Building a Besere, Shenere Velt: A Story of the Co-operative Housing Movement

 by Jeremy Bell Koegel (March 1, 2003)

Housing co-operatives have been important to both sides of my family. My mother�s grandparents were pioneer cooperators in the Amalgamated Houses in the Bronx and that�s where my Bubbe grew up. She and my grandfather, Pops, raised my mother and uncle there and still live there today. On my dad�s side, my great-grandmother was also a pioneer cooperator, this time in the Penn South housing co-op in Manhattan. Gamma Lu and Grandpa, my dad�s parents, were early co-operators in the nation�s first Veterans housing co-operative, where my father, uncle and aunts grew up. My grandmother moved back there recently. My father established a small housing co-operative here in L. A., where both my brother and I were born. My aunt, uncle, and cousins live in a co-op in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As you can see, my family has been living in co-ops for a long time � the last 75 years, in fact.

Since co-ops are clearly in the family blood, it seemed fitting to choose this for my Bar Mitsve project . I focused, in particular, on the emergence of co-ops in the 1920�s and 30�s in New York. I read a lot about the history of the cooperative housing movement. I devoured novels that gave me a real sense of what life was like during those times. I read material published by the co-ops my relatives have lived in. I interviewed my relatives about their experiences in co-ops, and worked with Hershl to understand the connection between the housing co-operative experience and being Jewish. I visited the Tenement Museum in New York to get a better sense of where people lived before moving into co-ops. And I visited a number of co-ops, including the Amalgamated, Bell Park Gardens, the Farband Houses, The Coops, and the Sholem Aleichem Houses.

Through this research I learned about how poor Jewish immigrants adapted to their new life in America. I learned where they lived and how they solved the problems they faced. I discovered how housing co-operatives emerged, how they were financed, and how people made the difficult decision to move into them.  I also learned how moving into co-ops changed people�s lives.

Because I love creative writing, I decided to use my research to create a fictional journal. This journal covers ten years of my fictional character�s life. Listen to the experiences of Irving Abramowitz and his family, and understand more about housing co-ops and the amazing impact they have had on people.

December 12, 1926

The day had come at last�my tenth birthday. My closest relatives were crammed around a small table in the kitchen of our three-room apartment in Brooklyn. The apartment always feels small�my parents share one of the rooms and my sister Hannah and I share the other�but it never feels smaller than when the relatives visit.

At the head of the table sat my father, a tall, sturdy looking man. Papa is a dress cutter--a really good one He works in the garment district. Papa was born in Russia and came to America with his father when he was 14. They worked for several years to earn the money to bring his mom and two sisters over. For a while, the whole family lived in a tenement on the Lower East Side, but everyone moved to Connecticut after my Aunt Fanny married a man whose family owned a shoe factory there. We only get to see them on very special occasions.

To the right of my father sat Mama, a large woman with bright, brown eyes and dark, black hair tied up in a bun. Mama has a kind face but she�s been looking a little worn out lately. Six months ago, my little sister, Hannah, got very sick. She had double pneumonia and was in the hospital for a long time. For a while we weren't sure she was going to make it. It was very hard on the family. Mama spent all her time at the hospital and had little time for housework or cooking. Bubbe helped as much as she could, but she�s old and can�t move well. Papa was working constantly to earn the money for the doctor�s bills. I had to fend for myself a lot, though I was sometimes able to go over to my best friend Sammy Finklestein�s house for dinner. Hannah has made a full recovery, but I�m not so sure about Mama.

To the left of Papa sat my Bubbe, an old, fragile looking woman. Bubbe has wrinkled skin and is bent over with age but her greenish eyes glitter and dance with life. Bubbe�s had a hard life�pogroms in Russia, hours hunched over a sewing machine late into the night when they first arrived in America, a daughter who narrowly escaped death in the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Their hard lives are part of why our family members have always been such strong trade unionists.  Papa always says that good things will never happen by waiting for the bosses to do them for you.

Next to Mama sat my sister Hannah, a shy, quiet girl of 7. Hannah has a �far away� look to her and is always lost in daydreams. On the other side of Hannah was the joker of the group, and my personal favorite, Uncle Bernie. Uncle Bernie works as a hat maker, but he isn�t married yet so he still lives with Bubbe.

Then there was me, Irving Abramowitz. I�m a normal ten-year-old, I guess.   I like to play stickball, shoot marbles, play Ringaleevio and do all the things a 10-year-old boy does. Like opening birthday presents, which I finally got to do when we finished eating. Mama placed three packages in front of me. I got the usual from Bubbe--a green, hand knitted sweater. Uncle Bernie�s present was a new baseball glove. Sammy was going to be green with envy when I showed it to him. Last was Mama and Papa�s. I opened it up to find what looked like a book. Mama explained that it was a journal--I could use it to record the interesting things that happened to me. My first thought was, �How exciting.� A new spaldeen or a cat�s eye would have been just fine, but Mama urged me to give this journal-thing a try.   That�s what I�m doing now, and I must admit it�s growing on me.

January 18, 1927

Yesterday, a bunch of us were playing stickball in front of our building. As usual, cars were constantly interrupting the game. Anyway, all of a sudden Sammy�s older sister came running over and yelled that Sammy�s dad had been in a pretty bad accident at work. Sammy ran back home with her. He wasn�t really himself today�he was real quiet. His dad will probably be out of work for a long time and his mom is really worried about how they are going to pay the rent. I wish I could help Sammy. I hope his dad gets better soon. How will the family survive if he doesn�t?

February 2, 1927

Sammy�s parents are thinking of moving. They don�t want to, but a smaller apartment downtown would be about $20 less per month. Sammy was almost crying as he talked about this. I was upset, too.  If Sammy moves away, who will I eat lunch with? Who will I play catch with to break in my new glove? Who will be my best friend?When Papa got home tonight, I asked him if we could loan the Finklesteins some money. Papa got a sad look in his eyes. He explained that even if we could, it wouldn�t be enough to help them in the long run�they needed something more than just one family to help them.

I feel awful. All of this is so unfair. It�s not Sammy�s family�s fault they can�t pay the rent.  I sure hope they don�t have to leave.

March 10, 1927

Sammy�s family left a week ago and it�s been the most miserable week of my life. All I want to do is walk around our small apartment feeling sorry for myself. I keep wondering what�s happening with Sammy. I doubt I�ll ever see him again.

April 6,1927

When Papa came home from work tonight his face was flushed with excitement. He told us that everyone is talking about a new housing co-operative that the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union is sponsoring under the leadership of Abraham Kazan. When Hannah and I looked baffled, Papa knew he had to explain. He said when people form a co-op, they pool their money so that they can own a building as a group. Then they use the money they pay every month to run the building. This confused me. I wasn�t sure how that was different from the situation we�re in now, but Papa was ready with an answer. Papa pointed out that in a co-op, you�re not a renter. You�re an owner. There�s no landlord who needs to make a profit, so housing becomes more affordable.  Also, co-operators have control over their housing and vote on how things should happen. And a co-op is a community where people care about each other and look out for each other.

Papa told us that the Amalgamated was being built way up in the Bronx at the southern edge of Van Cortlandt Park. Some of Papa�s friends at work just moved into a communist co-op that opened up on Allerton Avenue, on the other side of Bronx Park. They call it �The Coops.� The Yiddishist Jews are also building a co-op near the Amalgamated that they�re going to call the �Sholem Aleichem Houses.� Papa said the area was truly a sight to see�almost like living in the country.

Mama was skeptical that the Amalgamated would be able to get the money to finance this experiment. Her exact words were, �So did Rockefeller die and decide to leave the workers his fortune?� Papa rolled his eyes and told us that the financing was actually simple. Under a new state law, if an organization promises to limit its profits and charge no more than $11 per room, the organization can borrow two-thirds of the cost of construction at low interest rates without having to pay state and local taxes for 20 years. The co-op is going to cost 1 million 800 thousand dollars to build. The Amalgamated is borrowing 1 million 200 thousand dollars from the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. The other 600,000 dollars is coming from the co-operators, who buy shares in the co-op based on the size of the apartment they�ll live in. It�s $500 per room, Papa explained, so if you get a four-room apartment, the cost of your share is $2000. Mama�s jaw dropped when Papa said this. She figured that leaves people like us out. My father just smiled but he had a look in his eye that made me feel like I was going to be hearing about this again.

April 23, 1927

I can�t believe what I just heard as I passed the kitchen. Mama and Papa were talking in hushed voices and it sounds like Papa is really serious about joining this new housing co-op. He kept saying how great it would be to have a four-room apartment in an area surrounded by greenery, and how Hannah and I could play without dodging cars in the street. As always, Mama was worried about the money. She didn�t know where we could possibly get $2000, but Papa pointed out that they had $500 saved up and that the Amalgamated has worked it out so that people don�t have to come up with all the money at once. He said we could borrow $1,000 from the Amalgamated Credit Union, which we could pay back over time with almost no interest! We could even borrow another $500 from the Amalgamated Bank without having to give any guarantee. If we needed another $500, we could borrow that from the Amalgamated Bank as well, with a guarantee from the Yiddish Forverts newspaper. Mama was shocked that the Forverts would do that. Papa declared, they were socialists and believed that workers have a right to decent, affordable housing. Mama scoffed at the idea that you could really call housing affordable at $44 a month and complained we could never afford that plus the payment on our other loans. I was thinking to myself, �Score one for Mama,� but Papa came right back with a solution. He thinks he can earn extra money at work by squeezing four pieces out of the cloth they give him instead of three. He said his boss is fine with him making money on the extra piece, which could amount to ten more dollars a week.

Always the worrier, Mama asked Papa what would happen if the co-op failed. Wouldn�t we lose everything? Papa agreed but started firing off additional arguments�I call it Papa�s last desperate salvo. Didn�t we want to be owners? Didn�t we want to be part of creating better housing and a better community for workers? Then he went for the jugular and brought up Hannah�s lungs. He pointed out that it was like the country near Van Cortlandt Park and that fresh air would do her worlds of good.

It sounded like Papa was really wearing Mama down but she stood her ground and fought back .  She talked about how far away it was, that he�s not the one who would be leaving a mother behind in Brooklyn, that he�s not the one who would have to shlep groceries all the way from Jerome Ave, and that the whole thing just scared her to death.

At that point, I thought it was all over for Papa.

May 5, 1927

Oh boy, was I ever wrong. Tonight at dinner Mama and Papa announced that we were joining the Amalgamated Housing co-op.  Hannah and I sat there in stunned silence. A billion and one questions about the Amalgamated flooded through my head. When are we going to move? How big will the apartment be? Where will I go to school? Will there be other kids there?

Papa explained that the buildings are supposed to be finished by November, so we won�t be moving for a while. We�ll have a four-room apartment and a lot more space. 303 families will be living there, so Papa assured me that I�d make a lot of new friends. And best of all, he told me there will be plenty of room for me to play stickball without having to worry about cars.

As I sit here thinking about the move, I feel a little sad and scared about leaving Brooklyn. It�s going to be hard getting used to all these changes, but the Amalgamated sounds like it might be fun. Our family will be doing something people around here haven�t done before. I kind of like that. Maybe it�ll be okay.

November 1, 1927

Today was one of the most exciting days of my life. At 9 a.m., the bumping and screeching of a rickety old truck announced that the moving men were here. I was shocked when Mama told me that we wouldn�t be taking the broken down dresser that Hannah and I had been sharing. Mama proudly exclaimed that we were making a fresh start and that she only wanted us to take our best things.

After about an hour of bouncing through Manhattan and the South Bronx, the scenery started changing. Instead of looking at building after building, endless traffic, and honking cars, I was seeing trees, grass and huge open areas. It was an amazing site.

As we pulled up to the Amalgamated, excitement coursed through me like a river. It was raining hard as we stepped up to the entrance of the Tudor style brick buildings, but nothing could dampen our spirits today. Papa, Uncle Bernie, and the movers began lugging our stuff into our building. I went off to explore. This place was so different from our apartment building in Brooklyn.  The six connected four story walk-ups surrounded a huge courtyard where there was space for gardens, trees and even a fountain. The place still looked a little like a construction zone. Mud and plaster ran down the walkways that connected the buildings to each other and the stairs up to many of the entrances were still unfinished.  The unlucky families that lived in these buildings were pushing their furniture and barrels of belongings up planks to get inside, but no one seemed to mind. Everybody was busy introducing themselves to each other and helping each other out.  I could see kids running around the courtyard and knew that I would soon have lots of new friends.

By the time I ran upstairs to our third floor, Mama and Hannah were already unpacking. I then got my first glimpse of our new home.  It had a kitchen twice as large as our old one, two bedrooms, a shiny new bathroom and a living room! Plus it had views onto the courtyard and out over Van Cortlandt Park. I looked at Mama, shock written all over my face. For the first time on that long arduous day, Mama smiled.

I�m writing this entry by candlelight because the lights are not yet connected. That should happen within the next few days. The co-op is going to be able to purchase electricity from Edison wholesale and charge us at prevailing rates. The profit will help us develop other co-operative activities. Writing by candlelight makes me feel like a pioneer. In fact, I think all of us feel like pioneers, starting out on an exciting adventure.

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If I were to read you everything that Irving wrote in his journal as the Amalgamated got going, we would be here for a long, LONG time, so let me summarize these next few years for you.

The next few years were a whirlwind for Irving and his family. The co-operators focused on basic necessities first. They purchased a school bus to transport the children to the nearest school until they were successful in getting a new public school built in their own neighborhood. They started milk and ice co-operatives to make sure that these basics would be available at the cheapest price. They opened their own grocery store, buying their staples, meat and vegetables at wholesale prices. They even bought a farm so that they could cut out the middleman.

They also worked to enrich themselves socially and culturally. Early on, the Women�s Club held a grand bazaar that raised $3,000 to support the construction of an auditorium and to fund cultural activities such as plays, concerts, and lectures. The co-op established a tearoom where the adults could enjoy a five-cent cup of tea, relax, smoke a cigar, and talk politics. Always concerned about education, the co-op furnished and equipped its own library. Eventually, the co-operators voted to contribute $1 per family per month to support hiring an Educational Director, who helped organize community activities and a community newspaper.

The co-operators also developed activities for their children. For the little kids, there was a nursery school. For the older kids, there were activities like trips to museums, music, art and dance classes, nature walks in the park, and even a woodcarving workshop. During the summer, there was a day camp that cost $7 for the whole two months, with scholarships funded by street fairs for those who couldn�t afford it.

The Amalgamated continued to grow over the next few years. Shortly after the 107 original co-operators moved in, Building 6 was completed, bringing the number of families to 303. As word of the success of the community got out, the Amalgamated built an additional building in 1929, with space for 202 additional families to move in, including Irving�s Uncle Bernie, his new bride, and Bubbe.

As the population grew, so did the strong sense of community and mutual support among the co-operators. For instance, Hannah had a classmate named Shirley Friedman whom she didn�t particularly like.  When her mother became very ill, the Women�s Club helped the family by cooking, cleaning, and making sure the children were looked after. When the woman died, Irving�s family took Shirley in until her father was able to put things in order again. As far as Hannah was concerned, this was one of the downsides of cooperative living, but Mama thought back to when Hannah had pneumonia and how much easier it would have been had they had lived in a place like the Amalgamated.

Then the impact of the Great Depression hit, and the Amalgamated faced its biggest challenge yet.  Let�s hear about it in Iriving�s own words.

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February 16, 1932

Tonight, Mama and Papa asked us to remain at the table after dinner and told us that they wanted our input on a difficult decision. Papa talked about how times have gotten hard for everyone. He said that he�s lucky to still have a job, but that many people are out of work. Hannah chimed in and said that her friend Helen�s father had lost his job and that they might have to move to Boston, to live with her uncle. That was exactly Papa�s point--that when it�s hard to pay the rent, people start thinking about moving away to find jobs somewhere else, or to find a cheaper place to live, or even to get the money from their shares back so they can live on that. When people move, the Amalgamated has to buy back their shares. At that point I began to see the problem. Because money is scarce, there aren�t many new people who want to buy into the co-op, but there are lots of current co-operators who want to move out. Would the Amalgamated be able to find the money to pay people back when they wanted to leave?  If they couldn�t, the co-op would fail.

I was still confused about what the decision was that we faced. Mama explained that last year the co-op had managed itself so efficiently that Mr. Kazan had announced a rent rebate of $44. Hannah was thrilled, thinking that she�d be able to get a new winter coat to replace the raggedy one she�s wearing now. But Papa�s next statement threw Hannah�s fantasy out the window. He said that Mr. Kazan was urging everyone to donate their rebate to a Reserve Fund that would be used to buy back people�s shares if they have to leave the co-op.  Kazan suggested that if we build the Reserve Fund, pay departing co-operators back over time rather than all at once, and economize wherever we can, the co-op should be able to stay afloat.

Hannah groaned with disappointment and sank down in her chair. She really did want that winter coat. The struggle over whether to do what was best for her or what was best for the community was written all over her face. And to tell the truth, I couldn�t stop thinking about how nice it would be to have chicken for dinner a little more often. But I looked over at Hannah and she nodded her head. Our decision was clear--we would donate the money to the Reserve Fund for the good of the co-op. Papa�s smile widened and Mama looked so proud I thought she�d burst.

February 19, 1932

Papa came back from the Tea Room tonight with the most amazing news. Every single family in the Amalgamated will be donating its money to the Reserve Fund.

April 29, 1932

I�ve been thinking about my friend Max and his family�s problem. His dad�s an electrician but he hasn�t been able to find much work. Things have gotten so bad that they�ve considered going on Welfare. If they do that, the City will make them move away from the Amalgamated and into a tenement where they won�t even have their own bathroom. Max�s family is trying to stick it out without City aid, but it hasn�t been easy.

The Amalgamated is doing everything they can to help. They�re having his dad do electrical jobs around the buildings in exchange for some of the rent and they�re letting the family buy their milk, ice and groceries on credit. The family has also been borrowing money from the Emergency Loan Fund, which the co-operators established to help needy families. Each family contributes $1 a month to the fund and more if they can afford it.  Needy families can then borrow up to $400 from it interest-free and pay it back later. I know this is making a huge difference for the Rosenfeld�s.

Thinking about Max�s situtation took me back to my old friend, Sammy Finklestein. If Sammy�s family had gotten all this help, maybe he could have stayed in Brooklyn instead of having to move. It shows me how important a caring and helpful community is.  I am so lucky to live in the Amalgamated.

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Irving continued writing in his journal over the next five years. The Amalgamated emerged from the Depression weakened but intact.  Throughout those long difficult years, only two families were evicted for non-payment of rent, a tribute to its creative financial management and incredible mutual support. Irving graduated from high school and began attending City College. Just before his 21st birthday, he and his family joined the other co-operators at the Amalgamated to celebrate their tenth anniversary as a co-op.

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November 1, 1937

Tonight I sat in Vladeck Auditorium listening to Kazan reflect on his dream of seeing organized groups of individuals working together cooperatively to accomplish what single individuals could not. We�ve done that.  We�ve created a community where people can live in wonderful housing; where co-operative principles are applied to all kinds of services; and where people can really better themselves. We�ve supported not only our fellow co-operators but those struggling outside of the co-op as well-- striking miners, locked-out textile workers and the anti-fascists in the Spanish Civil War.

Kazan shared why he thought we had been so successful�why we were the only co-op to survive the Depression. He talked about our �can do� attitude when it came to the challenges we�ve faced and used as an example our recent crisis with the power company. What did we do when Edison petitioned the Public Service Commission to discontinue the sale of electricity to customers like the Amalgamated at wholesale prices? We built our own electric generating plant! Kazan also asserted that we survived because the Amalgamated never forgot that its primary purpose was to be a successful cooperative and that we worked hard not to let political ideologies distract us from that focus. Kazan said he wants to try to make his dream a reality for many more people in different parts of the city, which in my opinion would be fantastic.

As I look back on the last ten years, I can honestly say that growing up in the Amalgamated was a great experience. Did my parents make the right choice in moving here? The answer is definitely yes. I know this because I believe that the Amalgamated will be a great place to raise my own children in the years to come.

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Working on my Bar Mitsve project has opened up my eyes to many things. I now understand how complicated it is to start a co-op and the risks people take to join them. Even more importantly, I recognize that co-ops can be much more than affordable housing�they can be communities. As I learned about co-ops, I realized how much easier life can be when you are surrounded by a supportive community that can help you in times of crisis. And I realized how incredible it would be to be able to walk out into a courtyard and have all my friends right there�to be able to see them without having to have my parents drive me to their houses. Of course, I understand there are downsides to co-ops. In a co-op, you live just as close to the people you don�t like as to the people you do, and you have obligations to them as well. There is also a lot less space in most co-op apartments than there is in the house I live in, which means that things could get a little cramped. When I personally weigh the pros and cons of living in a co-op, I know that I could easily see myself choosing to live in one. It is not a choice that would be right for everyone but I think it would be right for me.

One of the most interesting things I learned during this project was that the vast majority of the people who lived in the co-ops I studied were Jewish. At first this seemed surprising to me, but it�s not as surprising as it may seem. Throughout the years, Jews have faced oppression and all the challenges that go along with it. They�ve learned to adapt, to support each other, to work together, to fight for justice, and to make a better life for themselves and for others. This was certainly the case with the Jews who immigrated to America around the time my family did. They came as the lowliest of the low, working in sweatshops, living in tenements, and struggling to survive. But they fought to make their lives better. They organized to improve their working conditions, not very skillfully at first but very effectively later on when they were joined by Jewish Bundists and other socialists who came to the U.S after the failure of the 1905 revolution in Russia. They built trade unions, mutual aid and educational societies like the Workmen�s Circle, and supported Yiddish socialist newspapers like the Daily Forverts. They belonged to organizations that fought for the rights of workers and other oppressed people. Housing co-ops like the Amalgamated, the Coops and the Shellies were a part of this. They grew out of the same political ideals�the same drive for a beserer, shenerer velt--a better, more beautiful world.

Both sides of my family were shaped by these same values. They were Anarchists, Communists, and Bundists. They believed in unions and fought oppression. They were willing to struggle hard, make sacrifices and take risks to create a better world. For my family, living out these values is a big part of being Jewish. When I think about that, I realize that it�s probably not an accident that so many of them have lived in co-ops.

I�m grateful that I got a chance to explore this aspect of my family history through my Bar Mitsve project. It wasn�t easy and there were times I would have preferred doing other things. But I learned a lot that I didn�t know and I understand my family in a different way. Irving Abramowitz was proud of his family and what they accomplished. I am equally proud of mine.