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DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Radical Builders in the Bronx

DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Radical Builders in the Bronxour generations of families, so far, have written their histories in this place in the Bronx. Four generations have lived interconnected lives at Amalgamated Houses, a cooperative community that is the proud result and sole surviving originator of a movement that forever changed affordable housing in this country. And as the original residents age and their families have grown, this community continues to find creative solutions to the changing needs of its residents.

It was a vision of utopia, in a city notorious for its tenement slums and crowded immigrant ghettos. In the 1920s, in the north Bronx, four radical collectives began a bold social experiment – building homes and communities that embraced all aspects of a better life for working people – political, economic, artistic, and communal.

Four Bronx cooperatives – the Amalgamated Houses, the Farband Houses, the Sholem Aleichem Cooperative, and the United Workers Cooperative Colony (known as the Allerton Coops) – were built by groups of mostly secular immigrants whose sometimes clashing politics ranged from anarchist to communist to socialist, but who shared the common goal of improving living conditions for their families and hopes of changing society.

These Bronx housing settlements were a reaction against the notorious immigrant slums of the Lower East Side, of East Harlem, and Brooklyn. They were created by organizations that were part of the radical labor movement that flourished in New York after the turn of the twentieth century. These unions included the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, the communist-dominated United Workers, and the Zionist National Jewish Workers’ Alliance.

Millions of immigrants were coming into the United States, among them two million Yiddish-speaking Jews, many with deep roots in radical politics, most of whom settled in New York City. Italian and Jewish garment workers, and working women, who were alienated from mainstream unions, embraced the socialist, anarchist, and other groups that spoke their languages, unionized their sweatshops, and staged mass picketing. Subsequent garment workers’ strikes in 1909 and 1910 solidified the strength of these labor unions.

These left-wing idealists believed in collective ownership and better lives. With an extraordinary scale of ambition they found large tracts of land available in the north Bronx, by the large, lush Van Cortlandt Park. They pooled their resources and bought the properties, secured mortgages, hired architects, and created affordable apartment houses that they owned and operated cooperatively. Built without direct public funding and based on the principle of limited equity, which barred shareholders from selling their apartments for profit or on the open market, these co-ops became the largest concentration of nonprofit cooperative housing in the country. This nonprofit, labor-sponsored housing created homes for thousands, connected by subway to the rest of the city, yet with the benefits of open space and courtyards. They became a model for the creation of some 50,000 New York apartments after World War II. Although only Amalgamated Houses still functions with its original cooperative ideals intact, all the buildings still stand.

DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Radical Builders in the Bronx

These visionaries wanted more than just cheap and decent housing – they wanted open space and air and they designed the apartments around courtyards with gardens and fountains. They created cooperative groceries and dairies and one co-op even bought a farm to supply fresh healthy food. Nurseries were open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. to provide daycare that accommodated working parents. They started restaurants, laundries, and credit unions, schools, libraries, and gymnasiums. They had collective facilities for music, science, arts, and language clubs, literary groups, and religious and social gatherings.

Their vibrant activist communities created newspapers, books and other publications, radical schools and camps, sponsored lectures and concerts, created political campaigns and organizations. They formed the Workman’s Circle, a social organization that provided sickness and death benefits. They agitated for tenants’ rights and social welfare, ran political candidates for local and state offices, and were anti-fascist, anti-slavery, anti-discrimination – allowing and encouraging African-American members.

DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Radical Builders in the Bronx

They were factory workers, carpenters, and tailors – but they could also be artists and philosophers, poets and painters. Some famous residents of the Bronx co-ops include the painters Marc Chagall and Abraham Manievich, composer Jacob Schaefer, poets Malka Lee, Isaac Raboy, and Aaron Rapoport, historian Jacob Shatsky, and architect Daniel Libeskind.

The Amalgamated Houses is the only group that survived the Depression with its cooperative ownership structure fully intact, and it has flourished and grown with the changing needs of its original inhabitants and the generations that followed. Amalgamated, built with the support of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers’ Union, adapted its financial management during the Depression, both to protect itself from residents “cashing out” (it would return investments in monthly payments, not lump sums, so as to maintain its capital reserve) and to help residents in harsh financial circumstances to stay in their apartments by using their investment to pay rent, on the promise of future repayment when fortunes improved. Management used personal loans to keep the co-op store stocked. The Jewish Daily Forward newspaper extended a loan. Tied to the strength of the union, the co-op negotiated with the bank for suspension of interest payments during the Depression years, and a reduction of those rates as they came out of the slump. It cut operating costs to the bone – even built and for a while ran its own energy generating plant. It created flexibility for payments from new cooperators and slowly built back a strong reserve. It was a model of community and cooperation that evolved and strengthened and nurtured generations. The residents have “kept the faith” of nonprofit housing and resisted the temptation to privatize.

DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Radical Builders in the Bronx

Ed Yaker is president and chairman of the board at Amalgamated Houses. Now in his early sixties, he was born and raised here. He has a keen sense of the importance of the cooperative’s history.

“November 1, 1927, was the day when the first group of 107 cooperators set foot in their apartments,” he said. “We survived because Abraham Kazan, the first president, had the vision of a socialist idealist but also the sense of a businessman. He knew if it failed, everyone lost. He demonstrated that it was a viable economic form for the working New Yorker.

“Amalgamated did not fail,” Yaker continued, “It grew. It survived the Depression, and it survived World War II. By 1947 it grew to 700 families. It expanded and doubled in size from 1949 to 1951.”

A new housing cooperative, Park Reservoir, was created in 1957. For almost fifty years the two cooperatives have shared common management and common activities, and have been a joint community. Their buildings share streets with smaller apartment complexes and single-family homes, creating a comfortable, mixed neighborhood. Amalgamated started with six buildings with 303 units. It prospered and expanded after the war, and has grown to eleven buildings with 1,482 apartments and commercial spaces.

Yaker’s family – his mother a milliner from Latvia and his father a furrier and presser from Moldova – moved to Amalgamated from downtown Manhattan in 1941. Many of their friends, also garment and factory workers, were living here. It was a place that allowed them to stay connected to their homelands through culture and politics, yet created a new model for a better environment to raise their children.

“It was a great place to grow up,” he said. “There were kids all over the place, lots of friends and no worries. Everyone knew you, and knew you belonged here.” He loved the time spent at Circle Pine Day Camp, established by cooperators for their children. “We went swimming every day at Tibbetts Brook. We’d play ball, do arts and crafts, ceramics, woodworking.”

Political involvement was always a part of life. “My parents had their politics. There was a wide range – all on the progressive part of the spectrum. They were very involved union people.” His father stood on picket lines. They belonged to the Workman’s Circle – a social bonding group.

There were nurseries and play groups. A print shop put out political pamphlets and magazines. And the cultural was as important as the political. The co-op was designed with working studios – for painters, sculptors, for group classes in ceramics, woodworking, photography, and crafts. The artists who got individual studios taught children’s art classes in return for cheap rent.

The grand space of Vladeck Hall, named for B. Charney Vladeck, the editor of the socialist Forward, has hosted performances by the theatrical and musical clubs, discussions by philosophical and poets’ groups, as well as art exhibits, youth dances, book fairs, weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, Thanksgiving and other holiday celebrations. Large photographs of such events through the years, and scenes of the gardens and buildings taken by the photographers’ club, line the walls of the hall. A piano graces the stage.

Bernie Olshak and his son Aaron are two New York artists who live and have nurtured artistic careers out of their studios in Amalgamated Houses. Bernie met his wife, who grew up in the co-op, and moved here in 1962. He was an established artist with a period of study in Paris and a number of one-man shows in Manhattan. The educational director, Herman Liebman, found him an affordable studio, on the condition that he teach art classes for co-op children.

“When I was first married, I became part of the community,” Bernie said in an interview in his spacious, light-filled studio, full of his large, semi-abstract paintings, the brushes and paints and cloths of his business, and books, sculptures, and drawings.

DESIGNER/builder Magazine - Radical Builders in the Bronx

“It was thrilling to live in a community of people who were close. My wife Lyla lived here since she was a baby. Her parents were original cooperators. We have friends here we have known for most of our lives. We moved into a huge apartment. There was the courtyard with a fountain. We never closed our windows or doors. Everybody was welcome. There was a terrific camaraderie.

“I worked as a cultural arts director at the YMHA for seventeen years, and I painted,” Bernie said. “I taught classes here. We set up shows with Manhattan artists and locals. We had lectures, fundraisers, costume balls. Actors and entertainers had caf é nights; they invited intellectuals and artists and writers and poets. They always had space for culture here. There’s always a connection. Poetry and literature and photography and sculpture – it all goes on here.”

His son Aaron was on the same path. “From five years old I knew what I wanted to be, from the first moment I saw him do a drawing,” he said. He watched his father and hung out with the neighborhood artists. He went to the High School for Music and Art, and as he was preparing to go to college he went to the same Herman Liebman and said, “I don’t want to have to paint in my room anymore.” The director looked at his work, pronouncing it “very professional” and good enough to deserve a studio. Without it, Aaron says, “I would not have been able to fulfill my dream. It enabled me to develop as an artist. I’ve had my studio here now for thirty-one years.” His studio is overflowing with densely layered paintings and sculptural constructions, and he is involved in the downtown art scene.

Through the tree-lined blocks near Aaron’s studio, Ray Martinez was pushing a stroller carrying his son Diego, almost a year old. A graphic designer, he had moved here six years earlier, and his apartment in the high-rise that Amalgamated built in the late 1960s has views of the Manhattan skyline. These buildings, with terraces and central air conditioning, were built to give workers the equivalent of modern, even luxurious, apartment living.

“It’s a community, when most places are not,” Martinez said. “People know each other and work together for a better place to live.” He learned of the housing opportunity through a friend, another lifelong cooperator.

There’s a camaraderie and pride among the residents that speaks of genuine care and achievement. And as the original cooperators have aged, so they have developed what they call NORC – a Naturally Occurring Retirement Community. It creates a model for assisted living that lets members stay in their apartments with full access to medical, social, and health workers – able to remain within the community where many have lived their whole lives. The weekly bulletins from the print shop these days detail not rent strikes and activist events so much as community news and free yoga classes.

Beatrice Simpson, whose family was the first to move into the still-under-construction Amalgamated, is described by Yaker as “the protector and the love” of the community.

“I came here in 1927, when I was four years old – and I never left,” octogenarian Bea said, sitting in her spacious apartment, surrounded by family photographs and art work. Her balcony overlooks miles of the surrounding Bronx streets, full of trees and gardens.

“We were the first family, and the courtyard was mud, and we had to go up the stairs on boards,” Bea said. “We had a beautiful four-room apartment, after living in railroad flats.” She and her older sister Sylvia, then seven, would follow the mailman around all twenty-four entrances. “We knew every family, and we would greet all the people moving in – we were the big shots!

“The women immediately formed a women’s club,” Bea recalls, “where they ended up helping any family in need, helping each other. If somebody had a baby, and had another child, they did the shopping. They acted as if they were one family.”

The mothers immediately organized the nursery schools, ran the day camps, held fund-raising bazaars whenever the camp or an activity club had a deficit. “Their whole aim in life was to do for their children what they felt they weren’t able to get when they were growing up. The boys went to war, and the mothers – again the Women’s Club – would make sure that they visited the families of the boys that were away. Especially if there was anybody wounded or anybody missing in action. It was just amazing, the insight these people had for humanism.

“The Women’s Club – I think of them as liberated women. They used to save money and every spring they would take a holiday. They would have a bus. They went to Ausable Chasm, they went to Fort Ticonderoga, they went to Washington, D.C. These were women who never had – they didn’t have cars, they didn’t have money, but they wanted to experience things in the world. So they would leave us with the fathers and kiss us and the children and the fathers would wave to them. The joy that they would come home with was just tremendous, and it was so fulfilling for them as human beings.”

Bea remembers running races at camp while her parents were “off picketing.” “We had a wonderful day camp,” Bea said. “It was seven dollars a season and they would never ask us for another dollar. We went swimming every day. We had weaving and ceramics, performances, all kinds of cultural classes. Dance classes were twenty-five cents.”

She recalls the house bus that took Amalgamated children to school until their parents agitated for and helped build the new P.S. 95. There was such pride in the creation of that school, she said, that to this day – at bar mitzvahs, weddings, anniversary parties, at almost any gathering – the school song is still sung with joy and raucous enthusiasm.

The Depression hit hard, and Bea’s father, Israel Lutzin, who started the co-op library, died when she was nine years old. Her mother, Ray, had to raise two daughters.

“It was very hard,” Bea said. “But she did whatever she had to do, because she wanted us to have a proper place to live.” The family’s dry goods store closed, and they struggled to survive on home relief, the welfare of the time, supplemented by Sunday trips to Orchard Street on the Lower East Side to buy goods on order from neighbors. “Over my dead body!” was her mother’s response to the city’s attempt to move them to a cheaper apartment downtown. She negotiated a deal with Amalgamated, using her initial investment to pay the rent and so allowing her to stay and to repay the debt when times got better. “To us, it was the most meaningful and wonderful thing of the cooperative,” Bea said. “To know that you were not thrown out of your apartment because you did not have any money to pay your rent. It enabled my mother to bring up her family in the atmosphere that she wanted.” This saved other families from losing their homes and prompted the co-op to create a larger reserve fund.

Bea, her sister, and the other cooperators’ children grew up together. After knocking around the different playgrounds and hanging on adjacent buildings’ fences, she formally met her future husband at a fund-raising dance. Bea Lutzin married Irving Simpson in 1946, after he returned from the war. They had a son and a daughter, and as their family grew they moved to larger apartments and eventually started their own bridal business.

Bea treasures the achievements of their cooperative dream and the kinship that endures. “To see the progress, and the way things worked out, is wonderful,” she said. “When there was trouble, everybody was there to help. When there was joy, everybody was with a smile to share the joy with us.

“All my friends and support system are here. There is community, if you want it. There’s a nurse and a social worker on duty to help the aging people. There’s music, poetry, always something on a Thursday or a Tuesday. There’s lunch at the synagogue for seniors. I go whenever I can, or want to. There’s always a party – for Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Thanksgiving, any excuse. They will take you for a walk or to see the doctor. They will pick up your meds, your groceries, your mail. They speak English and Spanish. And it’s free! Where do you get this?

“I went into the hospital. It seemed like a thousand people wanted to bring me my soup and chicken. It’s wonderful.”

A flyer is distributed weekly to keep the residents apprised of the discussion groups, the nursery school bazaars, when the trainer is coming to the fitness center, the children’s art classes, the pharmacist’s visit for medical advice, the theater club, the painting exhibits. As the population ages, transforms, and welcomes new generations, these people are sustaining and re-creating their rich culture and community.

“The original cooperators came out of an ideal, a social movement, and although there were a lot of radical political factions, they all came together on the issue of a co-op as a way to build and own homes. It was a unique idea for working people,” Ed Yaker said.

“Our values are of democratic governance, shared responsibility, constant education, mutual respect.” It’s cooperation for service, not for profit, Yaker said – of what he called “growing up Amalgie.”Designer/builder Magazine