AT HOME IN UTOPIA
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“This was all an experiment. The people that started the experiment thought, ‘We’ll end up with heaven on earth.’”

—Paul “Pete” Rosenblum

In the mid-1920s, thousands of immigrant Jewish garment workers catapulted themselves out of the urban slums and ghettos by pooling their resources and building cooperatively owned and run apartment complexes in the Bronx. Adjacent to the newly opened subway corridor and in the midst of empty fields, they constructed the United Workers Cooperative Colony, a.k.a. “the Coops,” where they practiced the utopian ideals of an equitable and just society.

AT HOME IN UTOPIA captures their epic struggle across two generations as the Coops residents experiment with breaking down barriers of race and ethnicity, and championing radical ideas that would someday transform the American workplace.

Three other large communities—the Amalgamated Houses, built by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, the Sholem Aleichem Houses, built by Yiddishists, and the Farband Houses, built by Labor ZIonists —were located near the Coops. But the Coops was the most grassroots and member-driven of the Jewish labor housing cooperatives, with many of the residents practicing—and proselytizing—communists.

About 20 people sit scattered in the basement library of the Coops, a room with shelves filled with books lining the walls and many tables and chairs
Reading in the library

A group of 11 young men, some sitting and some standing, pose for the camera
from a basement rec room with an animal skin hung on the wall behind them
Club Falcons

As a community, the Coops gave its residents everything they’d ever dreamed possible in their adopted country—green spaces for gardens, sports and children’s play areas; community spaces for meetings, dances, recreation and dozens of clubs that flourished; a library with 20,000 volumes in Yiddish, Russian and English and, most of all, the sense that they lived on the cutting edge of progressive reforms that would inevitably sweep the nation. As part of this agenda, the Coops invited African American families into the complex, fostering lifetime friendships—and even interracial marriage.

When the Great Depression slammed into their dreams, residents of the Coops took to the streets, demanding (and getting) mortgage relief not only for themselves, but also for neighboring housing complexes. They demonstrated for better conditions for American workers and for unemployment insurance. They believed they were watching the death of capitalism, and in its death throes, they saw an opportunity for communism to fill the gap. And, when their ideas took root, with 24 states passing mortgage relief laws and unemployment insurance becoming the norm, it seemed that their utopian society might be just around the corner for all Americans.

But after World War II, amidst growing anti-communist sentiment and McCarthyism, their utopian dreams began to unravel. Then in 1956, when Soviet Premier Khrushchev revealed atrocities committed by Josef Stalin, many residents abandoned their communist-inspired ideals altogether.

Informed by a rich cache of archival photographs, home movie footage and interviews, AT HOME IN UTOPIA tightly weaves together history, memory and the lives and landscapes changed forever by the Coops. Despite the plight of many American workers today, the film recalls a moment in time when an empowered and exalted American worker stood on the brink of being master of his fate, captain of his soul and at home in a perfect world of his—and her—own making.

Update

Filmmakers Michal Goldman and Ellen Brodsky provided an update in February 2009 on what some of the people featured in AT HOME IN UTOPIA have been doing since filming ended:

Since the film was shot, Shulamit Ourlicht Miller, Margaret Jones Oliver, Bernie Shuldiner and Julie Lugovoy have died.

Architect Daniel Libeskind has an international architectural practice with offices near Ground Zero. Dr. Mary Louise Patterson, the daughter of the Communist leader Bill Patterson, is a pediatrician and teacher. Boris Ourlicht, who for years taught industrial art, now makes sculpture and recently worked on the formation of a new political party for working people. His sister Leah Ourlicht Campanella is a retired social worker.

Janet Jones Laidman, a retired music teacher, now plays jazz with her husband; her sister Joyce Jones Sykes works with cancer patients. Harriette Nesin Bressack went to Columbia Teachers College on the GI Bill and taught English for twenty-five years. She and Al have four children. Norma Dubitsky Shuldiner, the first woman machinist in the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II, became a specialist in early childhood education and now lives in a retirement home in Chicago.

Amy Galstuck Swerdlow became a professor of Women’s Studies and a prominent spokesperson for Women Strike for Peace; she has been working on a memoir about the Coops. Pete Rosenblum took a Ph.D. in African Studies, worked as a typesetter at The New York Times and is the Coops’ unofficial historian. Yok Ziebel, for years a union functionary, and his wife Bebe, who taught English, have been taking great pleasure in appearing with AT HOME IN UTOPIA at film festivals.


Related Links and Resources

AT HOME IN UTOPIA filmmaker site
Read additional background materials and find out about upcoming screenings of the film.

History of Housing in New York
Read how New York’s tenements of the 19th and 20th centuries gave rise to citywide housing reforms and new building concepts, including the cooperative apartment building.

A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York
by Tony Michels
(Harvard University Press, 2009)
Get acquainted with the history of New York’s Jewish community during four decades of mass migration into the city.

National Association of Housing Cooperatives: Significant Dates in Co-op History
Read a brief history of cooperative housing worldwide.

Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century
by Cheryl Lynn Greenberg
(Princeton University Press, 2006)
Explore the complex history of black-Jewish relations in America.

Working Class New York: Life and Labor Since World War II
by Joshua Freeman
(New Press, 2001)
Read about the post World War II rise and fall of working-class life and culture in Manhattan.


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