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ABOUT THE FILM
"The greatness of these houses is that the founders had a bigger idea than simply putting people in a nice environment. They had the idea that social realities could be built as much as architectural realities."
-- Daniel Libeskind, architect, from At Home in Utopia
At Home in Utopia begins with a question: Who would build a house to change the world? Because in the 1920s in New York, thousands of immigrant garment workers set out to do exactly that; they managed to build four cooperatively-owned apartment complexes in the Bronx, believing that their new communities would not only get them out of the slums, but would help them transform American capitalism.
Against the backdrop of an international cooperative movement, At Home in Utopia tells the story of the most militant of these apartment complexes, the United Workers Cooperative Colony, aka the Coops. Built when the Bronx was still mostly fields and swamps, and linked to the garment factories “downtown” by the newly extended subway, the Coops was for a few years the largest cooperative “house” in America, accommodating 2,000 people, most of whom were Jews, and many of whom were Communists. From its beginnings as a working class fortress until its communal demise in the 1950s, the Coops’ story is one of American grass-roots radicalism. Whether they were idealists, fighters, or party hacks, these people responded to the great ideological convulsions of their time by bringing their political passions into their courtyards and kitchens, sometimes galvanizing the entire community, and sometimes tearing it apart.
For a long time now, in neighborhoods across America, people have been faced with a choice: do they want the tight-knit community that comes from living among people who are, as much as possible, like themselves? Or do they want the excitement that comes from living along side people who are different – coming from different backgrounds, even speaking different languages? At Home in Utopia looks at how this very American dilemma played out in the Coops. For immigrant factory workers, the Coops offered a chance to build a new community in their own image, and its beautifully landscaped courtyards would ring with the sound of their native language. But starting in the early 1930s, Communists began pushing for racial integration in the Coops, eventually threatening its status as an ethnic bailiwick. However ironic it might seem to us that racial integration, which we now think of as an expression of American idealism, was so early espoused by Communists, to the young people growing up in the Coops, it seemed like the normal order of things, shaping the way they felt, worked, and in some cases loved, long after they left the Coops behind.
The film is a tight weave of history and memory. A rich cache of personal photographs and home movies allows us to move back and forth in time, not only within the lives of our storytellers, but in the life of the Coops and its neighborhood. A large cast of characters share an earthy sense of humor. Responding to the great ideological convulsions of the twentieth century, they brought their passionate political debates into their courtyards and kitchens, sometimes galvanizing the Coops into unified action and sometimes ripping it apart. Starting in the early 1930s, Communists began pushing for racial integration in the Coops, eventually threatening its status as an ethnic bailiwick. However ironic it might seem to us that racial integration, which we now think of as an expression of American idealism, was so early espoused by Communists, to the young people growing up in the Coops, it seemed like the normal order of things, shaping the way they felt, worked, and loved long after they left the Coops behind.
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THE MAKING OF AT HOME IN UTOPIA