Wednesday, January 12, 2011

At Home in Utopia

At Home in Utopia
seen online @ New Day Digital
1.12.11

Okay, so last week I kinda made fun of the whole Red scare of the early 20th century and the 50s in particular. It's not like I'm especially sympathetic to Communists, but when you grow up being taught that America is the country where people are free to believe what they want without fear of reprisal, and then you see people being persecuted by the government for thinking a certain way about things, it does kinda makes you turn the snark-o-meter up to eleven.

I've read my share about Communism, both the foreign and domestic kinds. I think that it sounds better on paper than in practice, although to see how powerful an idea it once was tends to give one pause. But I don't wanna get into a political debate - my point was, and is, that ideological opposition to another political system is insufficient justification, in and of itself, for curtailing civil liberties and the rights of the individual. Anyway...

At Home in Utopia is a documentary from 2008 about a high-rise neighborhood in the Bronx that was a haven for Jews, Communists and unionists in the early 20th century. My pal Andrea lives in this place (though she didn't grow up there), and it was she who told me about the film. The place's official name is the United Workers Cooperative Colony, but it's commonly known as the Coops (rhyming with hoops). It's a small but cozy group of buildings clustered together across the street from Bronx Park and a stone's throw from the 2 train, and it was built as an alternative to the crowded, more hectic Jewish neighborhoods of Manhattan's Lower East Side and Brooklyn's Williamsburg - one with a greater sense of community, and with a beauty all its own.

The doc interviews long-time residents of the Coops who talk about how being Jewish, being Communist, being pro-labor, marked them as outsiders back in the day and how this place was home to all of them in a way the rest of the world wasn't. Even if you've never been any of those things, it's not too hard to sympathize with their situation back then and understand why they needed a place they could call theirs.

And for a co-op, it's not too bad, to look on it today. When Andrea invited me to her place a few months ago, she took me on a small tour of the grounds. There are fountains and small gardens in between the walkways. The apartment buildings are arranged in a way that provides a sense of enclosure, and since they're not that tall, they don't come across as intimidating as many of the bigger high-rises around the Five Boroughs. A sign of the Coops' Communist roots can be found on some of the doorway facades, where you can clearly see a hammer and sickle above the entrance.

In later years, the Coops became more integrated. Blacks were encouraged to move in, and the doc interviews some of the ones who lived there back in the day, as well and the warm friendships made between them and the Jews (including a sad story about an interracial date spoiled by racist cops). It also discusses a performance by Communist sympathizer Paul Robeson attended by many Coop residents and the atmosphere of intimidation by the cops who guarded the show. Seeing this, I was reminded of the first time I read one of my favorite books, Native Son, by Richard Wright (a Communist himself), back in high school.

At Home in Utopia is a fascinating look at a vastly different time in American history. The Coops were a truly unique experiment, one that was ahead of its time, I would surmise, and it would be a great tragedy if the lessons learned from this place were forgotten. (New Day Digital streamed the movie for free today; they offer options to pay for it at their website.)

2 comments:

  1. Rich, I'm so glad that you enjoyed our small tour a few months ago and had the opportunity to see the Coops up front and personal before viewing the documentary, _At Home in Utopia_, today. These buildings have so many wonderful stories to tell. The Coops were indeed a unique social experiment in cooperative and interracial living, dating back to the 1920s. Is it any wonder that they've been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1986?

    I'd love to have you return in the summer (if not sooner) to see our gardens in all their (morning) glory. While the Coops were originally inhabited mainly by Jews, today we have a sizable population of Cambodian immigrants, who have generally brought their admirable gardening skills from home to turn the Coops into a Garden of Eden every summer.

    Thanks for sharing info with us about the Coops. Great blog!

    P.S.: Here's how the rest of us can stream _At Home in Utopia_ for free (today, January 12, only):

    Simply visit www.newdaydigital.com on January 12, 2011, and scroll down the left side of the page to "Free Film Viewing: Click to view our free film of the day!" Click on those words, and a new page will open. The film will load, and you can view it in full screen by clicking on the icon that has four arrows.

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  2. Thank you for telling me about the movie. I liked it.

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