Designing Co-op City: Cooperative Living, Organized Labor, and the Struggle for Affordable Housing in New York City

Between 1927 and 1975, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACW) became one of the largest housing developers in New York City. By building large-scale housing units for the working classes, the ACW sought to extend the notions of cooperation and organization that grounded their union activism into the realm of everyday life. In many ways, the ACW’s extension of organization from the workplace to the home was an attempt, largely successful, to spatialize their radical politics.

In Designing Co-op City: Cooperative Living, Organized Labor, and the Struggle for Affordable Housing in New York City, I aim to investigate the collaborations and conflicts that arose between garment workers’ unions in New York City in the middle part of the twentieth century and the architects, planners, and designers with whom they worked to build dozens of cooperative housing developments throughout New York. Though I will trace the arc of cooperative housing from the first limited-equity coops built by the unions in the 1920s, the project will primarily focus on the development of Co-op City, which was the most ambitious, and ultimately the last, of the cooperatives initiated by organized labor. Housing 60,000 people in over 15,000 apartments on a 300-acre infill site in the northeast Bronx, Co-op City was indeed a city in actuality and not just in name. It remains the largest cooperative housing development in the world. Co-op City is understood here as one answer to the modernist dream of creating a large-scale equitable community. Situated adjacent to wetlands along the Hutchinson River corridor, it replicated the abundant green spaces, natural light, and cruciform towers characterizing modernist ideals for high-rise urbanism. Despite the relevance of its aesthetics, Co-op City more importantly reveals a particular legacy of modern architecture in the city that was rooted in social activism rather than designed forms.

- manuscript in progress