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Co-op City at 50

The largest cooperative apartment complex ever built has a fascinating history

Joshua Lutz/Redux

On December 10, 1968, the first handful of families moved into the original—and, at that point, only—high-rise apartment building at Co-op City in the Baychester neighborhood of the Bronx. It was bone-chillingly cold, but it wasn’t the sub-freezing temperatures that curtailed the newcomers’ arrival. Instead, the capacity of the building’s freight elevators was to blame for the fact that only 16 families could move in that day.

As construction continued across the marshy, 320-acre site over the next five years, those pioneers were joined by around 60,000 more residents, and by the time Co-op City was completed, in 1973, it would be home to 15,372 apartments, making it the largest cooperative apartment complex ever built. Today, its population has dropped to around 45,000, but it’s still roughly the size of Potomac, Maryland, or Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

When visiting recently, I walked down from the Gun Hill Road IRT station toward the management office, and the reddish-brick towers loomed in front of me almost like a mirage—I kept walking, but the towers never seemed any closer. Even when I’d arrived and was walking through the complex, there was something about the size of it I couldn’t quite fathom.

To its proponents, Co-op City (technically Cooperative City, but no one has ever called it that) was supposed to serve as an example of how New York—and cities around the country—could solve the twin problems of urban decay and lack of affordable housing for the so-called “forgotten middle.” It was the culmination of over 50 years of progressive housing advocacy in New York, and the shining star of the Mitchell-Lama housing program.

Yet its model has never been duplicated, and the Mitchell-Lama program, which enticed residents with a low, up-front limited-equity stake and affordable monthly carrying charges, has been abandoned for other housing schemes. As New York City plunged into dire fiscal straits in the mid-1970s, some blamed places like Co-op City for draining state and city resources that could never be adequately repaid.

Will Co-op City forever stand as a lone monument to progressive postwar overreach? Or could it point the way toward solving the city’s—and America’s—housing crisis?

The role of government control in New York housing stretches back to the passage of the “Act for the Regulation of Tenement and Lodging Houses in the Cities of New York and Brooklyn,” in 1867. This law laid out basic standards of habitability, and while tenement laws were strengthened over the next three decades—mandating windows in every room, for example, and toilets inside the buildings—the government shied away from financing or building the housing itself.

With rents rising and vacancies declining in the era around World War I, the idea of actual public financial assistance in housing began to take hold, either through the construction of new housing or via rent controls. In 1919, New York’s governor, Al Smith, launched the State Reconstruction Commission. The commission’s housing committee, led by architect Clarence S. Stein, “proposed a state housing agency empowered to make loans, and local housing boards permitted to buy land and build housing,” but it wasn’t until 1926 that what was known as the Limited Dividend Housing Companies Act finally became law. The new law gave private developers property tax abatements if they promised to cap their profits.

Joshua Lutz/Redux

The Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, under the guidance of its credit union director, Abraham Kazan, was the first organization to embrace the new law. Kazan was a strong proponent of cooperative living, where:

tenant-owners buy apartments for modest down payments but do not increase their equity with monthly mortgage payments. When they leave, they sell the apartments back to the sponsor for their initial equity plus interest earned. The apartments are thus valued for their ongoing use as habitation rather than their potential speculative value as a commodity.

In 1927, Kazan and his union erected the 303-unit Amalgamated Cooperative Apartments along the southern edge of Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. The complex consisted of six five-story walk-ups ringing a central courtyard. This mimicked the style of many of the popular garden apartments being built in Jackson Heights, Queens, around the same time, and made the buildings seem more like single-family homes than apartments. The complex was designed by Herman J. Jessor of the firm Springsteen and Goldhammer, and marked the beginning of a partnership between Amalgamated, Jessor, and Kazan that would last through the construction of Co-op City.

Though the bulk of the financing for the Amalgamated complex came from the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, the co-op used provisions in the Limited Dividend Housing Companies Act to secure tax breaks that allowed them to keep monthly fees, known as carrying charges, affordable, making them about “25 percent less than rents in comparable apartments.”

The project in the Bronx was soon followed by the Amalgamated Dwellings (1929-30) on the Lower East Side, another Springsteen and Goldhammer design of limited-equity, low-rise buildings surrounding a central courtyard.

The 1929 stock market crash instantly exacerbated New York’s housing woes. The Multiple Dwellings Law introduced that same year was supposed to ensure greater accountability for tenement landlords, but the Depression made the law all but unenforceable; by the time it took full effect in 1936, many tenement owners had long since stopped paying property taxes and had abandoned their properties.

To address the city’s housing needs, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) was created in 1934 as part of a general shift both toward federal financing and the creation of lower-income public housing. During the Depression, a few middle-income projects were built—including Knickerbocker Village in Manhattan (1934), Boulevard Gardens in Queens (1935), and the Hillside Houses in the Bronx (1935)—but it wasn’t until after World War II that the large-scale rentals and limited-equity co-ops that set the stage for Co-op City really began to flourish.

The first of these projects, Metropolitan Life’s massive Stuyvesant Town (1946-49), contained 8,755 apartments spread out over 89 buildings. Despite concerns over the displacement of existing tenants in what was then known as the “Gas House District,” the project was an immediate success. Even before the first building was ready for occupancy, Metropolitan Life had received 160,000 applications for rentals, which meant only one out of every 18 families that applied would be selected to move in.

Meanwhile, Abraham Kazan continued to advocate for the limited-equity model of cooperative ownership, and he found a partner in Robert Moses, who had been appointed New York City Planning Commissioner in 1946. With Moses’s encouragement, Kazan’s next project was the Hillman Houses (1949-50), a series of 12-story buildings that flanked the earlier Amalgamated Dwellings on the Lower East Side.

Here, architect Herman Jessor began to create his vernacular style: unadorned reddish-brown brick towers set in ample green space. In the ratio of building to lawn, Jessor followed the example of Le Corbusier, the Swiss-born architect whose utopian Ville Contemporaine and Ville Radieuse (Contemporary City and Radiant City) tower-in-a-park ideas deeply influenced postwar New York City housing and came to their fruition at Co-op City.

With the passage of the National Housing Act in 1949, Moses was given authority under Title I to undertake massive slum clearance. At the same time, he encouraged Kazan and his colleagues at Amalgamated and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) to form the United Housing Foundation (UHF). Under Title I, Moses could condemn large swaths of tenements, which the UHF could then replace with limited-equity cooperatives. Under the partnership between Moses and the UHF, the East River Houses (1956) and Seward Park Cooperative (1960) were built. Together with the earlier Kazan projects on the Lower East Side, these housing projects came to be collectively known as “Cooperative Village.”

But Cooperative Village’s 4,000 apartments could barely make a dent in New York’s affordable housing shortage. Kazan, Moses, and Jessor needed not just a cooperative village, but a full cooperative city.

Co-op City required land and money. Though Title I allowed the city to condemn large areas as slums, there was probably no neighborhood big enough for a project of the scale the UHF had in mind. Meanwhile, securing financing for large-scale projects was increasingly difficult, with banks and other lenders backing away from the limited-dividend housing market.

In response, the State of New York passed the the Limited-Profit Housing Companies Act in 1955, now commonly known by the last names of its two sponsors, Sen. MacNeill Mitchell and Assemblyman Alfred Lama. Under the program, specially created Mitchell-Lama housing companies received city or state loans for 90 to 95 percent of a project’s cost and local tax abatements. Many Mitchell-Lama projects were built on federally subsidized urban renewal land, which reduced costs even further.

The first UHF Mitchell-Lama project was Rochdale Village in Queens, named for the 19th-century village in England that inspired Alfred Kazan’s cooperative ethos. The 5,860-unit project, built atop the defunct Jamaica Race Track about three miles from JFK airport, gave Herman Jessor the opportunity to work through ideas that would become central to Co-op City:

The site plan arranged the buildings into five sections, each with a traffic cul-de-sac providing car access. The complex also contained two shopping centers anchored by cooperative supermarkets... [one of which] was designed by Los Angeles-based Victor Gruen, one of the originators of the enclosed shopping center…. There were also two elementary schools, an intermediate school, a community center with a two-thousand seat auditorium, and parking lots. Rochdale also had its own power plant.

Opened in 1963, Rochdale Village prefigured some of the struggles that would beset Co-op City. One issue was racial integration. Though the head of the Amalgamated union was firm that “all races, creeds, and colors” would live in UHF projects, the New York Amsterdam News pointed out that apartments like the Amalgamated Houses in the Bronx were “lily-white.” As Bronx Borough President Herman Badillo would later remark about Co-op City:

Everyone knows the word “co-op” is a synonym for “Jewish housing.” Nobody says it in those blunt terms, but I like being direct, because Puerto Ricans and Hispanics don’t understand co-ops and don’t have the money for co-ops, and neither do blacks.

Early sales at Rochdale Village were slow, in part due to the area’s remoteness. As Peter Eisenstadt points out in Rochdale Village: Robert Moses, 6,000 Families, and New York City’s Great Experiment in Integrated Housing, things “picked up in October 1961 when advertisements first mentioned that all apartments in Rochdale would be equipped with central air-conditioning.” Rochdale’s investment in its own power plant made this luxury possible.

NY Daily News via Getty Images

By the time Rochdale Village was completed, it had also managed to become more integrated than previous cooperatives. While 80 percent of new residents were white—and most of those Jewish—the remaining 20 percent were mostly African American. When the New York Times published “When Black and White Live Together” in November 1966, Rochdale was seen as an intriguing—though not always successful—example for how the tenets of cooperative living could pave the way for more integrated housing, schools, and communities.

As Rochdale Village was grabbing headlines, Jessor, Kazan, and a host of dignitaries had just broken ground for Co-op City, which was designed to be three times larger than the project in Queens. Could the lessons learned from Rochdale Village be translated to the Bronx?

In the 1920s, the part of the Bronx that would become Co-op City had been set aside for a new municipal airport. It remained undeveloped until the late 1950s, when Cornelius Wood, a former executive at Disneyland, began building Freedomland USA, the country’s largest amusement park. Opened in the summer of 1960, Freedomland was laid out to mimic the geography of the United States, with areas such as Little Old New York, the Great Chicago Fire (which burned down multiple times a day), and a Wild West that included a recreation of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Within days of the park opening, visitors were injured when a horse-drawn stagecoach overturned, and Freedomland was beset by other problems, not the least of which was that it was millions of dollars in debt. The arrival of the World’s Fair in 1964, which siphoned off visitors, was the death knell for the park; when the company went bankrupt, the UHF stepped in and purchased the park and some surrounding acreage to create Co-op City at $1.50 per square foot.

Backed by Mitchell-Lama issued bonds, Co-op City secured the largest mortgage in history, $250.9 million—enough money, the newspapers noted, “to buy the Empire State Building several times over.” (The square footage at Co-op City would ultimately dwarf not only the Empire State Building, but every architectural project ever endeavored in New York.)

The remainder of the “project’s construction costs, estimated at the time to be two hundred and ninety-three million dollars, came from the money paid by the cooperators themselves for share in the cooperative.” (In the same way that Co-op City is technically “Cooperative City,” shareholders are, officially, “cooperators.”) Each family put down a $500 deposit to secure a home in Co-op City—and with over 15,000 units, those deposits alone totaled nearly $8 million upfront. Upon signing a contract, each cooperator would then be charged $450 per room in equity (apartments ranged from three and a half to seven rooms) with carrying charges originally fixed at $25 per month.

The first challenge was to prepare the land to hold the project’s 35 towers. Piles had to be driven through the marsh to the bedrock, while the UHF also had to spend an additional “dollar per foot for sand fill, five million yards of it,” which was laid “eight to ten feet deep all over the site.” Then, the New York City Planning Commission made two significant alterations to Jessor’s original site plans. The first was to mandate “the creation of eight multi-level garages for just over 10,000 cars.” While the MTA would continue to make promises about the subway reaching Co-op City (it never has), the commission knew that nearly everyone at Co-op City would be dependent on their cars. While Robert Moses’s LOMEX project was being squashed in Lower Manhattan, his combustion-engine dreams were being realized in the Bronx.

Associated Press

The second major planning commission change was to add 236 “townhouse” units: squat duplex buildings scattered throughout the complex, presumably an attempt to break up the monotony of Jessor’s tower-in-a-park aesthetic.

From the beginning, complaints about Jessor’s design dogged Co-op City. Moses’s foe Jane Jacobs had long railed against all such middle-income tower blocks, complaining that they were “truly marvels of dullness and regimentation, sealed against any buoyancy or vitality of city life.” Similarly, the American Institute of Architects complained that “the spirits of the tenants” at Co-op City “would be dampened and deadened by the paucity of their environment.”

However, as Peter Eisenstadt points out, Co-op City’s proponents at the UHF were “aggressively contemptuous” when people criticized their aesthetic choices. Herman Jessor put it bluntly: “the cheapest wall is still a brick wall. We are willing to pay for something practical, but we are unwilling to pay for art.” Moreover, with larger-than-average room sizes, parquet floors, air conditioning and heating throughout (included in the carrying charges), outdoor terraces, and modern kitchens, Jessor and the UHF clearly understood that what many potential tenants wanted were middle-class comforts, not award-winning architecture.

And residents flocked to the complex. By the time Co-op City’s 35 towers were finished, a self-sustaining complex had sprung up with a 60-acre greenway, three shopping centers—each with its own auditorium and community center—and a vast array of organizations from churches and synagogues to scout troops. Schools would soon follow, along with an influx of independent retailers on the outskirts of the complex.

Yet even as the final buildings were being completed in the early 1970s, cracks, both literal and metaphorical, were beginning to show. Herman Jessor and Abraham Kazan had seen Co-op City as the zenith of their quest for a pragmatic utopia, but in 1975, just two years after the last building opened, 80 percent of the tenants authorized a “rent” strike and withheld carrying payments for 13 months. Paradise soured very quickly.

When 1010 WINS reporter Barbara Lamont went to investigate Co-op City in its early years for her book City People, she discovered a number of true believers. “I thought it was a unique chance for the city to be saved,” said one interviewee. “This represented a new way of life, something we could all believe in,” said another.

Lamont wasn’t so sure. She interviewed children who complained of being ticketed for riding their bikes anywhere but on the loop path, and talked to adults who bemoaned the lack of basic services like hospitals, a fire department, and a post office. Though these would come in time—Co-op City ceded some of its land to ensure vital services would be built—the “pioneer spirit” of these early adopters was already leavened by “signs of stress.” Some of that stress came from money problems: the $25-per-room carrying charges promised in the mid-1960s had ballooned to nearly $60 per room to cover inflation and underfunded construction costs.

Lamont also wondered if the “sense of community” that so many cooperators applauded was enough to keep them from being “dehumanized” by their landscape. Though Lamont was doubtful, it was community engagement that galvanized the tenants to declare the rent strike, during which time Co-op City instituted a tenant steering committee that “pledged to return the development to a sound financial footing while also maintaining the community ethos that had inspired the strike.”

Joshua Lutz/Redux

But with immediate maintenance requirements looming and the fiscal crisis of 1970s New York City in the background, Co-op City could do little in the short term to dig itself out of the financial hole. When the New York Times reported on the complex in 1986, the tenants were on the verge of voting whether or not to raise the carrying charges an additional 31.5 percent. As one owner told the paper: “The idea of Co-op City is wonderful. … Unfortunately, the practice isn’t. There are too many fingers in the pie, and there always have been. Co-op City was put together with spit, glue, and graft. Not enough spit and glue. But plenty of graft.”

In 1994, Roberta Brandes Gratz wrote The Living City: How America’s Cities Are Being Revitalized by Thinking Small in a Big Way, in which she depicted Co-op City as a “most ill-conceived scheme” to revitalize the Bronx, one beset by cost overruns and millions of dollars of repairs.

Yet even as Gratz’s book was published, Co-op City appeared to turn a corner. When the Times’s “If You’re Thinking of Living In…” column visited that same year, vacancies in the complex had come down from 1,500 two years previously to 605. And, as Steven H. Gold, the complex’s director of sales and marketing, noted, 150 units had been taken off the market to repair them, bringing Co-op City’s actual vacancy rate down to an enviable 4 percent.

When I visited Co-op City in October, Bernie Cylich—one of the board’s vice presidents—took me on a tour of the complex. Last year, Cylich told me, a mere 359 families moved out. With approximately 8,000 families on the waiting list, that brings the vacancy rate essentially down to zero.

As we walked around the complex, Cylich was quick to note that some of the original construction defects have never been fully solved. He pointed at the plywood covering the ground floor of one building and said, offhandedly, “It’s full of asbestos.” In another area, he showed me how uneven the ground was beneath our feet. “That’s the marsh; it settles. We have to go in every so often and level it off.” Even when he took me to the complex’s newest addition, a gorgeous basketball court, he couldn’t help but note the challenge of solving the court’s inadequate drainage issues.

Cylich doesn’t point out Co-op City’s flaws to complain, but rather to show that no matter what the challenge, cooperators can find the solution. It’s clear that, like the people Barbara Lamont talked to 45 years ago, he’s a true believer. (Indeed, having lived in Co-Op City since nearly the beginning, Cylich could easily have been one of Lamont’s interviewees.)

Cylich took me to a model apartment on the 32nd story of one of the towers—honestly, since they all look the same, I can’t remember which one—and pointed out the twin pine tree logo on the floor near the entry doors. “These are the twin goals of all the cooperative projects: ‘To serve’ and ‘No profit.’” To underline this point, he handed me a synopsis of the project’s history, which outlines Co-op City’s goals:

To serve, not profit from, its residents.

To maintain a cap on equity—apartments cannot be resold on the open market.

To remain cooperative, owned by its cooperators and free of landlords.

Non-discriminatory diversity.

Today, the demographics of Co-op City reflect that diversity—and the changes in the racial makeup of the Bronx in general. According to Cylich’s figures, 60 percent of the residents are African American and nearly 30 percent are Hispanic. Because limited-equity Co-ops reward long-term tenancy, the complex has also become the country’s largest naturally occurring retirement community—nearly half the population is over age 62.

As we entered the six-and-a-half-room model apartment, it was easy to see the appeal: every room was light-filled, and the terrace (for calculating carrying charges, that’s the “half” room) had stunning views over the Hutchinson River toward the Long Island Sound. An apartment that size today costs about $4,000 per room in upfront equity ($26,000), with a carrying charge of $216 per room—or about $1,400 per month for a three-bedroom apartment. It’s little wonder there’s an impossibly long waiting list.

Outside the apartment, the strange and somewhat forbidding emptiness of the Co-op City campus served as a stark contrast to the warmth of the model unit, and it made me wonder: Was the architecture alone the reason that the cooperative experiment essentially ended with Co-op City?

In Le Corbusier’s utopian ideal, pedestrians interacted in “streets in the sky,” but that notion never found its way into Jessor’s vision of middle-income housing. Instead, the interior hallways of Co-op City buildings are painted institutional gray and mostly windowless. As easy as it is to get lost wandering around the grounds, it’s even easier to become completely disoriented inside. Jessor may have been adamant that the UHF not “pay for art” without fully thinking through the long-term psychological aspects of that stance.

Eighty percent of Co-op City’s more than 300 acres is green space, so it could be argued that this verdant setting makes up for Jessor’s utilitarianism. But on my visit to Co-op City, the green space seemed mostly incidental. I saw numerous “Keep Off the Grass” signs and stretches of pristine, unused lawn. In this, Co-op City isn’t unique; this picturesque but only ornamental landscaping has robbed a lot of post-war urban housing of the very vitality it was supposed to create. Jane Jacobs argued the lifeblood of a neighborhood was the natural interactions and “many little public sidewalk contacts” between neighbors. These contacts can dwindle when the traditional sidewalk has been eliminated.

Still, paging through the copy of Co-op City Times that Bernie Cylich handed me, it’s clear that community spirit—from AARP outings to line dancing to Zumba—remains alive and well, not just in terms of recreation, but in terms of activism. Most of the articles in the edition I read were written by cooperators either urging their fellow residents to protest the building of an animal shelter across from Co-op City (Cylich mentioned this multiple times on our tour) or to help them prepare for meeting with the MTA about rehabilitating the city bus routes, the complex’s best link to the rest of New York. A spirit of communal activism is woven through nearly every page of the newspaper in a way that might be shocking in another similar-sized community.

This is Co-op City’s most enduring legacy. Paradoxically, it is both the reason it has remained successful and a clue as to why it’s the last of its kind.

As Ian Frazier pointed out in The New Yorker in 2006:

Nowadays, it is hard to remember how taken for granted the spirit of socialism and cooperative progressivism used to be in certain influential circles in America—it’s as if someone had flipped a switch in about 1975 and an entire way of thinking was gone. Like the Soviet high-rise projects, Co-op City is a survival from a more collectivist age into today’s world of everyman-for-himself.

Even in the most socially cohesive planned towns—such as the vast retirement communities of Florida—there may be community centers, golf courses, and nightly live music in the town squares, but there’s little in the way of the unified political activism that is the hallmark of Co-op City. People simply reside in other towns; residents of Co-op City are shareholders in a vision.

But today, that vision is a tough sell. Not only has “socialism” turned into a pejorative term, the concept of limited equity is anathema to most Americans. Houses are not just homes, they are also commodities—for many, the only major investment in their portfolios. In cities like New York, where two-thirds of the population is used to renting without receiving any financial benefit in return, the limited-dividend system of a program like Mitchell-Lama worked as a shield against unscrupulous landlords. But most Americans can’t conceive of an equity stake where the money serves mostly to benefit the community and not themselves.

Joshua Lutz/Redux

Limited equity is also a trap. A Co-op City resident who moved into a four-room apartment in 1968 paid $1,800 in equity. Even if they were receive that equity back at today’s value upon moving out—$16,000—where can they find a comparable apartment where that payout would equal a down payment? The limited-dividend program, like rent control, rewards long-term tenancy. That’s good for stabilizing a community, but doesn’t do much to help new arrivals find a place to live.

Lastly, the size of Co-op City makes it unlikely it could ever be replicated. The UHF and Jessor built big because they believed that economies of scale would keep construction and maintenance costs down. In some cases, this was true (for example, Cylich told me that having its own power plant saves Co-op City around $25 million a year in energy costs), but the buildings have faced five decades of costly upkeep. It’s hard to picture a municipality today investing similar resources in a massive housing project that might never approach self-sufficiency.

Yet could a limited-equity concept help in today’s housing market? As the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University pointed out earlier this year:

National efforts are necessary to close the affordability gap. Housing policymakers have many opportunities to address the cost side of the equation, including the increasing size and quality of homes; lack of productivity improvements in the residential construction sector; escalating costs of labor, building materials, and land; and barriers created by a complex and restrictive regulatory system. However, tackling this broad mix of conditions will require collaboration of the public, private, and nonprofit sectors in a comprehensive strategy that fosters innovation in the design, construction, financing, and regulation of housing. But even if successful, these efforts will not produce decent, affordable homes for the millions of households that simply cannot pay enough to cover the costs of producing that housing. [Emphasis added.]

In theory, a new Mitchell-Lama program, with states or municipalities floating a bond, could work as the cornerstone for creating such affordable housing. Cities like San Francisco, where the housing crunch is at its worst, also have some of the best bond ratings in the nation.

The first trick, of course, is to be able to secure the land and build a residential skyscraper with enough cost efficiencies in its construction that it could both remain affordable and pay off its mortgage. In an era of record-high construction costs, this may be an insurmountable challenge.

The more daunting task would then be to convince a high-rise full of potential limited-equity tenants that the roof over their heads wasn’t merely shelter, but was part of the greater good, and reflective of Abraham Kazan’s “twin pines” mantra: “To serve; no profit.”

In 21st-century America, that’s a hard sell.

James Nevius is an urban historian and author of a number of books about New York, including Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City and Footprints in New York: Tracing the Lives of Four Centuries of New Yorkers. He is currently researching a book about American utopianism. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

Editor: Sara Polsky

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