Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Soil that Grows a Neighborhood

[Greetings One & All. I trust your Memorial Day weekend was restorative. I've been feeling the pull of the old neighborhood as my date with Vladeck Hall draws closer. Below is an excerpt from my memoir, The Rail: What was Really Doin' in the 60's Bronx. I hope it inspires memories from your own neighborhood experiences, wherever you grew up Enjoy. Tommy]
Our neighborhood arose upon a vision.

Unlike most neighborhoods in New York that simply evolved willy-nilly, where a few immigrant families established a foothold and others of similar race, religion, or ethnicity followed – only to yet again have the environment metamorphize when economic conditions shifted and another wave of different faces speaking different languages appeared – our neighborhood was truly the first intentional community in the five boroughs. The vision of the Amalgamated Housing Cooperative was simple and profound: create affordable housing that was cooperatively owned and democratically managed.

The post-World War I period was marked by droves of returning veterans and thousands fleeing war-ravaged Europe. These conditions impacted all of New York City, especially in the poorer neighborhoods, spawning a severe housing shortage that initiated, and was in turn fueled by, rapacious speculation. The nightmare slums of the Lower East Side, the capriciousness of avaricious landlords, and the grim impossibility of ever being able to afford the exorbitant costs of moving to a nicer neighborhood (much less buying a home of one’s own), drove the mostly Jewish members of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) clustered in this area to demand a different world; they looked to their labor associations for its realization. As a result, the housing issue was a central topic at the ACWA’s 1924 convention.

   Led by the Secretary-Treasurer of the ACWA’s credit union, Abraham E. Kazan, and supported by Sidney Hillman, President of the ACWA – as well as by people gathered around Forverts (The Forward, a Yiddish-language daily newspaper) – a sparsely populated region of the north Bronx became a living field of dreams. It seemed only fitting that the formation of the Amalgamated Housing Cooperative in 1927 (referred to simply as “The Amalgamated”), was inspired by The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers in Rochdale, England, the birthplace of the modern cooperative movement in 1844. Rochdale was England’s center for the burgeoning textile and weaving industry; therefore, what better models for the ACWA visionaries than these original “cooperators,” these kinsmen-by-trade. Further, the spirit of the founding Rochdale Principles permeated the imaginations of these modern men, especially the visionary Abraham Kazan who led the cooperative housing revolution in New York – transforming these Bronx hinterlands into the nation’s first cooperative project. It was as if simultaneous with the first groundbreaking, the seeds of a modern Rochdale were also sown, providing these earliest cooperative pioneers, now settling the Bronx, with a root system that would blossom and guide them and this nascent community across the twentieth century. Both the tangibles and intangibles within their founding principles provided the cornerstone and the scaffolding for this project: voluntary and open membership; democratic governance; surpluses belonging to cooperative members; no social or political discrimination; education of members and the public in the cooperative movement; cooperation with other cooperatives; and care for the community. It was impossible to live in our neighborhood without both touching and being touched by this progressive and communal spirit that seemed to be everywhere.

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Complexty of Community

Greetings One & All:

As you can imagine, the writing of my memoir sent me into long reveries about the nature of community. What I tried to convey in my story is encapsulated in a quote I used by M. Scott Peck:

"When I am with a group of human beings committed to hanging in there through both the agony and joy of community, I have a dim sense that I am participating in a phenomenon for which there is only one word . . . glory."

I am struck by the words "agony" and "joy" paired in this quote. For I know deeply that this truly defines the roiling alchemy that is the communal vessel. It most certainly describes the way I grew up in the Bronx. The truth of the matter is that while many blossomed in the soil of our  neighborhood, others felt alienated, bullied, un-seen and un-heard; when it came time to organize a neighborhood reunion in 2003, it was these folks whose absence was felt acutely.

And yet, is this not what community means? Is it not a place, where especially as children, we seek -- mainly by way of social Braille -- places of safety and adventure? Is growing up not a process of groping our way into discovery and revelation of what draws us close and what repels us? Could this process be any other way than a combination of agony and joy? Would we want it any other way?

When I was growing up, we swarmed with feral innocence across our environment and amongst each other. Like stones in an onrushing stream, tumbling and bumping and spinning over and into each other, we stone-washed our bodies, minds, and spirits in ways that seem all but lost in these over-protected times. There was hardly an adult in sight, only neighbors who periodically intervened to help us draw a boundary. And this was how resiliency was birthed. Even those who found more agony than joy in our neighborhood experience, I am willing to bet, fashioned their own resiliency with which to navigate the world they grew into beyond the neighborhood.

In scribing my memoir, I have looked at the gem of my neighborhood, my community. I have turned it to and fro, examining it's many facets. Amidst the agony and the joy -- nay, as a direct result of this complexity -- I tapped into an enormous well-spring of gratitude for the people and the place that honed me into the person I am today. 

There is much to remember. There is much to learn. And, there is much to cherish.      


Thursday, May 19, 2016

Who Remembers How to Get to Vladeck Hall?

Warmest Greetings Everyone:

My first blog post is to announce the publication of my coming-of-age memoir: The Rail: What was Really Doin' in the 60's Bronx. As the son of an Irish immigrant, growing up in a Jewish neighborhood near the Amalgamated Housing in the Van Cortlandt Park area during the 1950s (in the aftermath of WW2 and the Holocaust) and during the earthshaking 1960s, I have written a love story to the people and place that ultimately saved my life. Read more about it on my website, www.the-rail.net

Equally exciting is that in five weeks I will be journeying back to my old neighborhood to read from my book at one of the iconic locations, Vladeck Hall.

Vladeck Hall is an auditorium located at 74 Van Cortlandt Park South, part of the 6th Building in the Amalgamated complex. Over the years this location has been the site of summer camp gathering, ballet classes, all manner of performances, art shows, and more. I am honored to be taking the stage to share my story, the story that could not have been written without the people who shaped me into the person I've become. 

Join me, at Vladeck Hall, on Sunday, June 26th, 5:00 p.m. It will be a wonderful neighborhood reunion.