📖A City within a City—A Review of “Freedomland: Co-op City and the Story of New York”

Sammartino, Annemarie H. Freedomland: Co-op City and the Story of New York. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2022.

Reviewed by Katie Uva

East of I-95 and west of the Hutchinson River Parkway, on 320 acres of marshy land that was once, briefly, home to a United States-themed (and United States-shaped) amusement park called Freedomland, stands Co-op City. Begun in 1966 and completed in 1973, its 15,372 units, containing approximately 45,000 people, make it the largest cooperative housing development in the world. Its size, scale, and geographical location often lead to Co-op City being characterized as “a city within a city.”

But Co-op City is not solely a world unto itself. This tension, between its unique and arguably anomalous character and the ways in which Co-op City directly reflects important trends in New York City history, is the subject of Annemarie H. Sammartino’s Freedomland: Co-op City and the Story of New York. Sammartino, who lived in Co-op City as a child in the 1980s and early 1990s, offers a compelling story of Co-op City’s development, its financial struggles, its legendary rent strike (the largest rent strike in history),[1] and its ongoing but relatively successful struggle to maintain racial integration and affordability over the past half century.

Co-op City occupies a piece of land on the edge of the Bronx, and it was developed on the edge of an era; Sammartino describes it as Robert Moses’s last large project, noting its significance as a project developed and initially funded during the height of postwar liberalism in New York, but constructed and completed in the face of the fiscal crisis, white flight, and a growing ethic of austerity. Distributed throughout the book are compelling illustrations of how much had changed in New York between Co-op City’s initial development in 1965 and its completion in 1973. It was a contentious project in terms of its vision of resident governance, its ability to stay solvent and affordable over the long term, and its aesthetics—it reflects the massive “Tower in the Park” style of housing construction that was popular in New York from the 1940s to the 1960s, but the development was completed just as architectural and sociological critiques of that form were becoming dominant. Sammartino includes some scathing contemporary quotes about the appearance of Coop City, including Ada Louise Huxtable’s remark that United Housing Foundation (UHF), the nonprofit that developed Co-op City, was fueling “a bumper crop of human failures through environmental failure.” But Sammartino uses quotes from residents to challenge that “architectural determinism,” and argues that “high-rise architecture was no impediment to the development of community in Co-op City.”

“Co-Op City – The Bronx” (2014), Eric Gross, Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Larger issues at the time also threatened the success of Co-op City. Ballooning costs and economic decline put enormous strain on state and city budgets, and by the early 1970s, fifty-one Mitchell-Lama projects were in arrears. Co-op City residents were burdened with multiple rounds of increases on their carrying charges and ultimately responded with a thirteen-month “rent strike,” which destroyed the UHF and placed Co-op City under resident control. Sammartino notes the broader implications of the rent strike—it was part of a wave of other rent strikes and tenant organizing in the city, and the range of resident motivations is also a window into how New Yorkers understood the fiscal crisis. For some Co-op City residents, it was a narrower pocketbook issue—they had bought homes in Co-op City on the assumption of consistent costs and were facing personal financial catastrophe as unpredictable fee increases occurred. For others there was also a conceptual critique; strike leader Charles Rosen saw Co-op City’s financial problems as exemplifying “that the UHF model of public-private partnership was fatally flawed in the first place,” because in times of crisis the UHF was responsible to its bondholders over its residents.

“Co-op City and Baychester” (2008), Payton Chung. Flickr, (CC BY 2.0).

The story of Co-op City also provides an opportunity to zoom in on and complicate the picture of social relations in the outer boroughs during this era. A bird’s-eye view of postwar New York shows widespread white flight—white working- and middle-class people moved out of the city to the suburbs, a phenomenon explained partly by an ample supply of affordable suburban housing and partly by white people’s fear of crime and neighborhood decline and their association of those things with a growing population of Black and Latinx residents. Sammartino doesn’t paint an overly rosy picture of these dynamics at Co-op City. She notes that in its early years it had its own brief busing controversy, a conflict over minority representation in its governing structure, and some disputes between older white residents and younger residents of color about the use of public spaces. Nevertheless, she identifies a persistent enthusiasm among Black, white, and Latinx residents about the relative diversity and harmony of Co-op City, and sees class cohesion—the fact that regardless of race, residents were comparably middle-class—as binding residents together.

Co-op City also appears to have been a middle ground when it comes to “fleeing” neighborhoods, with residents leaving other parts of the Bronx for Co-op City. Many of the initial residents were Jews who were migrating from what they saw as a declining Grand Concourse, but she convincingly traces this phenomenon across demographics. For example, Sonia Sotomayor, whose family lived in Co-op City from 1970-1999, noted that several members of her extended family also moved there in the 1970s. For many residents, there was a feeling of taking some degree of your community with you to Co-op City. Simultaneously, this challenges an overly blunt picture of white flight but confirms increasing class segregation in 1970s residential patterns.

In the end, Sammartino’s objective is to paint a detailed portrait of the first twenty-five years of Co-op City and, in doing so, to identify ways it both reflected and defied major trends in New York City. She also makes a worthwhile historiographical intervention, noting Co-op City’s relative lack of inclusion in histories of housing, Robert Moses, and the fiscal crisis and explaining why it should be considered more central to all of these. In its focus on middle-class New Yorkers and the outer boroughs, it’s a good companion to Benjamin Holtzman’s The Long Crisis: New York City and the Path to Neoliberalism, and it also offers a detailed case study that would complement a reading of Kimberly Phillips-Fein’s Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics. It challenges pat narratives of New York City in the postwar period and makes many valuable observations, although, since its main purpose is to complicate assumptions, it feels a little inconclusive itself. But as a spur to further exploration, an addition to the scholarship of postwar New York, and a way of opening up questions about what housing models might succeed today, it is a valuable contribution indeed.

Katie Uva is a historian, teacher, and writer whose research focuses on twentieth-century New York City history, with particular interests in housing, Queens, and the two New York World’s Fairs. She is currently a Research Associate at the New York Public Library’s Center for Educators and Schools, an editor at the Gotham Center for New York City History, an Adjunct Lecturer at CUNY, and a freelance researcher and consultant.

Featured image (at top): Photo of Co-Op City. Kenneth Dellaquila, “20110430_080” (2011), flickr.com (CC BY-NC 2.0).

[1] Sammartino notes that while participants characterized it as a “rent strike,” they mostly owned their apartments and were withholding their carrying charges rather than rent.

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