Bill Morris in Building Operations on April 12, 2016
A century ago, 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, chipped in $500 apiece, and got the architect Eric O. Holmgren to draw up plans for a solid, four-story, brick apartment building.
Dubbed Alku – “Beginning” in Finnish – it opened in 1916 on 43rd Street, 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 John Johnson recalled: “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.”
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.”
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