen, and with and without an apostrophe after "Workers"), formed in 1913, had first created a housing co-op in Manhattan's Lower East Side. As the group grew larger, it decided to build three complexes in the undeveloped North Bronx, buying land in 1925 and financing construction through sponsorship by labor organizations and others. Shares sold for $375 per room (or $250 — sources disagree) with the monthly maintenance set at $12 per room.
Equal to any sociopolitical ideals, however, was the civilized standard of living that The Coops represented to its residents, many of whom were escaping the tenement ghettos of the Lower East Side and Brooklyn's Brownsville and seeking shelter from the anti-Semitism of the nation as a whole. Its library reportedly held 20,000 volumes, and other amenities included a gym, a classroom, landscaped gardens, and large rooms with many windows and well-designed cross-ventilation in those days before air conditioning.
Utopia in the Bronx was eventually undone by economic factors including a phenomenon modern co-op boards know all too well: a decision to not raise monthly maintenance. In the case of The Coops, it came down to rejecting a $1 a month per room increase in 1943. After skirting bankruptcy a decade earlier, The Coops eventually went under. A company called the BX Corporation took over, and a subsequent series of landlords let the properties deteriorate.
But in the mid-1980s, the new owner Allerton Associates, undertook extensive restoration. The buildings survive today, at 2700-2774 Bronx Park East (designed by the architectural firm Springsteen & Goldhammer and built from 1925-1927) and 2846-2870 Bronx Park East (designed by Herman Jessor and built from 1927-29), and New York City landmarked The Coops in 1992.
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