Building a better world

Housing activist Glyn Robbins had an opportunity to spend six months working and researching alongside his counterparts in New York City and discovered the rich history of housing co-operatives there. He also discovered the role of left wing Jews in creating them and their enduring legacy.

Building a better world

If you catch the number 2 line on the rattling New York City subway, get off at Allerton Avenue and walk two minutes towards Bronx Park, at the corner of the road you’ll find a distinguished looking apartment block. Its design immediately suggests a place with a history. When it was built, in 1927, this was the United Workers’ Cooperatives, known as “The Coops”. It was part of a movement, led by Jewish radicals, that envisaged not only better housing for working class people, but a better society.

The Bronx is the northernmost of New York City’s five boroughs (it’s the only borough attached to the US mainland, in case that question ever comes up in your trivia quiz). Today, it’s a very diverse place, with a population of 1.5 million, sometimes pejoratively associated with urban decline. But in the 1920s, living in the Bronx was aspirational. In The Jazz Singer, released the same year that The Coops opened, the Al Jolson character tells his mum that, if he makes it, they’ll leave the Lower East Side and “move up in to Bronx”. The suburban impulse was one of the first things ever heard in the movies! How many Jewish families in the East End of London said the same about moving to Ilford? 

The Coops were the product of trade union organisation, particularly amongst NYC’s garment workers. Determined to escape slum tenements and private landlords, the unions bought land at a relatively cheap price in the Bronx, which, in the early 20th century was still semi-rural. As well as a spacious apartment set amongst landscaped gardens with a rent they could afford, Coops tenants – known as “Coopnicks” – were invited to share a co-operative lifestyle that included on-site communal facilities, a library, cultural activities, many in Yiddish, and political activism. Just up the road from the Coops is another block where Coopnicks helped organise a militant rent strike in the 1930s.

They also supported The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War and, although it would be a stretch to say it was fully racially integrated, The Coops had African-American tenants when much of the US was rigidly segregated. Among them was Angie Dickerson, a long-time civil rights campaigner who attracted visits to the Coops by, among others, W E B Du Bois and Paul Robeson. In case anyone was in any doubt about the kind of place the Coops was, a hammer and sickle is carved into the stone above one of the doorways!

The Coops was one of several Bronx housing co-operatives inspired by first and second generation Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe who brought with them a determination to build a better world. Others were the Farband Houses (built by Labour Zionists), Sholem Aleichem Houses – named for the great Yiddish writer – and The Amalgamated Housing Co-Op. All of the buildings are still standing, but only the Amalgamated still operates as a co-op (the others have been privatised). It also dates to 1927 and was built by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union.

It provides 1,482 Bronx families with a home at rents approximately 30% below NYC’s extortionate market level. Meetings and social events are held in a hall named in honour of Baruch Charney Vladeck, one of several people involved in establishing workers’ housing co-ops in New York, who had been a member of the revolutionary Bund movement. The Treasurer of the Amalgamated is Ed Yaker, a retired teacher who has lived most of his 77 years there. He recalls that many of the early families were “anti-religious Jews” and remains a staunch trade unionist and defender of the founding co-operative principles of the Amalgamated, which drew heavily on the Rochdale Pioneers in 1840s Lancashire.

The Pioneers had a particular impact on Abraham Kazan. Born near Kyiv in 1889, Kazan left an indelible mark on New York City, where he arrived in 1904 as what today we might call an “unaccompanied minor”. He became active in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and for the next 60 years, used the powerful rag trade unions as the engine for producing thousands of co-operative homes, including the Amalgamated, where he lived and worked for many years.

Kazan’s earliest co-operative enterprises, like his predecessors in Rochdale, were faltering attempts at retail outlets, starting with selling sugar and matzos during a wave of strikes in the garment industry. But then, as now, the biggest issues facing working class communities were housing and health. Kazan identified the gross exploitation of a system that confronted low paid workers with the constant threat of rent hikes and eviction from often squalid homes. Today, thousands of New York tenants are again threatened with homelessness as the rapacious housing market recovers from Covid, but it’s a situation Kazan would have recognised from 100 years ago. Interviewed in 1969, he recalled: “The number of people that were forced to move one place to another grew larger and larger every month, and in those days the law was on the side of the landlord… If a man (sic) could not afford to pay the rent, all the landlord had to do was to go to court and get a warrant to have the man dispossessed… we wanted to have something better, something different than we had before.”

The first 303 homes at the Amalgamated, part funded by a loan from the Jewish Daily Forward newspaper, led to thousands more across New York City. About five miles east of the Amalgamated, on the other side of the Bronx, is Co-Op City, the biggest co-operative housing development in the world, where almost 45,000 people live in 15,372 homes.

Just south of Penn Street station, in the heart of Manhattan, are another 2,820 co-operative homes built by ILGWU funds in the early 1960s. Not far from the famous Coney Island boardwalk in Brooklyn is the 2,500-home Amalgamated Warbasse, the sister development of the one in the Bronx; and in Queens there’s Rochdale Village, named in recognition of the Lancashire co-operators (when you walk around the site, you see the original co-operative rules prominently displayed).

Kazan had a hand in all of these, often by working with the Russian émigré architect Herman Jesser and the controversial figure of Robert Moses, New York’s “master builder”, who denied his Jewish origins and created a form of racist urban development that has left deep and enduring wounds. But perhaps counterintuitively, today, about 20% of NYC’s housing is protected from the worst excesses of private landlordism, a combination of rent controls, public housing and the kind of co-ops that took root in the Bronx.

However, we should be wary of over-romanticising these achievements. As with most big development projects, including the cradle of council housing at the Boundary Estate in east London’s Bethnal Green, they had a flavour of social engineering and were preceded by displacement of previous residents, few of whom benefited from the improved, newly-built homes. Moreover, as Ed Yaker at the Amalgamated laments, promoting and preserving the ideals of co-operativism has become ever harder with the advances of suburbanisation and individualism.

Nonetheless, there are some important lessons for the UK labour movement in the housing history of New York. At a time when the political establishment, including the Labour Party’s leadership, appears locked into a pro-market housing death march, resurgent grassroots trade unionism may point to an alternative.

Attending recent RMT solidarity rallies, there were repeated expressions of support for a revival of council housing as the only truly affordable homes for workers in most of our towns and cities. Translating that into action will require the kind of determination and vision of the Bronx co-operatives and the Jewish radicals who created them, but they were precisely the kind of people Starmer and Co are currently trying to drive out of the Labour Party.

During six months working and campaigning alongside New York housing activists last year, I was repeatedly struck by the enduring legacy of Jewish socialism. The seeds planted 100 years ago continue to produce young Jewish radicals who know that only fundamental social change will reverse a return to the kind of conditions, at home and at work, that their forebears experienced and successfully resisted. Preserving that tradition is why the witch-hunt of Jewish socialists here in Britain must be resisted too.

Posted: 22 January 2023  |  Published in: Jewish Socialist No 77