The Temporary Hero of Co-Op City
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,” 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.)