The Temporary Hero of Co-Op City
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.”