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Rooms With a Viewpoint

April 30, 2009 By:
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Yoo-hoo! A call from the Coops
Flying the coop? Their souls soared creating it.

"It" was the Alberton Cooperative Apartments -- better known as "The Coops" -- a Bronx-built bastion of forward-thinking complexes that never looked back on its way to a social -- and Socialist -- utopia.

Moscow on the brink at the Bronx? Filmmaker Michal Goldman feels at home focusing on the Depression-era haven in "At Home in Utopia," which documents the daring and the dilemmas of parsing paradise in the impoverished part of the Bronx that was the fabric of a group of Jewish garment workers during the 1920s.

Rooms with a viewpoint divided among the residents of the United Workers Cooperative Colony: The PBS Independent Lens presentation airs a number of times, beginning April 30, at 9 p.m.; earlier this month, the docu by Goldman and Ellen Brodsky had found a home at the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival.

How fitting that Goldman, the editor of "A Jumpin' Night in the Garden," a freilach of fun that is the klezmer connection, should jump 20 years later into the Garden of Eden that was the Coops, whose population was primarily made up of Eastern European Jews looking for a substantive solution to harrowing housing problems.

How does your garden grow?

"That," says Goldman of the seeds of social justice sown at the Coops, "is the main metaphor for the film."

The residents met with little resistance in their efforts fueled originally by Finnish socialists in nearby Sunset Park. Sunrise, sunset: When the Jews attempted their own cooperative housing, they got cooperation from the city itself, as New York extended the subway line out to the Bronx to bridge the distance between cultures.

The chasm was no black hole: "There were so many American utopian experiments at the time," says Goldman, a founder of the Boston Jewish Film Festival who has found herself a leading voice of the Filmmakers Cooperative.

Not Far to Travel
"There was nothing more that they wanted," she adds of the Coops community, "than to pour out of their homes and enter a demonstration."

What once were swamps were now, adds Goldman, "fields of dreams."

But even dreams are subject to wake-up calls, and those shout-outs couldn't outlast the changing economy, which brought in different ethnic groups.

The coop concept dreamed up by Abraham E. Kazan, president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Credit Union at the time, was, as any programmer knows, subject to change. One of the documentary's most delicious scenes is the encounter between "old world" and "new" -- a friendly face-off between Jewish pioneers and the incoming African-American neighbors of the community.

The temp and the times had changed, as well as the music of the mamaloshen.

"Back then, the Jews believed in Yiddish" as a cultural connection, and found "religious practice backward and primitive."

"Utopia" is a primer on an era when social upheaval and social insecurity were buzzwords that pervaded neighborhoods, and union-organizing was a labor of love -- and need.

Idyls of the kings and queens -- women held pioneering roles at the Coops -- of everyday fiefdoms?

"I didn't try to idealize these people," says Goldman, which she hasn't.

What she has done is unearth a garden of earthly delights that detail a time when the idea of utopia wasn't dissed, and American idols were those not cowed by the ideas of change. 

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