The Temporary Hero of Co-Op City

Where do you hide $20,000,000 in rent checks in the Bronx? In garbage bags, of course

Co-Op City in the Bronx, New York on October 4th, 1972. Credit: Tom Cunningham/NY Daily News Archive via Getty

IF ALL THE REASONS PEOPLE HATE New York could be summarized in human form, they would be Charlie Rosen. He is a noisy, foul-mouthed, truculent, Commie Jew from the Bronx. He is also 34 years old, a Linotype operator by trade, and he lives in Co-Op City — which is probably the world's largest housing project with his wife and two children. In 1975, he led his fellow tenants in a monumental rent strike. After 13 months, they won the dubious honor of running the place themselves and Charlie Rosen became, in effect, the manager of a $500-million corporation.

It was a rather bizarre turn of events for a committed Marxist. His second day on the job, the various Co-Op City labor unions went on strike and Rosen had to cross the picket line. The strike was settled easily enough, but it was unnerving. Then the contractors started coming around. Co-Op City, you must understand, is hog heaven for contractors. It has gargantuan contracts for just about everything: washing machines, refrigerator repairs, nails, paint, you name it. A contractor will walk on hot coals for a chance to service Co-Op City.

One day, Charlie Rosen and the tenants' attorney, Herb Freedman, were having lunch with a contractor who, up to that point, hadn't seemed quite as slimy as his colleagues. It was a very pleasant lunch. Finally, though, the contractor said, "Okay Charlie, what can we do for you? What do you enjoy doing? What do you want?"

"Sheep," Charlie said.
"I like to fuck sheep."
"Sheep?"
"Sheep," said Charlie. "Once you've had a sheep, you never want a woman again."

Several days later a truck pulled up to the administration building at Co-Op City and unloaded two sheep. Most of the employees thought it was pretty funny, but Charlie Rosen was livid. "The message was clear," he said later. "Anything you want, you can have. You want sheep? Fine. It was fucking disgusting." But it was also one of the few times in Co-Op City's long struggle against the State of New York, the City of New York, the courts, the banks and assorted politicians that Charlie Rosen had been outfoxed. There was no clever comeback to a pair of sheep. They were quickly dispatched to the Flushing Meadow Zoo.

THERE IS A COMMON MISCONCEPTION about housing projects. Many people believe that the government builds places like Co-Op City simply to provide housing for poor- and moderate-income people. This is a narrow view. Housing projects are built, at least in part, to keep the friends of politicians happy and prosperous. Since construction is where the real money is, the government usually is a lot more interested in building projects than actually running them.

Nelson Rockefeller, when he was governor of New York, was especially adept at keeping his friends happy. He did not care if they were Republicans or Democrats as long as they were his friends when it counted. In the case of Co-Op City, his friends happened to be a group of labor leaders and housing "experts" who called themselves the United Housing Foundation. Many of them had been acrobatic left-wingers who tried to combine socialism with anticommunism. It was a difficult tightrope to walk during the McCarthy era, though, so they forgot the socialism and bellied up to the trough. With the governor's blessing, they exploited their vestigial aura of benevolence to gain hundreds of millions in low-cost mortgages from the state. In return, they were supposed to provide safe housing at reasonable rates for working people. But the rates started rising even before the construction was completed in 1972. And as for safety, Co-Op City was built on a swamp and is sinking.

The swamp is only the beginning of the symbolism, though. The project is arrayed along the desolate northern edge of the Bronx, a last stop for families fleeing the real and imagined horrors of the inner city. It is a breathtaking monument to the dreariness of cinder block and gray brick. It erupts across the landscape — 35 towers and 6 clumps of townhouses — a massive admission of urban failure; if the old neighborhoods hadn't died (or been killed), there would have been no need for Co-Op City. There are 15,372 apartments. There are three shopping centers. There is a modern "educational park." There is a police force, two newspapers and a power plant. There are about 60,000 residents. They are dwarfed by the towers and it is easy for an outsider — like a housing bureaucrat — to be misled into thinking they are insignificant. But by the spring of 1976, they were probably the most sophisticated political constituency in the United States.

In the beginning, though, they were just poor slobs. They were frightened by what was happening in their neighborhoods and wondering what to do next. For people like Ben and Norma Cirlin, just married, Co-Op City sounded like a dream. Ben was an unemployed school-bus driver; Norma was a social worker. They didn't have the money to buy a house. "You have no idea how much I wanted to live in a place that was new," Ben recalled. "All my life I lived in tenements. I wanted to raise a family in a place where no one else had ever lived." Co-Op City was new and, more important, cheap. Since it was technically a cooperative, the Cirlins had to "buy" their five-room apartment for $2025. That didn't seem like much of an investment for a new home. The advertised monthly rent — technically a maintenance charge — was only $23 per room. There was one other requirement: the Cirlins had to prove they were poor enough to live in Co-Op City. Their annual income could be no more than six to seven times their annual rent. (If they suddenly struck it rich, they could stay in Co-Op City but would have to pay more rent.)

Ben Cirlin is a chubby, freckled man, 34 years old, who radiates both kindliness and a sort of anxious sincerity. "I never was involved in anything before Co-Op City," he said. "I would just sit and watch television. I was a conservative. I even voted for Goldwater. If you had told me I'd be mixed up in all this, I'd have said you were nuts." But that began to change even before he moved into his new apartment. Ben was so excited he would go over and watch his building — Building 24— being constructed. It was completed in 1971. By then, the rent was up to $31.46 per room.

It wasn't the rent, though, that upset Ben at first. It was graffiti. "The kids would write on the walls. These were new buildings and already they were looking like crap. The management wasn't doing anything about it, so on Sundays I would go down with a brush and a pail and clean the building. Pretty soon, people started asking me what I was doing and whether I needed any help.

"The next step was to organize activities so the kids had something better to do than write on walls. We got the building together and had field trips for the kids. Soon we had a building association and I was the chairman. Around that time, other buildings were getting organized, too."

The building associations began to move beyond graffiti to other issues. And the biggest emerging issue was rent. In 1973, the maintenance charge was $37.75 per room. In 1974, it went up to $42.81. . . and the management predicted there would be another increase in 1975. Inflation and mismanagement were driving the cost of running the project through the roof. But the amount the tenants could pay was, obviously, limited. That was why they were living in Co-Op City in the first place. Now they were being squeezed and there was no relief in sight. In theory, the rents could keep rising forever. . . .

Early in 1974, the building associations gathered to discuss the situation. At that meeting, the representative from Building 22 was a young man, prematurely gray, who had never been active in community affairs before. When he raised his hand and began to speak, people were stunned by his eloquence. Years later, many of them would remember the precise moment, if not the exact words. It was a pivotal moment. He made people realize, for the first time, that one possible course of action was to fight back.

I REALLY DIDN'T WANT TO GET involved," said Charlie Rosen, who tries to sound like he was an innocent bystander when the lightning struck. It is part of his Marxist charm. He would have you believe that anyone could have led the Co-Op City rent strike. "I fundamentally believe anyone can do anything. The difference in intellectual abilities between people is miniscule. It is like an 18th of an inch. It is not even an important number of molecular structures in your brain."

At the same time, though, he didn't exactly run away from leadership. He paraphrased Mao: "There is a role for membership and a role for leadership and both are noble roles. You don't strive for leadership. You become the leader because you have something to contribute. And the people make that decision, not you."

In this case, the decision was as good as made as soon as Charlie Rosen opened his mouth. "He was just in a different league than the rest of us," Ben Cirlin recalled. "One night he came in with a 30-page memo showing how we could win a rent strike. It seemed so unbelievable. I never thought it could be carried out, but he had the whole thing there. Months later, I looked back at the memo and he had been right. I wondered where he had learned to do such a thing."

Actually, Charlie told them where he had learned to organize. He learned it at home, growing up. His parents were members of a remarkable generation of working people for whom learning was a religion, and Marxism the political adjunct of that religion. His father worked a machine in the needle trades; his mother made the fringes on curtains. From them, he learned that dignity and intelligence didn't necessarily have anything to do with economic status. He grew up during the McCarthy period, watched as his parents' friends were blacklisted, and lived with the possibility that the next knock at the door might be the feds. For a while, he wanted to be a dancer. He studied dance in Russia.

Then, in the early Sixties, the Rosens became disenchanted with the stiffness of the Stalinists and "went Chinese." He and his older brother, Jake, became Maoists and joined the Progressive Labor party. Charlie worked on the PL newspaper, Challenge, and edited the magazine, PL. But it was a period of sectarian craziness and myopia on the left, and eventually he dropped out. He became a freelance socialist, working a Linotype machine at the New York Post and active in his union. His fellow workers called him "The Commie."

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Co-Op City rent strike was that the tenants accepted Charlie's leadership without a qualm. He never hid his past. He discussed it readily, but no one seemed to care. "It bothered me a little at first," Ben Cirlin said. "But we had a four-hour discussion around the dining-room table and I felt better after that."

Natalie Lange, a strike leader and old trade-union organizer said, "When he proved his leadership ability, they accepted his politics. I don't know, maybe people accept Maoists more readily than Stalinists nowadays."

Larry Dolnick, another tenant leader: "One day I went up to Charlie's apartment and saw all these books by Mao and Lenin and it scared me, but we talked it out and it was okay. As long as he didn't try to change me or impose his politics on Co-Op City, I didn't care."

But, of course, Charlie did. His analysis of Co-Op City's struggle was thoroughly Marxist. The real enemy wasn't going to be the United Housing Foundation, or even the State of New York that had floated the bonds to build Co-Op City. The real enemies were the banks that held the bonds. That was where the rent money ultimately went, to pay off the bondholders. Charlie organized the tenants with that in mind. The existing building associations were bolstered and reorganized for the coming battle. If it came to a strike, the tenants' Steering Committee would collect the rents in the building lobbies so the more reluctant residents would see their neighbors standing in line, physically supporting the action.

In the spring of 1975, it became known that the next rent; increase, scheduled for July, would be a whopper — 25%, bringing the total to $53.46 per room. In May, the Steering Committee decided to see how many people would actually support a strike. For the first ten days of the month, the rents were collected in the lobbies. On the last night, the strike leaders gathered in the community room in Building 11 to see how well they'd done. Charlie Rosen sat with an adding machine, tallying the returns. It was a landslide — about 85% of the tenants had cooperated. The checks were dumped into plastic garbage bags that would become a symbol of the strike and brought to Governor Hugh Carey's office in a show of strength. In June, the process was repeated, and this time the checks were deposited in a bank until the leadership was forced to turn them over. But neither of these actions did any good. The new rent increase was officially announced in June.

It would take effect July 1st, and so would the rent strike.

The State of New York was now faced with an interesting dilemma. It would have to default on its bonds if it could not convince the 50,000 recalcitrants to pay their rent. Since it would be ridiculous to try and evict that many people, more creative ways to break the strike would have to be found. The first was a court injunction against the leadership. If it was defied, they could go to jail. It was defied, and a seven-week trial ensued. Each day the court was packed with Co-Op City tenants supporting their leaders. Each evening, the leadership circulated flyers reporting the day's events.

The leadership had established, by this time, an incredible communications system. There were printing presses, an omnipresent sound truck blaring the latest news, and a 24-hour telephone hot line answering tenants' questions. Flyers were distributed to each of the lobbies in a matter of hours. Given a day, the leafleteers could hit each of the 15,372 apartments. Given a few days, they could mass 10,000 people on the Greenway in the middle of the project for a meeting. Smaller meetings were held continually in each building, sometimes on each floor. About 2000 people were involved in the operation of the strike and morale was high.

Each time the state tried a new ploy, the strikers turned it to their own advantage. When the state published a list of the people not paying their rent, the strikers called it an honor roll (and life became less pleasant for those not on the list, especially the local city councilman who, up till then, had claimed he was supporting the strike). When it was announced that the lights would be turned off if the project's electric bill wasn't paid, the tenants were asked to make out their next month's rent check to Con Edison. And, in a remarkable display of organizational strength, garbage bags full of checks soon were delivered to the utility's downtown office. When the state closed the laundry rooms —a serious move, since tenants at Co-Op City aren't allowed washers or dryers — a group of women from the project brought washboards and pails (and TV crews) to the housing commissioner's office and staged a wash-in.

Months passed. Morale held. The court decision came down against the leadership, and massive fines were imposed on the Steering Committee and its individual members. But the fines were not paid and the leaders faced the immediate threat of jail and financial ruin. Clearly, the tension was mounting.

From the start, all sorts of negotiations had been going on behind the scenes. Now, as 1975 became 1976, the negotiations intensified. As Charlie Rosen had predicted, the real adversaries were the bankers, who held the bonds, and their lawyers. Sometimes the negotiations were held in posh downtown law offices, and Rosen would become even more truculent than usual. He knew the bankers were trying to intimidate him with their power, but he refused to defer to them. In fact, he went on the attack. He was, after all, in the driver's seat. He was holding millions of dollars of their money. He would scream and curse and rub their noses in it. Sometimes, when he wanted a banker's attention, he would yell, "Hey nigger!"

"They try to make you feel like shit, those guys," he said. "To them, you are shit. During breaks, they would talk about their fucking sailboats. Sometimes I'd get fed up and scream at them: 'Who the fuck you think you're talking to. I'm a fucking prince of Israel! My people were writing poetry in Babylonia when your people were still in trees. Eating fucking bananas....'"

Eventually, after months of this, an interim settlement was reached. It was a crazy, ridiculous, bizarre settlement: no rent increase. The project would be handed over to the tenants to see if they could run it any better. All they had to do was give up the garbage bags full of checks and the court case would be dropped, too.

On Monday, July 26th, 1976, a rented truck driven by Ben Cirlin pulled up to the Bronx County Courthouse. Co-Op City tenants formed a human chain and unloaded boxes filled with 101,933 checks worth more than $20 million. The checks had been hidden under beds, in closets and in the homes of friends who didn't live in the project. That evening there was a rally on the Greenway to celebrate the victory. There was a tremendous ovation when Charlie Rosen approached the microphone and said, "We beat the bastards."

ONE DAY, JUST AFTER THE takeover, Ben Cirlin ambled into the administration offices, and Charlie Rosen handed him a stack of complex technical material. It was about washing machines. "Read it," Rosen said, "and tell me what you think."

Ben took the stuff into a room and tried to read it. The words and numbers began to swim in front of him. He couldn't do it. He sat there for five hours trying. "Charlie, I can't do it," he said, returning the material.

"Okay," Charlie said, handing it right back to Ben. "Wonderful. You can't do it. Now do it."

Ben was not unfamiliar with machines. He had once taken a TV-repair course and now, as he studied the material about the washing machines a second time, he began to understand it. Eventually he negotiated a contract for laundry services that guaranteed Co-Op City a minimum $520,000 in profits each year. After that, he went on to negotiate other contracts involving machinery.

Charlie Rosen was proving that you didn't need housing "professionals" to run a housing project. There was Mady Weitz, who had run a greeting-card store in the West Bronx and was now in charge of apartment allocations. Larry Dolnick, who had been a small businessman, was now the president of Riverbay Corporation, which is Co-Op City's formal name. More important, Larry had grown in other ways. "At the beginning of the strike, I didn't have much contact with blacks or Puerto Ricans," he said. (Co-Op City is approximately 85% white, mostly Jewish, and 15% minorities.) But during the strike he became Co-Op City's "foreign minister," the person who dealt with other tenant groups around the city, and they were usually blacks and Puerto Ricans. Now he was managing Esther Smith's campaign for City Council. Esther Smith is a black woman and treasurer of Co-Op City's Board of Directors.

The new spirit was infectious. Rosen was besieged by people with ideas about how to make the place better. Even before the takeover one old Russian immigrant was especially persistent. His name was Israel Kushner. "The power plant," he would say to Charlie in Yiddish. "The future is in the power plant."

"Yeah, sure," Charlie would say, and go on about his work. One day, though, he sat and listened to what Israel Kushner had to say. The Co-Op City power plant had been a farce. It was built to provide low-cost electricity for the project, but it had only been used as a backup source and boiler plant. Kushner talked about what might be done, and eventually a proposal was developed to use the power plant as an experimental site for turning garbage into electricity. The proposal arrived in Washington just as the Carter administration began to talk about finding alternative energy sources, and it was taken very seriously. The feds agreed to fund an $800,000 feasibility study, but there was a catch. First, the tenant management had to prove they could pay Co-Op City's mortgage. They had to prove the place wasn't going bankrupt — a difficult feat, since it was going bankrupt.

The mortgage was just too much of a monster, approximately $400 million. In the beginning, Rosen and the others had talked about saving "millions" by running the project more efficiently. Much to the surprise of just about everyone, the tenants had proven they could run the place more efficiently. They had saved hundreds of thousands of dollars, but not millions. The millions just weren't there to be saved. Gradually it became apparent that there would have to be rent increases . . . and unless the state helped cover the costs, they would be massive increases.

In the spring of 1977, the tenant managers began a cat and mouse game with the state. They said they weren't going to pay the mortgage anymore. They said they needed the money to maintain the project, to keep it from physically falling apart. They dared the state to foreclose (knowing full well that no one — except them —was crazy enough to want to come in and manage the place). It was obvious that some sort of bailout program of moderate rent increases was in the wind, but the state hedged and the negotiations dragged but. The tension was enormous, and morale began to sag. The Board of Directors continued to meet each week, fighting over nothing. There was even an attempt to get rid of Charlie Rosen. The attempt was motivated by jealousy and petty politics, but it reflected a genuine feeling in the community that Rosen had betrayed Co-Op City.

The problem was that after the rent strike, most people in the project considered Charlie to be something close to a god. "He was our messiah," said one woman. "I don't know how he can get to sleep at night with all the facts and figures that are in his head," said another. Actually, he was more like a rabbi. Everyone came to him with their problems. For every Israel Kushner who came to him with a power plant, there were a thousand who just wanted a shoulder to cry on, or to complain about a leaky faucet, or just to pass the time of day. During the strike, he had talked to them. During the strike, it had been his job — he was being paid $15,000, his salary at the New York Post, to run the strike committee — to keep the morale high. Now, he had a $500-million corporation to run. There were so many things to learn, so many decisions to make. He was more of a novice at running a housing project than Ben Cirlin was at negotiating a laundry contract. He had to make them understand that things were different now; he was no longer the strike leader; he was the landlord. He chose — at the urging of Herb Freedman, the tenants' attorney, and others — a rather peculiar method of getting that point across, and especially peculiar for a Marxist. He decided to take a big salary. He resigned from the Board of Directors and became a consultant at the rate of $20,000 for six months. That was $40,000 per year. It was, approximately, $800 per week. Most people knew that it was considerably less than they had paid the manager when the United Housing Foundation ran Co-Op City, most people figured that Charlie Rosen was worth it. . . but still, they were confused and hurt. They began to wonder if he had only been in it for the money all along.

For his part, Charlie had a number of explanations why he took the money — none of them entirely convincing. "People respect what they pay for. They think Bloomingdale's stuff is better than Alexander's," he said. The salary gave him credibility with both the tenants and the state, he claimed. "I had to make a break with the past. A great deal of hostility toward me at this point is that they lost their friend. Did I know I was going to sacrifice support here? Yes. Did I do it on purpose? Yes. Was there any alternative? God bless whoever has one, I don't. If anyone could have learned what we had to learn and, at the same time, done the political shit, the hand holding. . . . It would have been much easier to just give the speeches and hire a couple of professionals to run the place." He spat out the word "professionals." He was bitter. For people to actually think that he had sold them out. . . .

But they did. The resentment was there, even on the Board of Directors. And in late June of 1977, as the final negotiations with the state reached a crucial phase, it spilled out into the open. One of Co-Op City's two newspapers was scandalized to learn that Charlie Rosen had formed a corporation, of all things. It was called Charles Rosen Management Consultants. The newspaper suggested that Rosen could hire himself out as a consultant to anyone who wanted to do business with Co-Op City and make a bundle. It was suggested that he was angling for a piece of the federal power-plant study. His behavior was compared to Richard Nixon's. (Rosen brought suit over the article.)

A meeting was called. The Board of Directors would question him publicly. A rabbi, David Winter, was imported to plumb the moral aspects of the situation. More than a thousand people gathered in the Dreiser Auditorium on a muggy night in July to see what Charlie Rosen had to say for himself. The questions, mostly peripheral and silly, dragged on for several hours, but finally Rosen got the chance to give his side of the issues. Yes, he had formed a corporation for tax purposes. But no, he couldn't represent anyone other than Co-Op City. It was written right into the incorporation papers. It was also true that he was very interested in the power-plant study. He had made a proposal to the Board of Directors about it. Once the negotiations with the state were over and the mortgage problem was resolved, he wanted to become the local director of the federal study, at a part-rime salary of $25,000. He proposed that the other part of his time be spent as a consultant to Co-Op City, at a salary of $ 10,000. The grand total would be $35,000 — less than he was making now, and the federal government would be paying $25,000 of it. He had always said he didn't want to manage Co-Op City for the rest of his life. This was a way to withdraw gradually. But he was angry and hurt that the people in the community suspected him of a rip-off. He opened his corporate books for inspection, and received a rousing ovation.

At this point, Rabbi Winter asked the one question that everyone in the room wanted answered: "I don't think any of us really believe that you've done anything legally wrong. My question about your behavior is moral and ethical. I agree that people should be paid what they're worth, but you have gone beyond the accepted limits. You have perverted the whole concept of the community-spirited individual. . . ."

Unfortunately, Rosen wasn't allowed to respond. Larry Dolnick, who was chairing the meeting, suddenly decided it had gone on long enough. There would be no more questions or statements. The audience groaned and Rosen tried to speak anyway, to no avail. It was inexplicable and frustrating . . . but, in a way, appropriate. It didn't matter if Charlie Rosen had been motivated by greed, or by a peculiar leftist urge to perform self-immolation for higher political purposes. By taking the money, he had — symbolically — ended the strike. Throughout the community, the spirit and sophistication that had made Co-Op City so special during the strike were on the wane. It was all over.

The strike ended a week later, on July 14th, when Rosen went before a mass rally on the Greenway and announced a settlement: the state would drop the threat of fore closure and, in effect, forget about the millions that Co-Op City owed; the tenants would pay a 20% rent increase. The announcement was greeted by some groans and boos, but there was little doubt it would be accepted.

ULTIMATELY WE WILL lose," Rosen had told a group of urban-affairs students a few weeks earlier. "You can't win an ideological struggle without an ideology." Most of the people in the project didn't really know what they had accomplished. They didn't know that they had thumbed their noses at the New York financial establishment and gotten away with it. Such victories are very rare. Rosen predicted that with most of the tenants drifting back toward apathy, Co-Op City would backslide and become not much different than other housing projects. Even the hard-won democratic reforms — the tenant management — could dribble away over time. He said all this matter-of-factly, as if he had known it all along, as if it didn't hurt. Then why, he was asked, get involved in the first place? "Because struggle is always worthwhile," he said. Besides, there were tangible benefits. There had been no rent increase at Co-Op City for three years, from 1974 to 1977. And there were intangible benefits. Many people, scattered through the project, would never be the same. Ben Cirlin would never be just a school-bus driver again. His evenings of sitting in front of the TV were over. He wasn't exactly a young Lenin, but he'd never allow other people to make decisions for him again.

Sitting on a bench outside his building in early summer, watching his daughter play in the sandbox, Ben was of two minds about what had happened. "I'd never do it again," he said, "people don't appreciate what you do." Then again, he was proud. "I have three careers now. I'm a father. I take care of the baby during the day when Norma is at work. I'm still a school-bus driver . . . and I'm the vice-president of a $500-million corporation."

Excusing himself, Ben explained he had to put his daughter down for a nap. He disappeared inside the massive gray tower, Building 24, a small but certainly not insignificant figure.