|A resident looks out of a Coop window in the 1940s.|
Michal Goldman's hourlong documentary "At Home in Utopia" is a narrow but rich core sample of 20th-century history. The story of "the Coops," a Bronx housing project built and owned by immigrant Jewish workers, the film also charts the long, strange journey of American left-wing political idealism before and after World War II. At times the mixture of courage and naivete is enough to break your heart.
Expertly interweaving archival news footage, home movies, and interviews with the aging children of the Coops' founders (including architect Daniel Libeskind), Goldman (founder of the Boston-based Filmmakers Collaborative) draws the curtain from this forgotten chapter of New York socialism. In 1920, the city extended the subways into the outer boroughs, and immigrant laborers from the slums bought land on which they could build "a fortress for the working class."
In 1925, the United Workers Cooperative Colony on Allerton Street - the Coops, rhymes with hoops - opened its doors to hundreds of families from the slums of Brownsville, Williamsburg, and the Lower East Side. Above those doors were carved a hammer and sickle, proud testament of the tenants' radical ideals. "When I was little, I assumed the whole world was Communist," recalls one grown child of the Coops.
They were almost all Russian Jews who had fled the czar's pogroms and saw the revolution as the next stage in the evolution of mankind. At the same time, the Coops looked to protect the old ways, offering Yiddish after-school programs in the basement social rooms. Above all, the open spaces and plentiful greenery seemed to make good on the long-delayed promise of the New World. "It was airy," says one ex-Cooper. "There were things growing. Only rich people had that."
A subtheme of "At Home in Utopia" is the commitment of Coop tenants to progressive social policies, including integration far ahead of its time. African-Americans were invited to live there (Goldman interviews a few of the families), and Boris Ourlicht describes his shock when he took a black date downtown and was thrown in jail by a racist city cop.
As that anecdote implies, the Coops was a bubble, and the bubble eventually burst. The Hitler/Stalin Pact of 1939 stunned these anti-Fascist pro-Soviets, who now "had to choose between being a good Jew or a loyal Communist." Worse, when the cooperative had a chance to remortgage the property for a $1 rent increase per family, it was voted down as antithetical to party ideals. In 1943, an outside corporation took over.
That's not the end of the story, obviously. The back half of Goldman's narrative does lose momentum, though, as the children of the Coops scatter to the suburbs in the wake of World War II and US party membership is decimated by federal investigations and Khrushchev's 1956 revelations of Stalin's crimes against his people. What remains are piquant details - the radical Jewish puppeteer is a movie in himself - and burnished memories of a time and place when ideology had a home.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.