Workers united in the Bronx

April 28, 2009

Delphine Selles-Alvarez reviews At Home in Utopia, a documentary about the United Workers Cooperative Colony in the Bronx and the radicals who built it.

THE DOCUMENTARY At Home in Utopia, which airs on PBS tonight, tells the story of Jewish workers, immigrants and communists from Eastern Europe who moved their families to the Bronx in the mid-1920s to escape the desperate living conditions of New York City's working-class neighborhoods.

Their decision to move was also prompted by the Palmer Raids that targeted communists and union organizers. During the raids, immigrant militants were rounded up, arrested and deported.

In response, a group of Jewish families pooled their resources and bought land in the Bronx. Together, they planned and built their own housing cooperatives called the United Workers Cooperative Colony--known as "the Co-ops."

Filmmaker Michal Goldman interviewed the second generation of residents of the Co-ops--men and women whose parents were involved in building what was called a "working-class fortress."

All of those interviewed give passionate and moving testimonies of their lives in the Co-ops, where the quality of life increased tremendously. The buildings included courtyards and gardens. Communal spaces were arranged in the basement, including a dance floor and a library boasting 20,000 volumes. After-school classes were offered to the children and workers organized dozens of social and athletic clubs.

Some of the founders of the United Workers Cooperative Colony in 1926
Some of the founders of the United Workers Cooperative Colony in 1926

While the film details the immense improvement in living conditions for the workers in the Co-ops, it also pays a lot of attention to the broader political struggles that took place from the 1930s through the '50s, which Co-op residents remained deeply committed to and involved in. Using rich archival footage, newsreels, photographs and home videos, the film shows the breadth and strength of working-class resistance movements during this period.

In the 1930s, for example, Co-op workers organized marches of the unemployed to City Hall to demand relief. They were involved in the campaigns to stop evictions--a common occurrence at a time when people lost their jobs and could no longer afford to pay rent. Co-op members themselves could not be evicted if they could not pay rent.

They also participated in the Communist Party-led campaign to save the Scottsboro Boys--nine young Black men framed for the rape of two white women on a freight train in 1931 Alabama.

After the Second World War, the residents led a victorious campaign to desegregate their buildings--the Bronx Co-ops were some of the first buildings to welcome Black tenants in New York City.

Review: Documentary

At Home in Utopia, a documentary by Michal Goldman and Ellen Brodsky, airs April 28 on PBS. Check local listings for show times. To buy a copy of the DVD, which includes more than 75 minutes of extras, visit the Filmmakers Collaborative Web site.

Boris Ourlicht's account of his first date with a young Black woman, who was to become his wife, shows the depth of the existing bigotry. The couple took a car ride to Greenwich Village, where they were stopped by a cop who threatened to arrest Ourlicht if he didn't say that his girlfriend was a prostitute. He refused, and the two of them were arrested for several hours.

THROUGHOUT THE two generations, the Co-op residents' commitment to social justice rarely wavered. Their children, many of whom are interviewed in the film, joined the Communist Party (CP). While their shared Jewish culture and language brought them together, they thought of themselves as socialists first and foremost. As several interviews attest, May Day was a much more important holiday than any others on the Jewish religious calendar.

At times, the Co-op community was faced with political events that deeply divided them. One was the Stalin-Hitler Pact of 1939. The pact led to fierce debates in the Co-ops. Some residents felt betrayed by Stalin because they were Jewish. Others remained loyal to the Soviet Union. When war broke out between Germany and the Soviet Union, all seem to have rallied under the U.S. flag to combat Hitler--the policy enthusiastically and uncritically adopted by the CP.

The Co-op buildings still stand today--although no longer under the control of the tenants' association--and have been named a landmark, but the short and proud history of this cooperative, and the hundreds of workers who lived there, had never been told before. Faced with our own version of the 1930s Depression, their story of collective resistance could not be more relevant.

At Home in Utopia shows that working-class movements, led by union members and socialists, can play a crucial role in forcing the government to bring relief to ordinary people. These are the movements that need to be rebuilt today. Everybody should see At Home in Utopia for inspiration.

Further Reading

From the archives