Amalgamated Housing Cooperative: Early History 1926-1940
([S] indicates a slide was shown at this time in the talk. The slides can be seen at http://www.columbia.edu/~hauben/amalgamated/history/Amal-1926-1940.pdf)
I want to dedicate this talk to Frank Schonfeld [S]. Sadly, Frank died on Nov. 2, 2011. He passed away quietly in his sleep. Born in Nagykároly, Hungary in 1916, Frank lived 95 active years. Frank and his wife Jean moved into the Amalgamated in 1945, where they lived continuously for 64 years until 2009. Frank was committed to the idea of cooperative housing. He served on the Board and, when not on the Board, was a leader of the loyal opposition. Everyone recognized that he acted out of philosophical conviction and never for personal gain. Frank was a life long fighter against corruption and will always be remembered as a wonderful character, inspiring others to be active and courageous in the fight for a better world. He will be missed.
My talk begins after WWI. In the 1920s there existed in NYC a severe housing shortage. Landlords were able to charge high rents for even very small, run down apartments and tenement flats[S]. And the rents kept rising. Tenant groups formed and there were rent strikes. But the housing situation did not seem to have a solution at least not for working people. Mainly it was not profitable then and is not profitable now for anyone to build a decent apartment building to be rented to low and moderate income people.
In the 1920s, Abraham Kazan [S] was in his 30s. Today, he is well known for helping many cooperative housing projects emerge in NYC. But he did not originally intend to build housing. His interest was to help people work and live together in a way that encouraged cooperation. Kazan had a vision that organized groups of people will one day learn to cooperate and accomplish results that individually they could not.
Together with a group of socialist-inspired labor organizers he put together a credit union for members of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America so the workers were their own bankers. During weekly discussions the organizers also wondered, could there be a way that workers can build and own their own homes in New York City? On the surface it seemed impossible in a city like New York because of the high cost of land, materials and construction.
The group developed a vision of a few hundred workers chipping in what they could afford and using that as a basis to get a loan to build their own housing project. The foundation of their vision was the idea that if profit, and speculation, and the landlord were eliminated, the result could be decent housing, affordable by low wage workers. In such housing, people could live cooperatively, taking care together of their common property but also caring for each other and the world.
Kazan and his fellow organizers trusted that ordinary people sharing common ownership, democratic governance and enough educational and cultural activities would become a cooperative community. The Amalgamated cooperative housing experiment was to be their first practical project toward realizing this vision
At first, Kazan's group could not get a bank or business to loan them the $1,000,000 they estimated they needed to build a housing project.
But the housing shortage was becoming explosive. New York State officials sought a way to encourage construction aimed at housing for low and moderate income working people. In 1926, the state passed a new housing law.[S] This law allowed for lower taxes and lower mortgage interest if the sponsor of a housing project provided one third of the money needed for the project. The sponsor would also have to agree to keep the rent at a low rate for 20 years, and accept state regulation of the project.
Kazan and his group made calculations. If 300 workers could put up $500/room each, together they could sponsor a project for themselves under the 1926 law. A four room apartment would mean a $2000 investment in 1927 dollars or $25,000 in today’s dollars.
But $2000 back then was around one year’s wages. Few textile workers could have saved that much money. Kazan, working with B Charney Vladeck[S] the general business manager of the Jewish Daily Forvarts newspaper arranged for the Forvarts to be the cosigner so workers could borrow on easy terms up to one half of the $500/room they needed.
Kazan’s group arranged a down payment on a plot of land in the North Bronx. They chose a sparsely inhabited area and a plot surrounded by Van Cortland Park, the Jerome Reservoir and Mosholu Parkway as protection from any deterioration in the neighborhood in the future. They wanted working and low income people to have fresh air and parks and gardens as good as what wealthier people could afford. In 1937 Kazan wrote that "Our members are very fortunate in [our] having selected one of the finest locations in the city. Under the usual rental conditions such location and surroundings would be totally beyond their means."
With the backing of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers union, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company agreed to a $1.2 million loan. The financing was in place.
Next the priority was the layout of the apartment interiors. The bedrooms should have cross ventilation so tired workers could get better sleep. The kitchens should be eat-in with a window so the women had space to do their cooking and serving. Each apartment should have a foyer and adequate closet space. The buildings should be oriented so every window let in light and had a view either of a park or of an inner courtyard. The building design should leave outdoor spaces for green areas and paths. High ceilings, parquet hardwood floors, tiled bathrooms were designed to make the apartments substantial and permanent.[S]
These design features added to the cost but were required by the vision of well built permanent livable apartments for working people. Kazan wrote that "in designing and planning the buildings, . . .maximum care was taken to provide advantages ordinarily sacrificed for the sake of additional income and profits."
Construction was started on Thanksgiving Day in 1926. Many of the future tenants visited the site as often as possible to watch the construction of their new home. As November 1927 approached, the first sections of the 303 apartment project were nearing completion. Some anxious, brave people moved in on Nov 1 despite rain and mud, and the fact that all the electrical wiring was not yet connected.
The organizers set up the Amalgamated Housing Corporation as the owner and manager of the project. Kazan was appointed first president of the 5-member Board of Directors. The tenants who paid $500/room to help make the financing and construction possible were the shareholders. Each family would have one vote at the annual meetings. An elected House Committee was created to help settle problems between cooperators or between tenants and management but also to bring the voice of the cooperators to the Board. Kazan was chosen to be the manager. He was the only paid administer.
The project had two buildings. The first was numbered 1 to 5 [S] and stood where the Towers are today. The second is Bldg 6 which has Vladeck Hall in it. Both buildings were five story walk-ups and had inner court yards.[S] No elevators were allowed because there was an electric laboratory where Saint Patrick’s Home is now that would not allow interference with its work.[S]
All 303 apartments were fully occupied by February 1928. During the first year, the rent successfully covered the expenses and Amalgamated received many applications for any possible vacancies. This early success and the vision of ever expanding workers’ self owned housing led to thoughts for more construction. The Amalgamated Corporation sought to buy for its future buildings all the land along Van Cortland Park South facing the park.
Plans were made to add two new buildings just west of # 6. The first built was called Bldg 7. It has 206 apartments, elevators and its own inner courtyard and was completed by October 1929. It is just across the street from Bldg 6 and Van Cortlandt Park.
The next building would have been #8 but Amalgamated did not yet own the next plot of land. So it constructed Bldg 9 on the land it owned between Gouverneur and Orloff Avenues. Bldg 9 has 115 apartments, elevators but no inner court yard. Even before it was completed in 1932, all the apartments were subscribed for.
But the Amalgamated is more than just buildings. It was meant to be a proto type of cooperative living. With the impetus from the vision of a self help cooperative community, but also because of being isolated at the time in this section of the Bronx, the newly arrived workers and manager Kazan started a cooperative food market [S] on the ground floor space in the First Building. [S] Then they formed a co-op nursery and co-op laundry service. Next came an in-house community library[S] which became their cultural center with lectures, group discussions and regular classes. The cooperators financed the library by regular membership dues, gifts and fund raising events. Artists among the cooperators were urged to hang their best works in the library. There was a hunger for culture and learning among the early Amalgamated pioneers. Lectures and forums were organized. Unusual for an apartment house, Bldg 6 has an auditorium where concerts, dances, parties and theatrical presentations [S] became regular events and important features of a developing community spirit and life. When the auditorium was not big enough, the co-op used DeWitt Clinton HS or PS 95 when it was built after 1933, for its forums and events [S] .
Much was done on a voluntary basis but for a continuous program of education and activity more structure and organization was necessary. A meeting was called. The cooperators who had just recently invested their life savings and taken loans to move in and buy furniture debated the question and then voted an additional $1 per family per month to fund an educational director and a regular publication. From among themselves they elected an Education Committee to engage a paid director and finance and supervise the community’s activity. This elected committee worked with the House Committee to establish policies for the use of cooperative facilities. This was necessary because among the cooperators there were subgroups vying for the few available meeting rooms. Among them were Socialist, Communist, Anarchist, secular Yiddish and religious Jewish groups.
The Amalgamated Houses first bulletin appeared on Jan 5, 1928, a hand-typed broadsheet with the aim to "promote better understanding of our needs, resulting in closer cooperation."
Of particular importance to the families was activity for the children. There was a running battle between keeping the inner court yards neat and well groomed and letting children play. Besides the nursery school, a day camp was organized for the summers and a playground was built and equipped to supplement Van Cortland Park where the older kids went to play and hang out.
The inner court yards facilitated a high level of acquaintance among especially the women. The early community set up drama, music [S], dance and choral groups and a tea room and social club. In Bldg 9 built in 1932 there was a Senior Center, only it was not called that [S]. It was called the "Older Folks Social Club". The many co-op activities and culture and social events brought cooperators into working relations with each other. One researcher found some women knew by name as many as 500 people in the co-op.
Some of the women organized themselves into a Women’s’ Club. They held bazaars and other fund raises for the co-op. But also, they took all-women trips as an occasional get way from husbands and children. [S]
Not only did the Amalgamated Cooperative housing experiment seem to be succeeding financially and socially in the Bronx, a sister project was built on Grand Street in Manhattan called Amalgamated Dwellings with 216 apartments in a six story building with a large inner courtyard.
No human project is an island. A slowly deepening national and worldwide depression set in, starting in 1929 with a sever stock market crash. When Amalgamated was completing Bldg 9, the Shalom Aleichem Houses, a nearby cooperative was just failing financially. Unemployment of its tenants made keeping up the high mortgage payments impossible. Many of the former shareholders at Shalom Aleichem, mainly Yiddish intellectual, applied together to become Amalgamated cooperators. They provided for 70% of Bldg 9 incoming tenants and gave that building a special intellectual character and cohesion.
The depression hit the workers of Amalgamated very hard. [S]Many were textile workers and they would say, “During a recession, who buys a new suit?”
By emergency measures and by the co-op spirit that had developed in the first 5 years from 1927-1932, Amalgamated survived.
To be continued in Part II "How the Amalgamated Housing Cooperative survived the First Great Depression".
The first 5 years of the Amalgamated Housing Cooperative saw many successes. But no human project is an island. A slowly deepening national and worldwide depression set in, starting in 1929 with a sever stock market crash. When Amalgamated was completing Bldg 9, the Shaom Aleichem Houses, a nearby cooperative was just failing financially. Unemployment of its tenants made keeping up the high mortgage payments impossible. Many of the former shareholders at Shalom Aleichem, mainly Yiddish intellectual, applied together to become Amalgamated cooperators. They provided for 70% of Bldg 9 incoming tenants and gave that building a special intellectual character and cohesion.
The depression hit the workers of Amalgamated very hard. [S]Many were textile workers and they would say, “During a recession, who buys a new suit?” Many were unable to regularly pay the monthly rent. Less than 40% had full time work. Kazan asked in the Community News[S], “Shall we let those who are weakened in the economic struggle to go under and suffer want after we have lived and enjoyed the same surroundings for a number of years?” The answer was a unanimous decision at a big meeting in 1931 to create a $1 per family per month fund to make loans to needy cooperators. But the fund did not prove to be enough. Too many cooperators found themselves in need of help.
A dilemma arouse: when part of a community is without resources, the co-op could fail to meet its financial obligations and thus be foreclosed. Foreclosure of a co-op means all apartments become rentals and all investment is lost.
Three major problems faced Amalgamated. How to keep the mortgage holder from foreclosing? What to do with cooperators who fell further and further behind in their rent? How to pay back the investment to those members who had to leave?
As the co-op’s financial situation worsened management attempted to reduce operating expenses. For a period in 1932, cooperators did voluntary janitorial work. Electricity usage was cut to a minimum. An educational campaign was launched to reduce service calls.
Kazan and the Board helped negotiate a reduction in the interest rate on the mortgage. But when nonpayment of rentals became overwhelming, the mortgage holder insisted more be done.
The Board interviewed every cooperator in arrears. If the situation seemed genuine, the family was encouraged to keep trying to pay but not penalized. If on the other hand in the opinion of management, there was good evidence to suspect that a member of willful non-payment or a lack of effort to raise the money, that family was asked to leave. From Jan 1933 to Aug 1934, 33 families were required to vacate their apartments.
With survival the question, Kazan as manager suggested plans to offer vacant apartments as rentals. There was little cooperator objection. By 1935, 19% of the residents were “non-cooperators.” Almost all became cooperators by the end of WWII.
By these emergency measures and by the cooperative spirit of the people, Amalgamated survived. It went on to build more buildings and double its population. Today it still has an Education Director and activities and a NORC and many people who would like to see the cooperative spirit get stronger and serve as an inspiration for other similar projects.
I have told you only a small part of the story of the Amalgamated Housing Cooperative.
Maybe sometime soon I can come back and continue the story.
Also, there is an Amalgamated/Park Reservoir Co-op History Reading and Discussion Group that meets monthly to read together the history of these cooperatives.