"At Home in Utopia": An Interview with Filmmaker Michal Goldman
"The Workers' Paradise of the Bronx."
"The Fortress of the Working Class."
These were some of the names given to the four housing cooperatives built by visionary Jewish organizers in the 1920s. Filmmaker Michal Goldman's At Home in Utopia is a new documentary that traces the history of these "Bronx utopias," focusing on the United Workers Cooperative Colony, or simply "The Coops." I was fortunate to catch a screening for young adults from the Jewish Organizing Initiative (JOI), an example of the filmmaker's interest in sparking dialogue with activists about the Coops' political legacy. Having grown up as a third-generation ‘cooperator' in Amalgamated-the only cooperative to survive without being privatized-I was especially excited to see this film.
Goldman's documentary portrays the vibrancy of secular Jewish life through archival material and interviews with residents. One of the most compelling scenes presented footage of Coopniks barricading an apartment in a neighboring building to prevent sheriffs from evicting a family during the Great Depression. In the midst of a national foreclosure crisis, it is moving to witness how a community protected its own members through its non-eviction policy. At Home in Utopia offers us images of solidarity and inspiration for building our communities around principles of egalitarianism and workers' rights.
In addition to the labor movement's activist triumphs, the film also portrays its intellectual legacy, suggested by the remarkable range of ideologies espoused by its members. Indeed, each cooperative was run by a different faction: the Farband was Labor-Zionist, and the Sholom Aleichem Houses, founded by Yiddishists, was split between Communists and Socialists. Amalgamated, which was supported by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, survived largely as a result of its pragmatic top-down management, led by Abraham Kazan. Although the Coops were privatized in 1943, largely as the result of residents' refusal to pay one dollar more in rent per month per room, the building still bears a carved hammer and sickle, the symbol of their Communist aspirations.
Here's what Michal Goldman had to say about housing for singles "married to the movement," the importance of good architecture, what Finnish socialists taught Jewish garment workers, and more...
- Could you outline the history of the four cooperatives and how their philosophies diverged? Were there major differences in how Zionists and Communists, for example, ran their cooperatives?
There are two ways of telling this story. One is the short, abstract way, and one is the long rambling way that gives some fragrance of the times. Here's the abstraction:
The four Bronx labor housing cooperatives grew out of a labor movement that was full of dynamic energy in the late teens and twenties, most especially the garment workers' locals in New York City. Given the terrible housing conditions most immigrant workers encountered in New York, people were ready to be inventive and explore possible solutions. They built on the foundation of an already vigorous cooperative movement... For all their ideological differences, the housing cooperatives were remarkably similar culturally. All their debates, ideological and otherwise, took place in Yiddish. They all had shules - Yiddish after-schools - for the children. They all had cooperative spaces, usually in the basement: clubs, libraries, kindergartens, auditoriums, gymnasiums, studios for artists or musicians. They all believed that working people had a right to high culture, and would be enlightened by culture and learning. The buildings themselves were all built around landscaped courtyards, the apartments arranged to allow light and fresh air into the rooms all day long, with entrances to the units from the central courtyard, so that there were no long, impersonal corridors. Three of the cooperatives were built next to large parks, and designed by the same architect, Herman Jessor. These cooperatives grew out of a desire to foster a cooperative spirit, and the architecture continues to do that even where the underlying cooperative ideology is long gone.
Now for a few details: In about 1916, Finnish socialists started small cooperative apartment houses in Brooklyn - you can still see them, around Sunset Park. In 1918 a group of Jewish garment workers were living cooperatively in a building at 118th Street and Madison. They knew about the Finnish cooperatives. And in the 1920s, they knew about the visionary workers housing that was being built in the socialist cities of Europe: Berlin, Amsterdam, and above all, Vienna. They were able to form a cooperative association and buy some land along the Hudson, and start a cooperative camp called Camp Nitgedeiget - Camp No Worries. A writer named Michael Gold - he wrote a famous book called Jews without Money - went to visit that camp in 1926 and wrote an article in the Nation magazine about how amazing it was to see pale, skinny garment workers playing softball in Yiddish - and how revolutionary the labor movement was to fight for its members' right to a vacation. The culture of this camp was very free - their satirical magazine was called Der Momzer - "the Bastard" - and everything about the place in those days reminds me of the 1960s. During the mid-1920s there was a huge struggle between the socialists and the communists for control of the garment unions and during this period, when they were on strike, shut out, or generally embattled, people could come to the cooperative camp and for just a few dollars, get some relief. The camp was such a success and the need for housing so great, that the association decided to buy land in the Bronx, where they could afford it, and build a cooperative house. They had huge ambitions - they optioned something like 12 city blocks. In the end they built two "houses" and had laid the foundations for a third, which was never built; their inexperience with financing such a huge project was exacerbated by the Great Depression.
One condition that was fundamental to the Coops was that the City of New York took a pro-active policy toward their housing crisis, and invested in a huge expansion of public transportation in order to draw developers and working people out of the densely populated urban core to the outer boroughs where land was undeveloped, and cheap. Can you imagine what solutions to our environmental crisis might begin to happen if municipalities today were able to make the same sort of investment in public transportation?
- The film mentioned women's contributions to the Coops and the work of leaders such as Angie Dickerson. How did women help build the Coops, and what was the division of labor like between male and female organizers?
Most of the women who built the Coops were secular and politically progressive, working in the garment industry. Most of them were immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe, though as one person whose parents were lapsed Ukrainian Catholic pointed out to me, their religion mattered least of all, because nobody believed in it anyway. There was a debate in the Communist party in the 1920s as to the appropriate focus of organizing efforts, given the contradictions within capitalism. The dominant point of view was that cooperativism might ameliorate harsh conditions for working people, but in the end it would always succumb to the larger force of capitalism and could never change it: only an organized and revolutionary labor movement could do that. So, as that line of thinking went, it was counter-revolutionary to expend time and resources on large-scale cooperatives.
But the women didn't want to wait. They were young, marrying and having children, and their lives were happening now, not in the future. They wanted a healthy, culturally rich and politically progressive environment within which to bring up their children. Initially the buildings were designed to feature cooperative kitchens, but the women didn't want that, so the apartments for families had kitchenettes. On the other hand, there is one section in the Coops that originally housed unmarried men and women - people used to say they were "married to the movement" - and that section had communal kitchens. Once they moved in, the women who were mothers pushed for and organized cooperative facilities that would allow them to work during the day - cooperative nurseries and kindergartens. During the Great Depression, women took in and fed each other's children, while the cooperative cafeteria allowed the children to eat on credit. (Many people told us how interested their mothers were, in the 1920s and 1930s, in what we would now call "health food.") When the Coops began to fall apart in the late 1950s, riven by the collapse of the Communist party and the resurgence of American capitalism, and later, when the Coops became, for some decades, a not-so-safe place to live, it was these women above all who continued to see value in their communal life there and who stayed in the Coops until they died.
There were also in the Coops some real stars in the Communist movement. One of these was an organizer named Rose Wortis, who never married, though she had some notorious affairs. Rose lived in her sister and brother-in-law's apartment - the Nesins, who are part of the film. They had all been founding members of the Communist party, and Rose's niece described to me how people used to come by the apartment in the evenings to consult with Rose in reverence, as if she were a famous rabbi.
In the 1930s and 1940s, African Americans began to move into the Coops, in small numbers. Among these families, several of the women were active in the Communist party - powerful, charismatic women who were brilliant tenant organizers. One of them, Angie Dickerson, figures in our film. Even more prominent was a woman named Audley Moore, known as Queen Mother Moore because of her tall stature and love of Africa - she eventually left the party and embraced Black Nationalism.
- People are often shocked to learn about the long history of the "Bronx Utopias," or else respond by sighing, "Oh, cooperatives never work." How might we define the success of these collective projects in alternative ways?
Well, of course the Amalgamated Houses - and Penn South - and even Co-op City - and others too - do "work" and are still cooperatives. I think the Amalgamated Houses are absolutely beautiful and I would absolutely love to live there. I think that success can be defined in a number of ways. Architecturally - in terms of their design - these places are to this day lovely and even inspiring examples of affordable housing for working people.
And I think these cooperatives were successful in the provisional way that many social experiments are successful. As one person who was raised in the Coops pointed out to me, the people who built the Coops saw American social and economic forms as anything but permanent; they thought like the Soviet Union of those years: make one Five Year Plan, then reassess and make another Five Year Plan. They were able to form large progressive communities - 2,000 and more people lived in the Coops, for example - that lasted for thirty or forty years and raised a generation or two. I don't want to claim that all the children who grew up in the Coops carried on the radicalism of their parents, because most of them didn't. Nevertheless, for three decades the Coops helped people support the movements they passionately believed in, and a significant number of their children went on to do the same. The progressive network these cooperatives were part of, extending their influence outward and onward to places like Camp Kinderland and Workmen's Circle, today are bringing a progressive Jewish legacy alive for new generations of American children.
And for me, one of the most intangible but significant aspects of the Cooperatives' success is that they have become repositories for secular, politically progressive, American Jewish history. The cooperatives were a sort of nexus where it all came together - a specific culture, style of activism, sense of purpose, and way of understanding history. These repositories have value for people who are making decisions now about how they want to work and live.
- One of the most compelling parts of the film was its portrayal of friendship and marriage between Black and Jewish people in the Coops (and the powerful footage of Paul Robeson at Peekskill.) What do you think was the key to successfully integrating the community in that era?
I'm not sure they were so successful at integrating the Coops, as the number of African Americans there remained small. But they tried, at a time when none of the other cooperatives did. And as I've tried to suggest in my film, the fact that they tried meant a great deal not only to the African-American families who lived there, but to those who came to visit. The Coops was a link between the radicalism of the 1930s and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. I have spoken with several African Americans who came to study or visit at the Coops, and whose politics were shaped by the experience.
To the degree that they were successful, I suppose it was important that they had a narrative, a way of telling their own story, that emphasized Black-Jewish solidarity. And it may have been important that they integrated in phases, bringing a few families in starting in the early 1930s, among whom were several who were regarded as prominent within the Coops and also within the Communist movement, so that when, a decade or so later, the Communist party decided to push racial integration further, there were already blacks within the Coops who could assume leadership in that process. And the children were already growing up together with a lack of self-consciousness not available to their parents.
- Are there any stories left out of the film that you would like to share here?
There are many stories left out of the film that I would love to share - visually, on a DVD or a web site. I've told you some of them here - the amazing story of Camp Nitgedeiget, for example - later called Camp Beacon, next door to where Pete Seeger lives, by the way.
- How have audiences reacted, especially those who grew up in the Coops or other cooperatives?
In mid-March we showed At Home in Utopia to people from the Coops who were beginning to despair that we would ever finish this movie. Their basic reaction was one of relief. Most people seemed to think that we'd taken a very complicated story and told it in a way that honors the values they believe in. Some people were upset by the fact that I don't idealize the community that they remember as an ideal place to grow up. And just about everybody is at least mildly irritated that I left out some aspect of the Coops they see as essential to their experience there.
- What lessons do you think contemporary activists, especially community organizers, can learn from the Coops?
I generally don't think of my films as teaching lessons. I guess I think more in terms of questions - what questions might the story of the Coops pose for you? Whatever they are, I believe - and hope - it will take you a long time spent working, thinking, and living, to answer them.
Personally, what strikes me about the Coops is how essential the labor movement was to its existence. My own question is about ideology: its necessity and its dangers. I believe that community organizing gains momentum when it's part of a genuine social movement. And I believe that one aspect of movement building has to do with defining big objectives, and the analysis of the contemporary situation that will attempt to provide a strategy, a road map for reaching those objectives - and that way of thinking becomes a kind of world view. I think when people have a world view that allows them to see themselves as actors engaged in working for a transformation they can feel hopeful about, communities like the Coops can come into being, and find their place in the movement's much larger context. I don't understand how big progressive movements are born. But it seems that the kind of thinking needed to give rise to them - thinking born out of a fusion, still mysterious to me, of direct observation, abstract analysis, and passion for justice - ends up becoming dogma that prevents people from observing closely and directly when those observations conflict with the dogma they've learned. The salient thing about the radicalism of the Coops and the movement of which it was a part is that it wasn't single-issue radicalism; it was about fundamental transformation. Which is why, for a time, it was so enormously optimistic. They didn't get it right, and I think it may be the last time that anybody tried. What do YOU think? Is it just as well? Better to build justice movements around more localized goals? Is there any point at all to asking the big questions again? Is there a new way to ask them? Whichever way you go, would the Coops have anything to teach you?
Michal Goldman, who founded the Boston Jewish Film Festival and the Filmmakers Collaborative, is also the director of acclaimed klezmer documentary A Jumpin' Night in the Garden of Eden (1987).
Be sure to catch a screening of At Home in Utopia in June at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston!