For Jewish families in the 30s, it seemed like Utopia in the Bronx

Socialism isn’t a dirty word, despite attempts by morally suspect talking heads to make it the modern equivalent of the Red Scare. Michal Goldman and Ellen Brodsky’s documentary “At Home in Utopia” may serve as an unintended corrective, saluting a genuine historical (though largely forgotten) cooperative American venture.

Rose Ourlicht was a resident of the Bronx cooperative housing colony known as the Coops. photos/itvs/courtesy of boris ourlicht

“At Home in Utopia” is a mostly oral history of the Bronx apartment buildings built in 1927 as the United Workers Cooperative Colony, and known familiarly to residents and neighbors as the Coops. With a blend of nostalgia and self-congratulation, the one-hour film (which played at last year’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival) revisits a time when all politics was local, immigrants fueled mass movements and Jews were in the middle of the mix.

“At Home in Utopia” airs Wednesday, July 22 on KQED as part of PBS’ Independent Lens documentary series. It’s a New York–centric film, to be sure, but one that speaks to anybody interested in American cities and American Jewish life in the 20th century.

In the early 1920s, thousands of Jews who had emigrated from Russia and the Ukraine lived in cramped and crowded conditions on the Lower East Side. Many worked as garment workers and joined unions. Inspired by the Russian Revolution and the Soviet socialist experiment, they were moved not just to improve their own lot but to make America a place where everyone’s voice could be heard and contributions valued.

The proposed United Workers cooperative housing represented a tangible, manageable example and offered invaluable autonomy. “A fortress for the working class against our enemies” was how one Yiddish paper trumpeted the funding campaign. 

The apartment complexes also marked a major upgrade in the quality of life for 700 families. A million miles, psychologically speaking, from the Lower East Side, and accessible thanks to a recent extension of New York’s train system, the buildings were surrounded by greenery and fresh air.

The adults who bought in to the Coops and moved in their families are long gone, of course, so the story is told largely through the reminiscences of their children. Now in their 70s and 80s, people with names like Boris Ourlicht and Norma Dubitsky Shuldiner describe what a marvelous adolescence they had growing up in the buildings.

One gets a warm feeling listening to them and imagining the social and political community nurtured in the Coops. But a more pointed discussion of the working class’ “enemies” and the injustices that capital inflicted on labor would have added a needed fullness to the history lesson.

“At Home in Utopia” is more interested, however, in the internal conflicts among the Socialists, Communists and labor Zionists living in the Coops, and the vociferous debates that attended the evolution of the Soviet Union from a grand example to a signer of a nonaggression pact with Hitler to a dictatorship with only a passing interest in the socialist dream.

The Coops are still standing, in good shape and in a good neighborhood, but they aren’t cooperative housing anymore. They were sold to a private owner in the 1940s and today house mostly Cambodian and West Indian immigrants. The tenants are still caring for the gardens.

“At Home in Utopia” airs at 11 p.m. Wednesday, July 22 on KQED TV-Channel 9.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.