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Columbia University Digital Knowledge Ventures The Architecture and Development of New York City with Andrew S. Dolkart
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Union Housing
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Union Housing
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By the 1920s it became apparent that model tenements were not going to solve the problem and that the government was not going to get involved in housing construction, so the working poor began in a few cases to take housing construction into their own hands, and unions began building what were called not-for-profit cooperatives. Unions and other groups of like-minded individuals funded the construction of large housing complexes that would have apartments on the same scale as middle-class apartments, that would be open to union members or to members of a particular organization. These buildings are mostly in the Bronx, and they're mostly opposite parks, so that there would be light and air and recreation.

The Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union was the largest organization to build these not-for-profit co-ops. And what that means (a not-for-profit co-op) is that in a typical co-op (a cooperative apartment house in New York) you own shares in a stock company, and you can sell your apartment, or you can sell your shares to the highest bidder so that you can make a large profit on your sale, except that the board of directors has to approve of your sale. But you can make a profit of any sort. In a not-for-profit co-op, you buy the shares for a modest amount of money, and when you want to move you sell the shares back to the co-op corporation for the same amount of money. So it's not profit-making housing; it was to perpetuate quality housing so that once you left, somebody else could move in and afford to buy the apartment at a reasonable rate.

The Amalgamated Houses in the Bronx were designed in a very picturesque suburban style. They have an enormous amount of open space, much more open space than was required by law when these were built in the 1920s. And they're opposite Van Cortlandt Park, so there was a tremendous amount of light and air. And besides being apartment houses with very spacious apartments, they also provided amenities like an auditorium and classrooms and craft spaces and playgrounds and places where both children and adults could meet. So it was a whole community of union members.

One of the most interesting of the not-for-profit co-ops is called the United Workers Houses, which are located opposite Bronx Park. And they were built by secular Jewish communist garment workers in the 1920s. And even though almost everything this group did was politically charged, they chose to build Tudor apartment buildings, they chose to build in their first effort a very traditional group of apartment buildings. Because as we will see in a little while, Tudor came to symbolize home in America.

Now their second apartment-house complex that this group built was much more avant-garde in its architecture, but for their initial foray it was very traditional until you look more closely. The buildings had very large light courts, and the entrances, though, are carved with ornament, such as hammers and sickles over one doorway or smoking factories over another. These not-for-profit co-ops were also a very interesting reform effort, and they created quality housing for several thousand families, but they, too, could not respond to the huge housing crisis in New York.


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