WORKING-CLASS UTOPIAS: A History of Cooperative Housing in New York City

Robert. M. Folgeson

ISBN 9780691234748  Princeton  £35

 Reviewed by Alan Dent

The tale Fogelson tells is both heartening and depressing. The former because, largely through the efforts of the remarkable Abraham Kazan, unions, banks, politicians of all stripes and many more became enthusiastic supporters of co-operative housing; the latter because Kazan’s hope that this could build towards a co-operative commonwealth was shattered by the defeat of social democracy or anything to the left of it by the reaction of the 1970s, which has endured since. Interesting that the name Fred Trump crops up as an opponent of a co-operative project. Trump was, at the time, the biggest builder in Brooklyn and anxious to defend his profits. Not all businesspeople or right-wingers were so benighted. Nelson A Rockefeller promised not only to roll up his sleeves, but to take off his shirt. Robert Moses also was a great supporter and worked hard for the cause. Interestingly, some on the right saw co-operative housing as a defence against public housing, which they perceived as socialist. They were far from blind to the negative impact of sub-standard housing not only on those who lived in it, but also on their businesses. Co-operative housing is more of an anarchistic than State paternalistic measure, yet the conservatives who supported it seem not to have noticed or to be concerned. Perhaps there’s something hopeful here: if conservatives can be prised away from their opposition to collective provision by enacting it through people’s own efforts rather than State intervention, maybe co-ops of all kinds can be rolled out without too much political friction. There are signs of this in the Community Wealth Building movement, which somewhat trips up the usual, well-honed right-wing rhetoric. In any case, what is clear from the first half of this book is that with vision, idealism, tenacity and hard-work remarkable improvements in the lives of the common people can be effected with the explicit support of big business and its political apologists. 

How the co-operative housing movement failed to be the future is summed up by Roger Starr, Professor of Urban Values at New York University:  

“We have gone from a period in which the measured approbation of one’s peers supported one’s sacrifices, to a period in which one is envied for what he has “gotten away with” in breaking the terms of a covenant solemnly agreed upon.” 

Does this mean the movement was irrevocably of its time and is now a museum piece? Co-op City ,opened in the north-east Bronx in the 1960s, still houses tens of thousands. It hasn’t been without its problems. Joshua Freeman argued it was inadequately built, mismanaged and subject to corruption. Some of its developments were sharply criticised for the aesthetic ugliness of their  towers. Renowned architects threw their hands up in despair. Charles Rosen who led the thirteen month rent strike which Fogelson explores in detail, was later convicted of embezzling from the charity he headed. Reminders that idealism has many enemies and is difficult to sustain; but New Yorkers on modest incomes can today buy a decent place to live in Co-op City. It stands and works as testimony to what can be achieved by co-operative effort in the interests of the common good, in spite of all the setbacks and hurdles. It should make us not optimistic in a Panglossian way, but hopeful.  

Kazan was President of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers’ Credit Union. The unions played a major role in developing the co-operative housing movement. They had money. In the 1950s The International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (charming name) had some $77 million in liquid and other assets. Why shouldn’t unions use their funds in such ways? Even the New York Times praised the unions as “enlightened” for their initiative.  

When the Penn Station South co-operative was dedicated on 19th May 1962, J.F. Kennedy gave a speech in which he said the ILGWU deserved “the heartiest commendations”. Difficult to imagine most post-Reagan Presidents permitting themselves such a sentiment. The responses of officialdom weren’t always so encouraging. The proposed James Peter Warbasse Houses (named after the founder of the Co-operative League of the USA) faced severe opposition (the Fred Trump incident) and was never built. A significant fly in the emollient ointment was the opposition of some white Americans to living cheek-by-jowl with their black fellow citizens. The co-operative spirit stretched only so far and faltered against the tragic inheritance of America’s white supremacism. That’s interesting because it suggests that a community of economic interest is not necessarily powerful enough to defeat less rational impulses. As Orwell argued, all doctrines are flimsy compared to patriotism. It seems the sense of belonging to a place or a tribe can activate the most potent emotions. America is slow to cast off its genocidal and prejudiced past. The sympathetic impulse behind the co-operative housing movement, in keeping with Adam Smith’s core belief that we have principles in our nature which interest us in the fortunes of others and need their happiness for nothing more than the pleasure of seeing it, is at odds with the negative emotions of supremacy. 

Did the thirteen-month rent strike which began in June 1975 at Co-op City seriously set back the movement? It’s hard to conclude, but though in defence of a good principle, the strike may have done some damage to its nose in spiting its face. It was resolved largely due to the good offices of Mario Cuomo who was inclined to support because of his Italian immigrant experience; another example of how unlikely bedfellows can conjoin for productive purposes.  

In the heartland of capitalism, where for decades the ignorant and heartless doctrine on neo-liberalism has been on the march, an idealistic co-operative movement inspired by a man who believed in a co-operative commonwealth succeeded in providing good housing at reasonable cost for a significant number. Perhaps Karl Marx wasn’t so mistaken (as he was in many of his predictions) when late in life he said that the country ripest for transformation to socialism was the USA.