Cooperative City, Cooperative Community

Despite its distance from the center of New York City, Co-op City’s site and scale make it prominent on the landscape: anyone who’s driven north on I-95 has taken note of this final cluster of high-rises before crossing city limits into the lower density suburbs of Westchester County. Critics, historians, and even the Supreme Court have noticed as well, weighing in since construction began in 1966 on what the complex signifies for housing finance, site planning, cooperative ownership, ethnic and racial diversity, and tenants’ rights. It’s become both a positive and negative case study in how to value design, how to maintain affordability, and whom to send the bill for upkeep. But it is far from prototypical. At every juncture in its history, Co-op City has been deemed exceptional: each article or essay mentions its status as “the largest cooperative housing development in the world” or “the tenth largest city in New York State.” But the superlatives that set it apart don’t mean it has no lessons to offer the wider conversation on housing. Two years ago, Juliette Spertus and Susanne Schindler contrasted Co-op City with Twin Parks, another, less well-known affordable housing development in the Bronx. And this week, Caitlin Blanchfield returns to Co-op City and uncovers the particular nuances it adds to our understanding of social infrastructure, intergenerational continuity, community pride, and, of course, affordability.

Typecast is the Architectural League’s long-term investigation into architectural typologies, starting with “towers-in-the-park.” The term refers to complexes of multi-family, high-rise housing, located on a dedicated “superblock” of open space that is disconnected from the street system. This project seeks to move beyond stereotypes of architectural form by revealing the social and spatial specificities of distinct sites that share physical characteristics and philosophies of design but differ greatly in their lived experience.

-C.S.

Co-op City | Photo by Amani Willett

To understand the particular pull of Co-op City, talk to Alex Cruz. Cruz grew up here, on the 24th floor of a chevron-shaped high rise with narrow corridors but wide windows. It’s where his father still lives. Their apartment looks out over a baseball diamond and playground, across a lawn to the building’s mirror image, another tower-in-the-park. In early spring the grass is still scrubby, Canada geese waddle about, and young cyclists cautiously wend down paths. Elsewhere in the city, the final melt of winter’s stubborn snow pack has exposed the detritus of a dreary season — countless cigarette butts and frozen pizza crusts — but here the grounds are immaculate. “It’s clean and beautiful. Compared to other places in the city, it’s night and day,” says Cruz. But that’s not what has kept him around. For Cruz it’s about affordability, convenience, and community.

Though he went to school in Manhattan, Cruz met his wife in this building; she lived four floors below him. Together they moved out, hopping around the Bronx before settling temporarily on the Upper West Side. After a few years, they were back. “Compared to what I had on 81st and Amsterdam, this is a mansion. For what I’m paying, it’s beautiful,” Cruz explains. What he’s paying is a huge part of the draw. Co-op City is very affordable. Say what you will about the sterility of modernist apartment projects — and plenty have — but I struggle to imagine where else in New York City a light and airy two-bedroom apartment rents for under $1,200. Cruz, who works as a porter in Co-op City’s Section Five community center, supports his wife and two young children. It’s a place where it seems possible to live comfortably on a working class salary — a rare opportunity on the heels of a mayoral tenure hallmarked by condo construction and gentrification.

Co-op City | Photo by Amani Willett

The complexity of Co-op City’s social contract is in the development’s DNA. It’s the largest cooperative housing development in the United States, and as such has been fodder for popular debate on the form of such developments. In 1968, architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable assessed it ambivalently in the Times: “Its size and scale are monumental; its environmental and social planning are minimal.” Designers Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi meanwhile applauded the co-op, “learning to like it” in the pages of Progressive Architecture in 1971. For them, Co-op City made good on its simple promise: ordinary, equitable housing. It was almost alright, its conventionality a sign of its realism and practicality. Of course, Scott Brown and Venturi made a career on embracing the banal, but theirs may be the more generative way of looking at Co-op City and understanding affordable housing more broadly: an amenity that serves countless New Yorkers, and a scaffold upon which citizens construct their own sense of place.

Quality of life and pride of place can be built in.Huxtable’s critique was attuned to the sociological effects of “cookie-cutter” homes built at a large scale. Her review rightly points out that when the state foots the affordable housing bills, design innovation is the first to the chopping block, and intimate space sacrificed for the bottom line. She advocates looser zoning to provide for both intimacy and innovation. And while she was writing in the 1960s, her words resonate today, reminding us how undeniably the architecture, site planning, and landscape design of homes — affordable housing or otherwise — affect residents’ experience. Since then, the tower-in-the-park has become a much-maligned typology, aesthetically ostracized and charged with stereotypes about public housing. Yet, to take this view wholesale is to ignore what people like about their homes here and the ways that Co-op City’s spatial idiosyncrasies and the empowerment of its residents might inform the future of housing.

The Road to Co-op City
In the northeast Bronx, bounded by the New England Thruway and the Hutchinson River Parkway, Co-op City is a paradigmatic product of 1950s urbanism. It was designed in 1951 by the architect Herman Jessor who, from the 1920s through the ‘70s, worked on housing for tens of thousands of New Yorkers in cooperatives and affordable projects, among them the Amalgamated Housing Cooperative and Starrett City. Given that Co-op City’s construction was completed in 1969 as the era of Robert Moses was only beginning to come to an end, the site makes a certain kind of sense. It’s easily accessible to two major freeways, on land that could be cheaply filled for massive parking lots. The freeways only further isolate what is already a hermitic complex, and the auto-centric optimism of the 1950s has left residents without easy access to subway and rail. Buses rumble down Co-op City’s loops and drives, but people complain of half-hour waits and complicated transfers. Parking abounds.

Co-op City | Photo by Amani Willett

This winter, the MTA floated the idea of a Metro-North stop for Co-op City. It generated buzz and looks to be a good idea, and not just for those commuting to work in Manhattan. But that’s years down the road. For now, there are small concessions: community organizations and the management company fought for — and won — the restoration of bus lines that the MTA cut in 2010. Still, getting out of Co-op City feels like an undertaking. On a weekend afternoon, I chatted with a group of teenagers skateboarding in the plaza of the Section Five shopping center. Matthew McGlaushen, 19, talked about the changes he’s seen over the last few years, starting with the expansion of Bay Plaza, the largest shopping mall in New York City, but also improved architectural detailing and customization within the apartments and common spaces. Over the last decade, The RiverBay Corporation has funneled $240 million dollars into renovations and improvements to update the aging complex. These days, Matthew says, “There’s more stuff you can do to your apartment.” He speaks of moving away from Co-op City with the resigned allegiance of a small-town boy thinking of the future: “I always said I wouldn’t leave unless a job came up,” he tells me. Residents tend to think of leaving as an outing, the city as a place apart. “Sure, we travel,” is how one resident put it when asked if she often left the complex.

Better public transportation would go far to knit Co-op City into the rest of the Bronx and other boroughs. To enter Co-op City is to cross a threshold, a strange cusp between city and suburb. The perimeter of the development, on the east side of wide Baychester Avenue, separates the towers from the low-rise neighborhoods of Eastchester and Baychester. Turn down Dreiser Loop (named for the writer Theodore Dreiser) and the grid is abandoned. The smattering of delis lining Baychester’s streets yield to shopping centers, picnic tables, and parking lots. Single-family homes give way to high rises, playgrounds, and baseball fields. It’s the anti-suburban suburb: dense but not quite urban; the size of a small city with the feel of a subdivision. Some 60,000 people live here. They are served by three elementary schools, a high school, and their own power plant and post office. These amenities are part of the concept of the cooperative. When the apartments were built, so were the schools, which were subsequently sold back to the City, ensuring both social infrastructure and insularity. In 2007, RiverBay worked with New York State Energy and Research Development Authority to update the Co-op City power plant. Now the plant, which had managed energy from Con Ed, produces its own in an experimental tri-generation facility. They sell electricity back to the grid. It’s a point of pride, part of a financing model that allies Co-op City with New York State.

Co-op City | Photo by Amani Willett

A Housing History
In 1955, four years after Co-op City was designed but a decade before construction began, New York State passed the Limited Profit Housing Companies Act, enacting the Mitchell-Lama funding model which guarantees affordable housing for middle income residents through tax abatements and low-interest mortgages. The United Housing Foundation — started by cooperative housing champion and union advocate Abraham Kazan — facilitated the design and construction of Co-op City. The RiverBay Corporation was created to manage the cooperative once it was built, handling upkeep and new applications. To live here you need to fall within a “middle income” bracket determined by the State and dependent upon the type of unit you’re looking for. At the lower end of the scale — a three-room apartment for one to two people — minimum income is around $23,000 and maximum around $60,000. Residents buy in to the co-op for a certain amount of equity and then pay a monthly carrying charge to RiverBay, which dispenses it for overall maintenance. If a resident wants to move, he or she sells the apartment back to RiverBay in the form of shares in the cooperative, recouping the initial investment into the apartment minus renovation fees. In 1975, residents sued RiverBay for $30 million in damages after maintenance costs on the apartments precipitously increased, costs which residents expected RiverBay to absorb in line with certain marketing materials. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which decided that it did not have jurisdiction in the case because shares of a housing cooperative are not considered “securities” under the laws that formed the basis of the claim.

As Joe Boiko, the assistant general manager at RiverBay, explains, no one is Co-op City. RiverBay does not entirely own the cooperative, nor does the State, and nor do the diversity of tenants who live there. This may be true, but it does seem that if anyone could come close to personifying Co-op City, it would be Boiko himself. From behind the desk of his basement office in Section Five’s community center, Boiko launches into the history of the site, buildings, and community. It’s one he knows well: he, too, grew up and continues to live there. In fact, one-third of RiverBay’s employees do.

Co-op City | Photo by Amani Willett

“I was very active in the community. Vocal against the way management did things. Then they approached me to be an ombudsman, and I was just promoted to assistant general manager.” A self-proclaimed critic, Boiko isn’t shy about his concerns — the expansion of the mall being one — but he touts the role of community groups in advocating for resident’s needs. Plus, he’s seen change here. When first built, Co-op City had a professional board of directors, instead of one comprised of its residents. During the early ‘70s, as monthly fees mounted and repairs fell behind, residents felt a financial squeeze and found ears on the board unsympathetic. Eventually the development defaulted on its loan, prompting the longest rent strike in US history. When the Bronx Borough President and New York Secretary of State at last mediated an end to the rent strike a year later, residents reclaimed their board and put an end to arbitrary hikes in carrying costs.

The new board of elected co-opers drew upon tenant expertise and volunteer labor to keep operating expenses low. Residents continue to elect their board of representatives. In the early 2000s, the board again faced mounting maintenance needs and lacked the funds to fix them. In 2004, the New York State Housing Finance Agency refinanced the development’s mortgage and granted RiverBay a $275 million dollar loan. Since then, windows have been replaced, floors repaired, and elevators, balconies, and parking lots renovated.

Co-op City | Photo by Amani Willett

Over the past decade, as many Mitchell-Lama limited equity housing cooperatives across the city have opted to “privatize” their buildings, leading to rent increases and financial risk for residents, Co-op City has retained the subsidy and remained in the Mitchell-Lama program. Its funding structure has changed only slightly over the years. While the prices of shares have risen with inflation over the decades, the development is still geared toward middle income New Yorkers. Co-op owners are now allowed to rent their apartments to other individuals. The influx of new tenants may contribute to a sense of change within the community, but by and large residents have stayed and many family members have returned to the co-op. Demographics here are more diverse than they once were in terms of both ethnicity and income. The kind of union labor that backed the United Housing Foundation in the ‘50s and ‘60s offered stable work and upward mobility, so incomes have diversified over the generations. Many people I spoke to worked for government as police officers or MTA conductors, some of the younger owners and tenants were starting their professional careers in Manhattan, others worked at the nearby restaurants and stores. Many were retired. According to Boiko, the ethos of solidarity between residents may have lessened over the years, but it persists.

Cultivating Communities
There are over 110 community organizations in Co-op City, from religious organizations to fishing clubs. In part, the architecture enables community building: each section has a community center with group meeting rooms which RiverBay rents at favorable rates; the greenway — “Co-op City’s Central Park,” as Boiko puts it — lends itself to flea markets, music nights, even seasonal waterslides. These opportunities for social cohesion foster an insular as well as self-sufficient neighborhood. As Boiko describes open-mic nights and dance classes, I get the feeling I’m being pitched some kind of adult summer camp or a spot in a retirement home. But his broader point is that an apparatus is in place for participation. It’s literally part of the plan and it seems to work: Co-op City is a chatty place where neighborliness abounds. Part of it is demographics: Co-op City is the world’s largest NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Community). In the middle of a weekday, seniors cluster at picnic tables and congregate on benches to talk and people-watch. At the shopping center, an older woman ambles her walker toward a small construction site. Brickwork is underway and she’s keen to inspect the progress. “They keep this place up,” she says, “and look at this, I’m at the mall and I don’t have to get on the bus to go nowhere. We sit, we talk, the trees are about to bud.”

Co-op City | Photo by Amani Willett

I heard this a lot: you can get everything you need in Co-op City. That refrain was repeated so often that I had to wonder: you don’t have to leave, but you might want to, right? The vibrant street life, typological diversity, and intoxicating unpredictability of New York City are a world away. A certain kind of built homogeneity is palpable here, a sleepiness almost too subdued compared to surrounding neighborhoods. But in this case, another word for convenience might be commitment. Local businesses want to help residents out. Grocery stores deliver free of charge, and for a couple bucks will shop for you, a real boon for elderly residents. Most shops are mom-and-pop enterprises: small bakeries, Chinese take-out joints, and pharmacies. There is a Montefiore medical clinic, too. The contrast to the big-box stores and restaurant chains across the street is impossible to ignore.

Bay Plaza, the largest mall in the city and a site of both ire and enthusiasm among residents, sits on the other side of Co-op City Boulevard. The developer Prestige chose the site precisely because it’s conveniently located for residents of the Bronx and Westchester. A new Macy’s will open at the end of the summer, followed by more retail in the fall. Matthew McGlaushen, the 19-year-old skateboarder, is excited about the expansion; the ladies I sat with were curious about the Macy’s. But not everyone is optimistic. The community board is concerned about increased traffic off of I-95. Already Bay Plaza is a destination — on a weekend the restaurants are packed and the parking lot crowded — but it lacks the public quality of Co-op City’s local shopping centers. There is nowhere to sit, so people don’t linger; the parking lot is far larger than the footprint of the buildings themselves, making pedestrian access precarious. These small but significant differences reveal the ways in which Co-op City-style developments could make for a better suburbia. Here, publicness is foregrounded. The small shopping centers with their modest tenants feel like community gathering places, not theaters of consumer culture. The site plan, in its loops, drives, and greenways, allows for playgrounds and seating areas that are all well used. People mainly walk or take the bus to get around. The tower leaves room for the park.

Co-op City | Photo by Amani Willett

New York, by the late 1960s, was a city on the cusp of change, and not change for the best. The Bronx — the borough that would come to be known as “burning” only four years after Co-op City opened — was already feeling the pinch of landlord speculation as owners overcrowded buildings and disregarded residents. Neighborhoods suffered the ongoing aftermath of the Cross-Bronx Expressway’s construction. The cooperative was security against the slums. It was also an opportunity for families from across the city to live suburban dreams in urban confines. Advertisements pegged it as a “New Town within the City.” Governor Rockefeller boasted that its size surpassed any housing development in the Soviet Union. Underpinning the cooperative ethos of day care centers and small-scale shopping malls was the fact that early tenants were largely left-leaning union members. The services available on-site offer a twist to the typology and suggest that creating community requires more than affordability. It’s about the public amenities and public infrastructure that housing can provide. Quality of life and pride of place can be built in.

And there’s a lot built in to Co-op City. When they moved back to the development, Alex Cruz and his wife found an apartment in the same building, on the same floor, where both their parents live. It’s a kind of community infrastructure that fosters neighborliness along the vertical lines of dense housing. It has changed since the early years, Boiko explains: you tend to have more single families and people with two jobs and less zest for making new friends. Still, “People go out of their way to look out for their neighbors. Something happens, people will knock on their neighbor’s door.”

Co-op City | Photo by Amani Willett

Caitlin Blanchfield is a writer and editor who lives in Brooklyn. She is a former assistant editor at Urban Omnibus, and has worked with Actar, Architizer, and the Van Alen Institute.

The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or The Architectural League of New York.

Photographs by Amani Willett. All rights reserved.

Amani Willett’s monograph, Disquiet, is to be published in the spring of 2013 by Damiani. He was recently featured in the books Street Photography Now and New York: In Color and is a long-term member of the iN-PUBLiC collective of photographers. His pictures have been exhibited both nationally and internationally, including at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York, and his work has been featured in such publications as American Photography, Newsweek and The New York Times. He holds an MFA from the School of Visual Art and currently lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.



One Response to “Cooperative City, Cooperative Community”

  1. Excellent discussion of the housing that makes urban areas. We are in court with fortress investments over Parkmerced sister city to peter cooper stuysevant town NYC. Parkmerced was featured in the Cultural Landscapes Marvels of Modernism Landscapes at Risk in 2008. SF Tomorrow and PmAC the Parkmerced Action Coalition are working to turn the tide on the gentrification and displacement in SF… Seeing the landscape and trees and people remind me of what the politicians and builders are not doing and that is building for the people, with amenities and open space. A place where people can thrive have a family work, commute and survive in an urban environment.

    Aaron Goodman

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