Places that Matter
Amalgamated Housing Cooperative
Environs of 98 Van Cortlandt Park South
Bronx, NY 10463
Place Matters Profile
By Emma Jacobs
Abraham Kazan did not originally intend to build housing. Working in the garment workers unions in Lower Manhattan at the beginning of twentieth century, Kazan's first political cause was cooperation, a utopian vision that held special promise for progressive thinkers in the early decades of the twentieth century.
Kazan himself organized a string of cooperative projects, from a chain of cooperative groceries to cooperative coal and ice distribution to a cooperative hat shop. In the 1920s, working for Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union (ACWU), one of the pioneers of new unionism--labor organizing which extended its goals beyond the shoproom floor--Kazan started the Amalgamated's cooperative credit union. Meetings soon became progressive gatherings and weekly conversations kept returning to homes for workers.
Housing, for many, seemed a natural ally with the political idealism and collectivism of the trade-unionism which dominated Jewish life on the Lower East Side, particularly because the movement's low-income constituents badly needed a solution to their living situation. Ultimately, Kazan would be the champion of housing built by the Amalgamated, but he would channel a wider political idealism and utopianism within the labor movement to realize the project.
The Amalgamated was not the first cooperative in New York. A group of Finnish émigrés had built New York’s first cooperative development in 1918, European reformers had pursued cooperative housing for many decades, and other projects were in the works in Kazan's era. In the 1920s many on the Jewish left began to consider cooperativism in answer to the chronic shortage of affordable housing in New York. Philanthropic or semi-philanthropic efforts and attempted legislated reforms had had little impact on the perennial shortfall. New York had the world's highest urban population densities and the Lower East Side became the most densely populated neighborhood in New York. Increasing crowding and an increasingly deteriorating housing caused many to begin to leave the neighborhood when they could for other parts of the city, a trend that accelerated in the 1920s.
Following the passage of the New York State Housing Act in 1926 granting incentives for construction of low-income housing on a limited-dividend basis, Sidney Hillman, the Amalgamated Union's president, gave Kazan and the credit union members permission to forge ahead with their housing plans. Under the umbrella of the newly formed Amalgamated Housing Corporation (AHC), the organizers made plans for its newly purchased site in the still-rural Bronx, facing Van Cortlandt Park. The architectural firm of Springsteen and Goldhammer provided designs for six five-story walkups in a Neo-Tudor style (a popular look for the era's middle class housing). The AHC dropped its original plan for single family homes when that model proved too expensive for prospective tenants, and two-family homes would establish landlord-tenant relations, so they, too, were out of the question.
In the end, the Amalgamated's new structures were both a continuation and a departure from city living on the Lower East Side. Apartments still, they had high ceilings and offered greater personal privacy for families--examples of benefits that were achieved with significant added costs; separate entrances to the buildings meant that no more than two families shared a landing. The apartments ringed a central, heavily-planted courtyard.
Groundbreaking took place on Thanksgiving Day, 1926. Construction in the Bronx began shortly after. Kazan could not keep away from the construction site. He visited almost daily, roaming the grounds. He mixed the five colors of the brick by hand to prevent patches appearing in the walls until the construction union told him to stop or get a union card.
On November 1st of the following year, when the first two buildings were unveiled, it rained all day. The electric company had not finished wiring the buildings so temporary lighting was rigged up for the opening ceremonies. These failings notwithstanding, tenants reacted with enthusiasm. One family sneaked into one of the unopened buildings to spend the night.
The first generation of the "pioneer cooperators" was overwhelmingly Jewish. Arriving from the labor movement or encountering the project through friends and acquaintances, enthusiastic cooperators invested an initial $500 a room for a share of the project, a major investment equivalent to roughly 24 months of a worker's pay. Many took out loans to pay for the deposits, with much of that money put forward by the Jewish Daily Forvartz. Harold Ostroff, who grew up in the cooperative, recalled receiving a letter from his father when he was in the army, announcing that his father had finally assumed full ownership of his apartment sixteen years after moving in. The rest of the initial costs would come in the form of loans from institutional backers.
Cooperators continued to pay monthly carrying charges while they lived in the development, roughly equivalent to but slightly lower than average rents for similar housing in the city but many took particular pride in the 'ownership' of their homes. In the end, several tenants would refuse to sign their first leases written up in standard legalese with resident-cooperators referred to as "tenants." Several never signed leases. Holdouts lived on in the building without a contract, paying their carrying charges month to month but never agreeing to the language of the legal paperwork which denied them the formal language of ownership of their apartments.
The architect Daniel Liebeskind grew up in Amalgamated Houses from the age of thirteen. "[The AH] wasn't just the architecture, which was very simple, but thoughtful," he told the New York Times. "It was also an ethical idea. We formed a community in the real American sense."
The relative emptiness of the area of the Bronx in which the Amalgamated Houses went up made investment in cooperative life and patronage of cooperative enterprises both a choice and a necessity. Cooperators became involved to varying degrees with the communal activities which flourished in the development.
A nursery followed soon after the cooperative grocery. The Amalgamated Houses' first bulletin appeared on January 5, 1928, a hand-typed broadsheet with the aim to "promote better understanding of our needs, resulting in closer cooperation." The bulletin announced the cooperative’s news in verse:
Listen folks - - - - -
We’ve news today
A library is coming
with us to stay.
Community spaces received particular attention. The corner basement room fitted with library tables and chairs held several thousand volumes from the outset, as well as periodical and newspaper racks. Paintings by artistic members of the community and busts of notable figures lined the walls. The active intellectual life of the cooperators was channeled with regular classes and lectures in the auditorium and groups of enthusiasts in subjects ranging from stamp collecting to model building.
When the Amalgamated Co-Operator, (which replaced the bulletin), faced threats during lean fiscal times in 1933, the impassioned educational director who would intermittently oversee communal activities in the co-ops for decades, Herman Liebman, wrote: "If our enterprise is another apartment house, there is no need for a Bulletin. In fact, there is no need for any cultural activity. If, on the other hand, ours is a link in the chain of universal cooperative endeavor, a Bulletin, and a better Bulletin, is indispensable."
The Depression severely affected the Amalgamated Houses and other Jewish cooperative developments in New York, stretching the human and financial resources of these communities, in most cases to their breaking point. In 1931, among the Amalgamated Cooperators, nearly a third worked in the heavily Jewish garment trades. As the Amalgamated Union's Jacob Potofsky remarked, in hard times "You don't buy a new suit." The garment industry suffered early on in the Depression, and as a result, so did the cooperatives filled with many of its employees. The creditors of the nearby Allerton Coops foreclosed on the property’s mortgage.
Only three New York cooperatives, including the Amalgamated Houses, survived the Depression. Kazan and others commonly credited the Amalgamated’s survival to their own shrewd financial management throughout the period. Kazan was an idealist, but a frugal and practical one. To that end, for example, his obituary in the New York Times would recall his frequent feuds over electricity rates with Consolidated Edison. His commitment to the financial viability of the project ultimately stemmed from his commitment to cooperativism--he felt a financial failure would hurt the movement. The Amalgamated's institutional backers within the Jewish community, The Forvartz and the ACWU also offered their leverage and finances to sustain the community.
Nevertheless, the Co-Operator announced that "our community is tightening its belt a bit and is staring the depression squarely and resolutely in the face." Economic necessity during this difficult period had even led the community to accept a limited number of residents from higher income brackets who would not have been admitted before, in some cases as tenants instead of cooperator-owners. Kazan knew that not everyone attracted to the Amalgamated was interested in cooperation, but his desire to keep the project viable led him to take advantage of all available opportunities to forward his cooperative vision. Communal activities had to be down-scaled, in some cases replaced with Works Progress Administration-funded alternatives.
Despite the difficult years of economic hardship, the development recovered and even grew during the Depression and in the decades afterwards. The AHC constructed an additional building in 1929 and a fourth unit in a more traditional apartment-house style in 1931, taking advantage of low building costs.
Amalgamated Houses would continue to add structures to accommodate more families in the years to come. Between 1949 and 1951, the development doubled in size. Two large towers completed in 1968 and 1970 replaced five of the first six buildings that went up on Van Cortland Park to provide more housing on the site. Today the complex houses nearly 1,500 families. Many remain who were born and grew up in the buildings--the oldest, now octogenarians--who have watched decades of changes unfold.
Many influential figures of the era backed the Amalgamated Houses. Besides the ACWU's Sydney Hillman, the project's supporters included Baruch Charney Vladeck of the Jewish Daily Forvartz, prominent housing reformer Louis Pink, and Aaron Rabinovitz, a member of the State Board of Housing. Vladeck and Pink sat on the board of the New York City Housing Authority, formed in 1934. Rabinovitz would prove instrumental to the expansion of Kazan's endeavors, co-sponsoring a cooperative project on the Lower East Side with then Lieutenant-governor Herbert Lehman, constructed and administered by Kazan, whose services were donated by the ACWU. Additionally, a number of those most impressed by the Amalgamated's projects, including Kazan, would collaborate with Robert Moses, the controversial champion of many of the slum clearance and urban renewal projects that were transforming the city in the postwar years.
Kazan himself owned an apartment in Amalgamated Houses through the 1960s. In 1951, he founded the United Housing Foundation (UHF), a federation that included the ACWU but also other unions, and fraternal and social service organizations that were interested in cooperativism and affordable housing. The UHF backed a total of eight major developments around the city, culminating with the 15,000-unit Co-op City in the Bronx, the largest cooperative development in the country, in the 1960s. Kazan, who died in 1971, looked to his earliest initiatives in the Bronx as the closest realization of his ideals of collective life.
Today, cooperatives have found some foothold in the city. New York's Mitchell-Lama program, created in 1955, funded construction of affordable rental and cooperative housing. Subsidies have made the cooperative more affordable than regular market apartments, so that many have retained cooperative ownership beyond the period mandated by legislation. Many wealthier New York residents and landowners have also adopted a cooperative living arrangement for reasons of control and economic benefit.
However, a lack of political will and interest meant that cooperative housing would never dominate the housing market as Kazan and his fellow-cooperators had hoped. Cooperatives survived in the city, particularly in New York, but their survival was limited and conditional.
Ed Yaker, whose parents--both union members--moved into Amalgamated Houses in 1941, later became the president of the board. "It’s an interesting question I've wrestled with," he remarks today, "what would the Kazans say if they saw [the Amalgamated] today?" The early organizers, he says, thought cooperatives would be the dominant model for the entire country by now. He concludes, in light of the big dreams of the Amalgamated’s founders, "I think they'd be less disappointed with us than with the rest of the country."
Today, the Amalgamated itself is the oldest limited-equity housing corporation in the United States. Even many of Kazan's UHF cooperatives converted to private ownership in recent years. The area surrounding the Bronx cooperatives has filled in and changed. The Amalgamated itself has been designated a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community, offering services to support older residents--often descendents of the original cooperators choosing to age in their family homes. But, at the same time, a younger and more ethnically diverse population seeking affordable rents in a strong community have also entered the co-ops, alongside the population of the pioneers and their descendents.
Though the old timers who remember the heady, early idealism of the early Amalgamated cooperators are now significantly in the minority, the Amalgamated community still sustains a newsletter. It maintains a nursery school, day camp, a photography group, and discussion groups--with the addition of yoga classes and an International Food Night.
Adriance, Jane W. "The Influence of Cooperative Housing on the Formation of Friendships; a Study of Women Living in the Amalgamated Cooperative Apartments in New York City." MA Thesis, Columbia University, 1937.
Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union Papers. ILR School Martin P. Catherwood Library, Ithaca, NY.
Amalgamated Co-Operator: Nov. 1929-Apr. 1934. New York Public Library, New York.
At Home in Utopia, directed by Michal Goldman, Filmmakers Collaborative, 2008.
Dolkart, Andrew. "Non-Profit Cooperatives in New York City: 1916-1929." SITES 21, no. 22 (1989): 30-42.
Goodman, Lynne. "The Cooperative Century." The Cooperator, June 2000.
Goodman, Lynne. "The Mitchell-Lama Debate." The Cooperator, November, 2001.
Harrison, Charles Yale. First Houses. New York: New York City Housing Authority, 1935.
Kazan, Abraham E. Interview by Lloyd Kaplan, New York, various locations, 1967. Oral history collection. Butler Library, Columbia University, New York, NY.
Leavitt, Jacqueline. "The Interrelated History of Cooperatives and Public Housing from the Thirties to the Fifties." In The Hidden History of Housing Cooperatives, edited by Allan Heskin and Jacqueline Leavitt. Davis: Center for Cooperatives, University of California, 1995.
Ostroff, Harold. Interview by Mildred Finger, June 21, 1984. William E. Wiener Oral History Library of the American Jewish Committee, New York Public Library, New York, NY.
Plunz, Richard. A History of Housing in New York City: Dwelling Type and Social Change in the American metropolis. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990.
Potofsky, Jacob Samuel. Interview by Neil Gold, 1964. Oral history collection, Butler Library, Columbia University, New York, NY.
Schwartz, Joel. The New York Approach: Robert Moses, Urban Liberals, and Redevelopment of the Inner City. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1993.
Wray, Kenneth G. "Abraham E. Kazan: The Story of the Amalgamated Houses and the United Housing Foundation." Completed for MA Thesis, Columbia University, 1991.
Yaker, Ed. Interview by author. New York, NY, January 5, 2009.
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