At home in union-made utopia: PBS looks at the housing co-op movement

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Three elderly New Yorkers—Yok Ziebel, Julie Luguvoy and Pete Rosenblum—are meeting at the apartment complex in the Bronx where they grew up together. They embrace with all of the affection of lifelong friends. They joke with each other (Ziebel: “Did you lose weight?” Rosenblum: “No, I’m shrinking.” Ziebel: “We’re all shrinking.”). They reminisce.

This sweet moment begins a splendid, subtle documentary, “At Home in Utopia,” created by Michael Goldman and Ellen Brodsky, which will be shown on the PBS “Independent Lens” series April 28. (Check your local PBS station schedule here.)

Ziebel, Luguvoy and Rosenblum grew up in one of the most remarkable and least-known experiments in the history of the union movement—the housing cooperatives of New York City, built mainly by immigrant Jewish workers in the early 20th century.

These workers agreed on very little. They were socialists, liberals, labor Zionists, communists, anarchists and everything in between. They engaged in some ferocious political fights in their day.

Yet they all had something powerful in common. They thought unions should aim for “a shenere un besere velt”—a more beautiful and better world, as the Yiddish socialist Workmen’s Circle put it—even if they passionately disagreed about what that world would look like.

How to get from here to there? That’s where the housing cooperatives (and other kinds of cooperatives) came in.

Labor Zionists built the Farband houses. Socialists and Communists started the Shalom Aleichem Houses. The Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union sponsored the Amalgamated Houses. But the largest of all when it opened its doors was the United Workers Cooperative Colony, or the “Co-ops,” the home for more than 700 Communist and pro-Communist working families starting in the 1920s.

It’s where Ziebel, Luguvoy and Rosenblum spent their childhood. Says Rosenblum:

This was all an experiment. The people that started the experiment thought we’ll end up with heaven on earth.

Heaven didn’t arrive, but the Co-ops changed the lives of everyone who lived there.

For one thing, it was a vast improvement over the hideous slums and tenements of the Lower East Side and Brownsville where most of them had been stuck. Harriette Bressack recalls:

When my mother moved into the Co-ops, she was delighted, because where she lived before there was no greenery. In the spring, when just that pale green would come, she would say, “This is the part I love.” And my kids to this day say, “That’s your mother’s color coming up now.”

Yet there was more to the Co-ops than gardens and space and fresh air. Says Lugovoy:

I think that what my parents felt here was that they were the owners of both their apartment and their fate, of what happened to them.

In the 1930s, when racially integrated housing was nearly unheard of, the Co-ops were integrated. In retrospect, it was one of their finest achievements. Says Mary Louise Patterson, whose father was a lawyer for the Scottsboro Boys:

I grew up in neighborhoods that were black. You didn’t live in a building with white people. So it was very different to go to a place like the Co-ops and see black and white people living together, because the children socialized together—which we did! And I did!

One of the most touching moments in “At Home in Utopia” is when Boris Ourlicht, a Pole, tells about his first date in 1947 with Libby Dickerson, an African American. “Oh, she was a beauty!” he says with tears in his eyes. Inside the Co-ops, an interracial relationship was perfectly fine. But as they were driving down to Greenwich Village, a policeman saw the two of them together, insulted them, arrested them and took them to the police station.

It’s hard to imagine a more disastrous first date—but that hardly stopped them. They fell in love and were happily married until Dickerson’s death in 1995. As Ourlicht is being interviewed, her photo sits next to him.

There came a time when the Co-ops needed to raise the monthly rent by $1 per room to meet the terms of a mortgage. The residents voted against the increase. As a result, the mortgage deal collapsed and a company called the BX Corp. took over the apartments. That was more than 60 years ago.

So what became of the other workers’ housing cooperatives in New York?

The Shalom Aleichem apartments have been under private ownership since the 1930s. One of the Farband ’s buildings was sold but the other is still a co-op. The union-supported Amalgamated Cooperative is still flourishing with 1,500 families—and over the years, its managers have built even more high-rise cooperatives around the city.

And the Co-ops of the Bronx, with all of its achievements and flaws and dreams, left a legacy. It wasn’t what the founders planned. “We were expected to conquer the world,” says Rosenblum. They never came even close.

But they did produce a generation, now in their 70s and 80s, who have lived their long lives with a storehouse of rich, complicated memories—and a particular, passionately held vision of justice that changed its contours but never completely disappeared.