At Home In Utopia, written and directed by Michal Goldman, airing on WNET/Thirteen Tuesday, April 28 at 10 p.m.
History often gets lost in a city that moves as rapid-fire as this one. Change happens so often, and so quickly, that the memory of what went before is easily supplanted by what's before our eyes now.
There was a time, in the first half of the last century, when secular Jews, mostly from Eastern European immigrant families, lived in service to a set of political ideals, some wrongheaded, others clearly echoed in the surprising presidency of Barack Obama. They saw their lives in terms of collective consciousness, and although that consciousness took different forms – some were Communists, some Socialists, some primarily Labor-Zionists – they lived in a way that few Americans do today. They thought of life in collective terms, more family of man than family of blood. Our lives, they believed, were closely tied together, and we should help each other through life’s struggles.
This new documentary by Michal Goldman – who also made “A Jumpin' Night In the Garden of Eden” about the klezmer music revival, and “Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt” about one of the greatest singers in the Arab music world – ably captures the energy, intelligence and sheer likeability of the residents of “the coops,” the United Workers Cooperative Colony in Bronx Park East, off Allerton Avenue in the northeast Bronx. This housing development, one of four “intentional workers' communities” built in 1930, not only provided them with a room and a roof, but with a way to pursue a cooperative way of life. It’s a way of life that is lost to the residents of today, immigrants from all over the world who are not necessarily connected to the history.
The Bronx housing coops sprang from the desire of the Jewish garment workers in the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union for fresh air and gardens and better places to live than their crowded difficult conditions on the Lower East Side. The city helped, opening up public transportation into the Bronx, where the land was cheaper and the air was cleaner. What life was like for the people who lived there, in the 700 coop apartments, is the film’s compelling subject. The story is told through the voices of many of the inhabitants, who are now elderly, remembering with passion and detail what life was like growing up with their parents, relatives, and friends in a community full of fervent believers in organizing, collective consciousness, labor unions, workers' rights and a new social vision where justice and collective wellbeing played a dominant role.
Of the many compelling coop dwellers interviewed for this hour-long film, Boris Ourlicht is one of the most appealing. Some people seem more real, on film, than others. It’s hard to say quite why: the tone of his voice? How he holds his head? His sincerity seems unquestionable. Along with several others, Boris tells the story of how the coops were mostly Jewish, and Yiddish was the language always spoken. But the residents wanted to address the larger culture's racial divide, and decided in the 1930s to bring African-Americans into the housing complex, so everyone could live together. Boris – who had joined the Communist party as a young man, then worked as an organizer and art teacher – fell in love with the African-American daughter of one of the coop’s early black families. On their first date in Greenwich Village, they were arrested for being an interracial couple. Still they married and had children. The film uses plenty of archival footage, and in one photo we see two strong, handsome mixed-race sons flank their small Eastern European grandmother, all smiling. In these days, it’s hard not to think of Obama.
The relationship between blacks and Jews in the coops is shown a little later in the story of the notorious Paul Robeson concert in Peekskill, New York, in 1949. To many Jews in the coops, Robeson was a true hero, beloved as a spectacular singer, a Communist activist and an inspirational world leader. Many Peekskill residents objected to Robeson for racial and political reasons, however, and the bus drivers who’d brought coop members to the concert fled when they confronted the angry assemblage locals with baseball bats and weapons and police officers (a situation which did result in numerous injuries to concert-goers). Undeterred, the coopniks drove their own buses home after the concert, and were greeted as heroes.
But what about today? The film does not explore who lives in the buildings now, and how the idea of utopia changed. What happened in the apartments in the 60s and 70s? Were there the same impossible problems of crime and drugs that plagued much of the Bronx? And where did the Jews go, and the blacks, after they left? Did any remain … did they stay connected?
One of the stories in the film that seems most relevant now is the way the coopniks organized to preserve housing, barricading an apartment in a neighboring building to prevent foreclosures from happening. Watching these impassioned women and men tell their unusual stories, to hear about their lifetime commitment to social justice, it’s inspiring to imagine how we might band together the way these people did, and build a path together on the way to a better world.
Esther Cohen served from 1999 until last month as executive director of Bread and Roses, the nonprofit cultural arm of 1199SEIU.