Mendel Letters 77 — Co-op City

May 14, 2022

Dear Mendel,

The big move to Co-op City changed your life and mother’s life in a number of ways. I don’t remember the exact date you moved but I know it was after Thanksgiving 1971 and before the end of the 1971–1972 school year because I stayed with you for a few weeks when my Rutgers dorm closed and before I went to work at Camp Hurley for the summer.

You were one of the last West Bronx families to move into Co-op City so you ended up in Section 5, the last section to be built. The apartments were nice and relatively inexpensive, the big problem for both you and mother was that you had to take a bus and then the subway to get to work.

Construction of Co-op City, which started in 1966, virtually emptied the West Bronx of Jewish families that had lived there for decades in rent-controlled apartments, a big boon to landlords who simultaneous raised the rents there and allowed the buildings to deteriorate.

Co-op City, in the far northeastern corner of the Bronx, was state financed under a 1950s Mitchell-Lama law and constructed with the support of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers

Union. The development, the largest of its kind in the United States, has 35 apartment buildings and seven smaller “town houses.” Fifteen of the buildings are 33 stories high and ten have 24 floors so there are over 15,000 apartments and about 50,000 people living there. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor grew up there as a child.

Unfortunately, there were problems at Co-op City from the start. Monthly carrying charges for residents to cover the developments mortgage and operating expenses rose by 250% because construction had been under-financed. People felt they had been mislead about the cost of living there and many of the older residents experienced financial stress.

An even bigger problem was shoddy construction. Construction took place too quickly with little oversight and as costs rose corners were cut. There was no planning for moisture even though the buildings were constructed on wetlands along the East River, so cracks developed as concrete expanded and contracted and fire-proofing requirements were compromised with state approval. Sidewalks started to crack early and balconies could be dangerous in high winds. Later an audit discovered that the entire plumbing system needed to be replaced.

Residents had had enough and in June 1975 you went on a rent strike that lasted more than a year. Between 75% and 85% of the residents participated, putting their monthly payments into a special account and refusing to turn the money over to the management corporation. You and mother were very active, serving as captains in your building, and you worked with the rent strike leaders on a planning committee.

The strike almost bankrupted the New York State Housing Finance Agency so the state and the management company finally agreed to turn operation of the development over to the cooperators with the state committed to carrying out necessary repairs. Unfortunately, the economic problems remained and it took years for Co-op City to become financially stable.

After the strike you went to work managing food services at the Co-op City Senior Center which meant you no longer had a long commute to work and mother, who retired from her job as a legal secretary because arthritis made it difficult for her to type, became one of the senior programs most active volunteers.

By the way, I take full credit for your evolution as a political activist!

Your son

Hard copies of these typed letters were discovered in an old camp trunk in the basement storage facility of one of the few buildings that remain standing in this Brooklyn neighborhood. The building is quite decrepit and is scheduled for demolition. The letters were found in November 2048 by a teenager who believes they were written by his great-grandfather. The letters are addressed to Mendel, the letter writer’s father, who appears to have been dead for at least six years when his son, whose name we are unsure of, started to write him. The son appears very agitated in some of the letters. With permission from the family, we are publishing them on the date they were written, only 28 years later.

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