Apartment buildings within Co-op City sit along the banks of the Hutchinson River in the Bronx borough of New York, Tuesday, May 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Fifty-nine percent of Americans say they’re hard hit by housing costs. Greed and decay are eroding middle-income housing. In New York, Governor Kathy Hochul wants to build 800,000 new homes without explaining how they’ll be affordable for low and moderate-income households, especially Black and Hispanic families facing housing discrimination and gaps in wages and wealth.

At a time when the words “housing” and “crisis” are as inseparable as “economic” and “inequality,” what, if anything, can we learn from an almost 60-year-old experiment in creating an affordable working-class community?

You may not have thought about this proletarian paradise recently. But you may have seen it in your rear-view mirror.

If you’re driving on I-95 north from New York City toward Westchester County and Connecticut, the last outpost of the Bronx that you see is an urban Stonehenge of 35 high-rise apartment buildings and seven townhouse clusters. While this city-within-a-city may look like a dystopian dreamscape, it’s actually the flawed fulfillment of a social democratic vision—the nation’s largest cooperative housing development, serving some 15,000 mostly moderate-income families.

Over more than five decades, Co-op City has made dramatic headlines and disputed history. Sponsored by New York’s needle, or garment, trade unions to provide affordable housing within the city, the development has been blamed for promoting “white flight” from the West Bronx even as its civic culture is rooted in the democratic left. (Streets are named after Eugene Debs, Clarence Darrow, and Theodore Dreiser. And that’s just the D’s.) Co-op City was rocked by a high-profile rent strike during the mid-1970s when its residents rebelled against exorbitant increases in their carrying charges, poor maintenance of the buildings, and the paternalism of the project’s founders.

Conservatives could see this story as a cautionary tale about liberal grandiosity. Radicals could claim Co-op City shows you can’t have social democracy in one community. But, since the 1980s, Co-op City has been a modest success story: While much of New York is the proverbial tale of two cities, a playground for the rich and precarity for the middle class and the poor, Co-op City has matured into a middle-class haven offering reasonable rentals for working-class residents, now overwhelmingly Black and Latino rather than Jewish and Italian.

Drawing upon the personal experience of an academic who grew up in Co-op City, Annemarie H. Sammartino tells this story of struggle and survival in Freedomland: Co-Op City and the Story of New York, published last year. The Oberlin College history professor couldn’t have imagined a more richly resonant origin story. Co-op City was built on the site of a failed historical theme park, with the portentous name Freedomland. Co-op City’s sponsor, the United Housing Foundation (UHF), was a consortium of labor unions and community service organizations led by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers (ACWA) and International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU).

While Freedomland and, sadly, the garment unions are part of New York City’s past, Co-op City’s story still resonates. The players included the founders of two iconic dynasties. Real estate magnate Fred Trump—father of the former president—conducted a vendetta against this kind of union-sponsored housing, which he saw as a commercial competitor and an ideological enemy. The community advocate and attorney Mario Cuomo—who would become New York governor as would his son, Andrew—negotiated the deal that allowed Co-op City to survive as a middle-class haven. Other former residents of Co-op City, all exemplars of upward mobility, include Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the actress and singer Queen Latifah, and the novelist and screenwriter Richard Price.

With endearing honesty, Sammartino admits that she had not heard of Co-op City’s socialist sponsorship, which was severed during that 13-month rent strike, until she began researching her home community’s history. Before Co-op City’s construction began in 1965, UHF and the ACWA’s and ILGWU’s cooperative housing programs had already built and managed tens of thousands of housing units in dozens of developments across New York City. Serving some 60,000 working-class households without displacing any existing neighborhoods, Co-op City was supposed to become UHF’s Great Society. Instead, the vast, hubristic project became UHF’s Vietnam.

From the first, Co-op City was caught in the crossfire between longstanding dreams and the wrenching economic, social, cultural, and political changes of the 1960s and 70s. The costs of building, maintaining, and financing the skyscrapers skyrocketed then, spiking the carrying charges – UHF refused to use the word “rents.”

Meanwhile, as Howard Cosell famously shrieked when a major fire in the South Bronx interrupted his broadcast of a 1977 World Series game at Yankee Stadium, “the Bronx [was] burning!” White flight, street crime, and racial rifts polarized the city. Succeeding a labor liberal, Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr., who’d supported UHF, the “limousine liberal” Mayor John Lindsay, elected in 1965, espoused a new urbanism that rejected large-scale developments in favor of scatter-site, mixed-income housing.

Cultural trends, too, were changing. UHF’s projects had been brutalist “towers in a park,” designed by an architect, Herman Jessor, who had been influenced by Weimar Germany’s Bauhaus School vision of “workers’ housing.” Amusingly, Sammartino writes that when she was studying in Berlin, she explained to her classmates that the community where she grew up looked like East German housing.

By the late 1960s, architectural critics from the urbanist Jane Jacobs to the journalist Ada Louis Huxtable preferred the “human scale” of low-rise housing in established urban neighborhoods to the supposed soullessness of high-rises in planned communities.

But Co-op City has been anything but soulless. From its opening during the blizzard of 1969 to the notorious citywide power failure in the summer of 1977, residents have helped each other out, shoveling snow, serving soup and sandwiches, or escorting elderly neighbors home.

Drawn from the city’s unionized public and private sector workforces and undaunted by tall buildings or long odds, the residents have been joiners, kvetchers, and activists. Ironically, they displayed the community spirit that UHF’s founders sought to inculcate during that rent strike in 1975-1976, led by a charismatic, bushy-haired former Maoist, Charlie Rosen. Eventually, after negotiations between Rosen and Cuomo (who made his reputation mediating community disputes in his native Queens), the residents won self-management of the development, as well as promises of additional state subsidies, which was no easy feat during the city’s fiscal crisis.

While the landlord-tenant conflict made the headlines, racial change was the subtext, if only rarely the text, of Co-op City’s evolution. During the 1950s and 60s, large developers in New York City, including the Trump family, MetLife, and Levittown, clearly committed racial discrimination. UHF developments were more racially diverse but not exactly reflective of the changing city.

Civil rights advocates criticized UHF for its anachronistic “color blind” liberalism; the organization made little effort to reach out to communities of color. The Black Caucus at Co-op City protested against an all-white advisory committee in the development’s first year. But change came with less rancor than in the rest of the city.

Thus, when it opened in 1969, some 20 percent of Co-op City’s residents were Black or Latino, reflecting the city’s demography. By 2010, the demography had flipped, and Co-op City had become about 80 percent Black or Latino.

But, as Sammartino writes with some plausibility, residents from every background were largely proud of the diversity. Sometimes, working-class families from different backgrounds found much in common, from noisy family arguments and exacting demands on their children to traditions of social protest. As the future Justice Sotomayor later recalled, back in Co-op City, a Jewish baker befriended her Puerto Rican family, and she learned that “shiksa” (Yiddish for a gentile woman) could be a term of endearment, not an ethnic slur.

This is a complex story, melding social history and public policy, and Sammartino tells it well. Decades after the most dramatic events, there are understandably few personal interviews. But, benefitting from Co-op City’s having had two community newspapers, she includes stories and quotes from community residents as reported long ago.

As well as anyone can, she explains how social policies, ostensibly progressive but rooted in racism, produced Co-op City. In postwar America and New York, the government subsidized homeownership for the white middle class. But public housing for low-income families, largely Black and Latino, was deliberately isolated, underfunded, and ultimately doomed. New York added an additional tier: subsidized middle-income “developments,” designed to be more desirable than the “projects” but not to compete with private, for-profit housing.

Having grown up in a UHF “development” in Brooklyn, literally across the elevated tracks from low-income “projects,” I remember the weirdness and also the wonderfulness. There were communal laundry machines, as well as community rooms with frequent events, from labor films to an art show where the best-known resident, the legendary African American artist Jacob Lawrence, was the guest of honor. Each 15-story building had two elevators, one for odd-numbered, the other for even-numbered, floors; in a nod to older residents’ superstitions, there were no 13th floors. For all the quirky community spirit, as Sammartino writes of Co-op City, it was a better place for retirees to age in place than adolescents to come of age.

As Sammartino writes in an online op-ed, UHF projects should offer lessons during the current crisis in affordable housing. No one—from private developers to progressive public officials—is building large-scale high-rise housing anymore. Instead, the preferred remedies include subsidizing low and moderate-income tenants in mixed-income developments and dismantling restrictive zoning and other policies that discourage affordable housing.

With their diverse, upwardly mobile, and community-oriented memberships, unions would be ideal partners for serious local, state, and national efforts to build and maintain affordable housing. But, struggling to survive and grow, most unions are unlikely to devote substantial energy and resources to housing development. An exception might be the unions representing teachers, public employees, and healthcare workers, which are still growing and whose members should be able to afford to live in the cities where they work. Construction unions might also be interested in investing in projects that provide their members with jobs and housing.

As in the past, the ideas should come from the bottom up, not the top down, from union organizers to tenant activists and environmentalists seeking sustainable alternatives to sprawl. While progressives are unlikely to build big projects, Co-op City should be both a cautionary tale and an inspiring example for those who still think big.

David Kusnet

David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton from 1992 through 1994 and is the author of several books, including To Build New York: 100 Years of Infrastructure. Follow David on Twitter at @DavidKusnet.