Independent Lens: At Home in Utopia

“When I was little,” smiles Harriette Nesin Bressack, “I thought the whole world was communist, and certainly, that the whole world was Jewish.” When she was little, Bressack lived in the United Workers Cooperative Colony, in the Bronx. Here, as she recalls in At Home in Utopia, she was surrounded by some 700 families who imagined their planned-out living conditions constituted the start of a revolution, a new way of working and evolving together. It was “All an experiment,” says another resident, Pete Rosenblum, with earnest hopes to achieve a “heaven on earth.”

Premiering on PBS’ Independent Lens, Michal Goldman’s film is a loving tribute to those hopes. Beginning in 1925, left-leaning Jews, most workers in the garment industry, devised a structure that allowed them not to feel they were “servants to someone else,” but instead were independent thinkers and activists, modeling their philosophies in their daily existence. Believing that they hadn’t “come to America to waste away in sweat shops and slums,” these immigrants capitalized on the subway built in 1920 to “the outer boroughs where land was cheap.” Here, they “spread the word thorough their own networks, in their own language, Yiddish,” raising money by selling shares in the co-op that would come to be known as the Coops.

The documentary remembers these housing collectives — the Amalgamated Houses, (built by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers union), the Sholem Aleichem Houses (built by Yiddishists), the Farband Houses (built by Labor Zionists), and The United Workers Cooperative Colony (built by Jewish Communists). It follows a standard design, telling its story through an assortment of talking heads, kids who lived in the Coops now grown up, their recollections illustrated by archival footage and photos. Squeezing lots of stories into an hour, the film sometimes feels disjointed, as one point cuts quickly to another. So, when architect Daniel Libeskind remembers the Coops’ innovative design (“The way you build houses could also foster and generate a new social contract with people”), the film supplies images of the social space in use, the basement used as a reading room (where some 20,000 volumes were housed) and the ground floors opening onto trees and grass (“It was very airy,” says former Coops resident Julie Logovoy, “And this was important”).

Several erstwhile residents revisit the location, where a Cambodian resident has now planted a fig tree and a young black man shows them around a garden. It’s not that the political ideals of the ’30s have been preserved over time, but that the architecture, in itself a worthy concept, has survived. The former residents remember their gardens and the very notion of the co-op as foundational: these were communists who understood the value of owning land in the U.S. If they saw themselves, as Lavin says, “as citizens of the world,” they also imagined they could embody their aspirations and so make them real.

As the Depression affected their ability to pay the mortgage, Coops inhabitants began to see their home as “a fortress for the working class.” Swerdlow says, “My father believed, in the Depression, that this was the final stage of capitalism.” Coops activists pushed for “unemployment relief at a time when none yet existed,” seeing themselves as a “nucleus of socialism.” While most initially believed in the Russian revolution, they were divided when, during World War II, Hitler signed a pact with Joseph Stalin. Boris Ourlicht recalls, “I accepted the pact as a means for achieving the means of production in the Soviet Union and achieving peace,” though he acknowledges the political contortions such acceptance demanded. Lavin intones, “They now had to choose between being a good Jew or a loyal communist.”

Ourlicht’s own relationship to the communist party and the Coops was cemented in another arena, namely, race relations in the U.S. As Yok Ziebel recounts, “There were black men being lynched and framed in this country and we knew that,” and so they made real efforts to integrate the Coops. On meeting Libby, the black woman who would become his wife, Ourlicht was struck by her beauty and ignorant of consequences outside the Coops. He recalls took Libby to Greenwich Village, where they were arrested. Advised by the officer that he could go free if he called Libby a prostitute, Ourlicht refused, and so spent a “couple of hours” at the station. “That was my first date,” he says tearfully.

Another version of such clashing with racism is recalled by Norma and Bernie Shuldiner, who journeyed with other Coops members to see Paul Robeson perform in Peekskill. Here they were subjected to abuses by anti-communist demonstrators in what came to be known as the 1949 Peekskill Riot. Participants remember that their bus drivers abandoned them and so they had to take the wheels themselves. Ourlicht smiles as he remembers thinking, “Hell, they can’t do this to me.” And with that, he says, “I gunned that motor and I started to go right for these guys.” Buses appear on the screen in low angle, reenacting the drive home to the Coops, where “the streets were mobbed” with supporters who had heard about the turmoil.

Just so, the Coops are remembered here as a bastion of faith in the effectiveness of demonstration and debate, in the public display of righteous outrage. Most effective when individuals tell their stories, the film celebrates their effort to live together. In doing so, workers found support for the present and aspirations for a better day.

RATING 6 / 10