The History of the Co-op - Co-op Week


By Lisa Autz

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The concept of cooperative housing, in the broadest sense, strives to harmonize.

Much like a harmonic triad synthesizes fundamental tones to create a supreme sound, the idea of cooperative living attempts to organize the desires of tenants into a greater housing experience.

However, this style of “social housing” has recently deteriorated from the innovative system it was in the past.

The co-op design has been celebrated by its ability to provide quality living standards to working class families in New York City. This mode of public housing has sustained living standards far beyond that of tenement housing. It has helped alleviate the housing shortages following the Great Depression and both world wars.

The principles of the system have transformed United States’ housing by way of immigration. Cooperative movements of Finland and England were primary influences.

Based on research done by the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Preservation and Planning, a large immigration of Finns to the United States began in 1864. Historically, Finland has one of the earliest documented cooperative housing projects dating back to 1866.

The Finns had often banned together to purpose plans on how to make living more comfortable in the harsh climate. When housing shortage became a crisis in New York City, Finns of Brooklyn developed the traditions of co-op homes in their neighborhood.

The Finnish system was based on non-profit principles. Each owner of a share received the same amount of money in the purchasing and selling of the apartment no matter the current market price. The purchase of a share allots the holder one “vote” in decisions made on the building.

According to the National Association of Housing Cooperatives, these housing principals infiltrated the United States after the first official co-op building was created in 1918 by the Finnish Home Building Association. The first one was called Alku I, meaning “beginning,” and was occupied by Finnish immigrants of the Sunset Park area in Brooklyn.

The city’s population in 1865 was over 800,000 and half of the people were living in crowded tenement buildings. These buildings were infested with disease and had no natural lighting or interior plumbing.

The massive population of low-income immigrants, cramped into the side streets of the city, were a major motivation to create more progressive living quarters.

In the next thirty-five years, the city population tripled and tenement buildings reached 80,000 in 1900. And while the government sought out new legislation to combat the issue, the Finnish saw an opportunity to transplant cultural traditions of housing.

The Place Matters project, founded by the Municipal Art Society and City Lore, offers original accounts of co-op life by former residents of Alku I.

“We thought of the other children in the building as sisters and brothers,” former resident Anita Ford said. “We didn’t have to wear shoes to visit our neighbors. We didn’t have strict rules because basically it was homogenous.”

The Finnish co-op movement that influenced these immigrants was part of a greater movement in co-op ideologies in Europe.

Europeans, specifically those in England, have been familiar with co-op style homes since the Industrial Revolution. Losing their jobs and subsequently their homes due to machine invention, the unemployed scrambled for a way to make ends meet.

The concept was sparked by the writings of Robert Own, the founder of The Economist, and Dr. William King of Brighton, who founded the Co-Operator Magazine. Own advocated for self-government while Dr. Brighton encouraged people to work out a system of capital gain by profits from the collective selling of goods.

The unemployed textile workers applied these principles into reality and started cooperatives of food and housing. These co-ops had a democratic control in which members voluntarily participated and made decisions in an aim to advance the common good.

The new alternative to housing helped sustain families and veterans during the housing crisis of Europe after the two world wars.

Europe’s initiatives impressed the United States so much that four US senators traveled to the region to study cooperative housing in 1949. In a report published by the University of Wisconsin, the senators investigated the cooperative movement as well as its relation to the whole housing program and city planning.

The difference of European housing projects was the fact that they held a higher standard of efficiency and design. However in large cities, like New York, the country struggled to provide such a standard for low-income homes.

Cheap high-rise buildings were constructed in order to accommodate the population at a low cost.

For instance, New York State Historical Association released research elaborating on the garden apartments of the 1920s: medium-rise apartments with gardens and fountain courts influenced by the European co-op movement. Families had comfortable open views, cooperative services, and community facilities all at a discount price.

The tragedy of these garden apartments is their demise once federally funded public housing became the dominant means of social housing in the 1930s. The buildings that once stood for progression in the city now are seen as generic and often crime stricken sections of the boroughs. This has led to dwindling co-ops throughout the city.

In a New York Times article, Jonathan J. Miller, the president of the Miller Samuel appraisal firm, provides data on the decrease in co-op real estate over the years.

“In Manhattan, it’s about 75 percent co-op versus 25 percent condo,” said Miller. “In the early 1990s, it was about 80/20, and in the mid-1980s it was 85/15.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio wishes to uphold these buildings saying that he hopes to build or preserve 200,000 low- and middle-income units over the next 10 years in the battle against the city’s chronic housing shortage.

The poverty and social disorganization now associated with the city’s low-income co-ops is a cause to examine the tradition of public housing and whether their spatial construction has any power in overcoming social injustices.