Fifty years ago this month, the first shareholders moved into massive Co-op City in the northeast Bronx, on marshy land that once was home to an amusement park called Freedomland that was supposed to be the city’s answer to Disneyland.
Freedomland was a commercial failure, but Co-op City, after weathering faulty construction, unscrupulous board members and financial traumas, has succeeded at something rare in its first half-century. With its 15,372 units and 50,000 residents, Co-op City has remained an affordable oasis in a city that has all but priced out its middle class. And unlike other housing built under the Mitchell-Lama program, its residents have resisted numerous efforts over the years to opt out of the regulated system and sell on the lucrative private housing market.
“Residents were enticed and told if they sold on the open market, they would make a lot of money,” James Vacca, a former city councilman and district manager of Community Board 10, tells am New York. “But they responded that it would not be right for their neighborhood. I’m sure that was a challenge.”
Bernie Cylich, a longtime resident and board member, says the community takes pride in having taken the high road. “One of the things we feel as we celebrate the 50th anniversary is how we are showing the nation that good affordable housing for working people can be provided,” says Cylich, who moved into Co-op City with his wife and two young children in 1970.
“For all the drama around Co-op City’s history, the fact it still exists 50 years after the first families moved in and it’s still a pretty nice space is important," says Annemarie Sammartino, a professor of history at Oberlin College in Ohio who grew up in Co-op City and is writing a book titled Freedomland: Co-op City and the Story of New York, 1965-1990.
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