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At Home in Utopia is the story of three decades, two generations, and one cooperative apartment house built in the 1920s by immigrants, factory workers and Communists. They wanted to change the American dream.

 

"At times the mixture of courage and naivete is enough to break your heart."

Ty Burr, The Boston Globe
Synopsis: 

A home of one’s own: that’s the American dream. But what happens when the dreamers are immigrants, factory workers, and Communists? In the mid-1920s, thousands of Jewish immigrant garment workers managed to catapult themselves out of urban slums and ghettos by pooling their resources and building four cooperatively owned and run apartment complexes in the Bronx. They believed that owning one’s home went a long way toward controlling one’s fate. At Home in Utopia focuses on the United Workers Cooperative Colony – also known as the Coops – the most grass-roots and member-driven of the Jewish labor housing cooperatives, where many of the residents were Communists or sympathetic to the communist movement. Beginning as a stalwartly secular East European Jewish working class enclave, the Coops was part of an international movement the scope of which challenges our assumptions today.

In the 1930s they opted to bring their passion for racial justice home, by racially integrating their own cooperative house, with unexpected consequences. An epic tale of the struggle for equity and justice across two generations, the film tracks the rise and fall of one community from the 1920s into the 1950s, paying close attention to the passions that bound them together and those that tore them apart. Along the way, At Home in Utopia bears witness to lives lived with courage across the barriers of race, nation, language, convention, and sometimes even common sense.

Reviews

"This is a fascinating film about the importance of one special place that historians,  union organizers, civil rights activists, and community organizers must see. It is also a significant documentary about the history of housing in New York City."

Dolores Hayden Professor of Architecture, Urbanism, and American Studies, Yale University

"This beautiful film not only recovers a nearly forgotten radical workers’ community and a culture of collective ownership, but it reminds us what is possible when we organize.” 

Robin D. G. Kelley, Gary B. Nash Professor of American History, UCLA

“At Home in Utopia captures the voices and lives of extraordinary union leaders and activists whose stories were in danger of being lost forever. This inspirational film takes you back to a time when unions meant more to members than the 8 hours spent on the job.  Today's furious debates over the housing market, the scope of the financial panic which is upon us, the role of the government in our economic life, and the agency of the human spirit in the face of calamity make the Goldman/Brodsky effort especially relevant--and especially satisfying."

Jeff Crosby, President, North Shore Labor Council, Lynn, MA

“At Home in Utopia brings back to life a lost world of American radicalism. Through the history of a cooperative housing project founded by New York Jewish communists, it reconstructs two generations of political activists who sought not only to build a new society but to live out their ideals then and there. Sympathetic but clear-eyed, it shows a side of the American past most people have no idea ever existed.”

Joshua B. Freeman Professor of History, Queens College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York
Director's Commentary: 

When the architect Andrew Hazelton and the filmmaker Ellen Brodsky came to me with an idea for a film about the Bronx Jewish labor housing cooperatives, I was immediately fascinated. The story of these visionary workers’ communities was completely new to me. Somehow, immigrant garment workers had managed to build big, beautiful, cooperatively owned apartment complexes in the 1920s. How did they pull it off? What inspired them? I wanted to know partly for personal reasons. I had grown up hearing tales of the labor movement from my father, a union lawyer. My immigrant Jewish grandparents had been moderate socialists.

Of the four cooperative “houses” Andy had researched, the one that attracted me most was the United Workers Cooperative Colony – aka the Coops, run almost from the beginning by Communists. The idea of a big Communist community (between two thousand and four thousand people lived there during the Depression) at the edge of Bronx Park fascinated me. How did they pull it off? How did their ideology inspire them, and how did it blind them? I wanted to explore these questions without sentimentality.

I quickly learned that these cooperatives grew out of a huge social movement, or more accurately, a series of overlapping movements. The union movement provided people with a way of thinking collectively, wages decent enough to undertake ambitious collective projects, and a ready-made network for recruiting members and support. Cooperativism was an international movement; some people thought it might offer an alternative to capitalism. (1920s New York had many workers’ cooperatives - restaurants, dairies, and outside the city, cooperative camps. At Camp Nitgedeiget – Camp “No Worries’ -  factory workers could spend a few days in the country for just a few dollars. Socialism, Anarchism, Communism, Zionism – different as these ideologies were, they shared the belief that by acting together, working people could transform their lives, taking collective responsibility for their individual fate.

I worked on At Home in Utopia for eight years. Along the way, I met men and women who in their 70s and 80s were passionately engaged in life, and who knew how to tell a good story. I cherish every minute I had with them. And yet, I was still left with unanswered questions. Do people need the inspiration, analysis, and far–reaching vision of a social justice movement in order to dare to transform their circumstances? And if people need to believe in a shared ideal – or ideology – in order to begin, what keeps then flexible and able to compromise, in order to succeed?