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At Home in Utopia

Distributed by New Day Films, 190 Route 17M, P.O. Box 1084, Harriman, NY 10926; 888-367-9154 or 845-774-7051
Produced by Michal Goldman
Directed by Michal Goldman
DVD, color, 57 min.
Sr. High - Adult
Architecture, African-American Studies, History, Jewish Studies, Political Science, Sociology, Urban Studies

Reviewed by Rebecca Adler Schiff, College of Staten Island, City University of New York

Highly Recommended  Highly Recommended   
Date Entered: 6/4/2010

Sometime after the turn of the century, three elderly men, presumably under the filmmaker’s auspices, reunite and revisit the apartment complex in the Bronx where they grew up in the 1930s and ’40s. At one point one of the men says about living there, “When we were young, certain people believed we were going to conquer the world!” The words are spoken self-deprecatingly, the speaker well knowing how futilely idealistic that goal appears now in the light of the twentieth-century’s cruel demolition of activist intentions. Still, the period when those hopes flourished merits a nostalgic look back, and the speaker smiles as he observes, on the lintel over the otherwise non-descript doorway to one of the apartment buildings, a stone bas-relief of a hammer on the left side, a sickle on the right.

So begins At Home in Utopia, a riveting, poignant documentary chronicling the history of the first worker-owned housing complex in the United States, the United Workers Cooperative Colony, also known as “the Coops.” The film is constructed out of a wonderful mix of archival footage, talking heads, family photos, and home movies – meshed seamlessly to tell the subjective side and the objective side, the day to day parts and the unique historical events of a significant, fascinating episode in the American story.

In 1925, some New York City immigrant garment workers, mainly Jewish and most of them communists or communist sympathizers, gathered their resources in order to initiate a radical social experiment – the construction of a vast apartment development on barren land purchased in the Bronx across from Bronx Park. The location itself promised a welcome change from the crowded tenements of the Lower East Side most of the 1000 tenants lived in. But this was more than a flight from urban woes. Seeing themselves as citizens of the world presented with an opportunity to take control of their fate, the project leaders sold shares in the new cooperative promising the investment would help “build a fortress for the working class against its enemies.” The resulting dwellings proved to be spacious and airy, there was green everywhere, but it was politics that remained the guiding force of the new institution. Thus the design emphasized creating an ambience that encouraged a sense of community where culture and intellectual discourse could flourish. Meeting rooms and recreation rooms were located in the apartment basements. A library containing 20,000 volumes in Yiddish, Russian, and English, together with generously sized reading tables, was set up as well. Classrooms, dance floors, and youth clubs also had their spaces. The model turned out to be so workable that soon after three other largely Jewish cooperatives were established in the Bronx. The architect Daniel Liebeskind, whose family lived in one of them, the Amalgamated Houses (still in operation today), explains in the film that the way the houses were built fostered, “a new social contract between people.”

The film flashbacks go back more or less to the start of the Great Depression. We see footage of massive demonstrations in support of leftist causes – the trumped-up conviction of the Scottsboro Boys on rape charges, clearly a racist injustice; the harsh realities of unemployment; and so on. There are May Day parades, there are marches of strikers demanding a living wage. Thousands of people crowd the New York City streets. Banners proclaiming members of the Young Communist League are proudly displayed. A woman recalls that in her family May Day was treated as a more reverent holiday than the Jewish High Holy Days. Things are difficult for the Coops as well, as not all tenants could afford the rent. In 1933, New York State came to the rescue with the passage of a law temporarily forbidding mortgage foreclosures. The Coops especially benefited from the law, inasmuch as, following Communist Party directives, it adhered to a non-eviction policy for rent-delinquent tenants. The Coops survived into the next decade.

But the times are traumatic. A series of bruising events undo the unanimity of the Coop’s ideologues – among them, the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact, seen as a betrayal of leftist causes, only in part redeemed by the subsequent 1941 Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union; and the 1956 secret speech of Nikita Khrushchev to the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Union, detailing Stalin’s mass murders and shaking the convictions of even the truest believers. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brings out the patriotism of Coop members, and many enlist. The riots following the 1948 concert by Paul Robeson at Peekskill, New York, indicate that the fight must continue against local reactionaries. The McCarthy period brings its own atmosphere of siege. A son remembers that when a gentleman came by the buildings and introduced himself as an F.B.I. agent, his mother promptly spat in his face.

And yet the Coops leaders’ ideological positions remained stubbornly ingrained against any kind of pragmatism. In 1943, the Coops entered bankruptcy because it refused to approve a rent increase of $1 per room lest landlords of neighboring apartment buildings follow suit and raise the rents of their poor tenants, citing the Coops’s precedent for same! Thus the Coops rebounded to private ownership. For a while, though, a strong tenants’ association helped maintain its radical politics.

Yet the best lessons of the Coops endure. From very early on, earlier than just about any other housing development in the country, the Coops, again on the instructions of the Communist Party, made an effort to invite black families in as tenants, this some thirty years before the Civil Rights Laws of the 1960s. The daughter of a black family recalls how strange it was to live among whites, their having lived only among blacks before. In time a wedding takes place – between a radical Jewish World War II Navy veteran and a black woman. Heartwarming home movie footage shows the marine’s aged mother happily receiving a kiss from her interracial grandson.

If it’s of interest, the present ethnic makeup of the Coops largely comprises African Americans, Hispanics, West Indians, and Asians, together with a sprinkling of … Jews.

More than an hour of bonus footage is included on the DVD – follow-ups on many of the subjects interviewed; the director’s commentary; information about the other Bronx cooperatives and more.

This is a beautifully conceived, excellently made film that resurrects a segment of twentieth-century American radical history we’d all be the poorer not to know about.