A new film will air on PBS’s Independent Lens called “At Home in Utopia” on April 28th about the United Workers Cooperative Colony in the Bronx. This colony, when built in 1927, the Coops (rhymes with loops), was the largest cooperative housing project in the United States with 740 apartments—and from those apartments they planned to start a revolution.
“We were expected to conquer the world,” says one of the tenants. “This was going to be the main headquarters.” There were several other housing cooperatives like this in the Bronx. There was the Amalgamated Houses built by clothing and textile workers. There was the Sholem Aleichem Cooperative built by Jewish communists and socialists. And there was the Farband Houses built by the Labor Zionists. People came from all over the world to see what was happening in these cooperatives.
There is an important lesson from the Coops that we can take home today with the recession of 2009, and this is why I am excited to see this film. (Read Joel Bleifuss’s review on In These Times.)
During the Great Depression, when families were failing to make their mortgage payments, many states passed laws against mortgage foreclosures. In that climate, the Coops were able to negotiate their living situation and remain as tenants. Other families in the surrounding neighborhoods, however, were faced with eviction. The Coops took this opportunity to extend a helping hand:
“They would crowd into the apartment and would stand shoulder to shoulder, and the sheriff’s deputies could not get in to evict the families.”
But things eventually changed. After World War II revived the economy, foreclosure laws became more lax. Coops residents then had to vote whether to agree with a monthly rent increase of $1 per room which was foisted upon them by rising property values. This split the community over whether to pay or use direct action to oppose it. As leaders of the community, the voted not to pay, but apparently did not use direct action either. They subsequently lost their deeds, and apparently did not choose to remain as squatters. The cooperatives fell by the wayside, and the rest is history.