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.

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