The Plan That Could Fend Off Real Estate: Frances Goldin and the Cooper Square Committee

by Whitney Kimball on May 13, 2014 · 1 comment Interview

Frances Goldin in her East Village apartment, one week shy of her ninetieth birthday

Frances Goldin in her East Village apartment, one week shy of her ninetieth birthday

“It took fifty fucking years!” Shouted 90-year-old Frances Goldin, to a round of applause. “It should never be necessary to save a community, and work for fifty years—day after day, after day. But that’s what it took, because we were fighting in the richest city [in the country], and we didn’t give up.”

Goldin, the last surviving co-founder of the Cooper Square Committee, was speaking last month on a panel discussion about her decades-long struggle to establish cooperative housing on community land trusts in New York City. Her story is historic not only for the amount of time it took, but because the Cooper Square Committee has implemented a truly sound model for cheap, sustainable property in New York City—as of 2012, finally implementing a housing co-op which allows tenants to buy their apartments (or “shares”) for as little as $250 per unit. The model’s not a panacea (community land trusts require lots of city-owned property to turn over, and that’s running low in New York) but it’s strong; the land trusts established by the Cooper Square Committee have back-to-back 99-year leases. Meaning, affordable housing, in perpetuity. The documentary is coming out next year.

“The Alternate Plan for Cooper Square was used in London, it was used in the Scandinavian countries, it just wasn’t used anywhere else in the United States,” said Goldin. She was referring to the Cooper Square’s influential 1961 community plan, which, thanks to its merit and their loud protests, beat out Urban Planner Robert Moses’ more rich-people-friendly plan. “The moneyed interests wanted to make sure this plan…wouldn’t be replicated.” The model has inspired New York’s community organizers like Picture the Homeless, which is now calling for a moratorium on the sale of all city-owned property in Harlem.

The Cooper Square Committee’s model is so far from the rest of New York real estate that it seems unbelievable. “There was a very handsome Chinese man in the audience at one of our meetings,” Goldin remembered. “He was sitting next to his older father. He said ‘My father has lived here for years. He pays next to nothing, and yet, if the sink is broken, within a day, somebody comes and fixes it. How do you do it? I’m a lawyer, and I still can’t figure it out– how do you do it?’” She paused. “It’s because there is no profit!” It sounds simple, but it’s true; tenants who buy their apartments in one of the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association’s twenty-two buildings pay a low monthly maintenance fee. Through the “economy of scale”, the dues are pooled to cover, say, a broken boiler for a relatively low cost.

“[The city] knew that once people found out about it, everybody would want this,” said Goldin. “And they do.”

By the description alone, you might take Goldin for a twenty-something fresh off the Occupy circuit. With a neon purple streak in her puff of white hair, and a “TAX THE RICH” sign pinned to the back of her purple sweatshirt, she speaks with the urgency and ballsiness of a newly-radicalized activist. (You may recognize her “I’m 88 and MAD AS HELL” sign from the Internet). “It’s the movement that keeps me going,” she said to audience applause. “So get involved, you’ll live longer.”

Goldin grew up “miserable” in Springfield Gardens, Queens, an almost all-Christian neighborhood where anti-Semitism was part of a daily reality for her family. Bricks flew threw the family’s window on at least two occasions, when her mother lit candles for Friday prayers. So when, a twenty-year-old Goldin got married and moved to the Lower East Side, she found “Nirvana.”

“It was amazing to see people of different nationalities, colors, opinions, living together in harmony,” she said. “And what bound them was poverty.” The strong sense of community, which transcended ethnicity– people who would share milk with their hungry neighbors, or help take care of each others’ kids– was what enabled the community to take on Robert Moses, the most powerful developer in the world.

A Cooper Square banner on East Fourth Street (Image courtesy of http://urbanomnibus.net)

A Cooper Square banner on East Fourth Street (Image courtesy of http://urbanomnibus.net)

“So big Mr. Moses, planner for the world, walks from Fourth Street to Wall Street, and it takes him twenty minutes,” Goldin remembered. “He says ‘These tenements suck… I’m going to knock them down and I’m going to put up coop housing…and the people are going to walk to their job on Wall Street.'” She paused.

“He picked the wrong neighborhood. He picked the most radical neighborhood in the United States of America!” (Incidentally, it was this decade that Moses would make another powerful enemy in Jane Jacobs, who helped to stop LOMEX, his plan for a Lower Manhattan Expressway.)

In response, Goldin co-founded the Cooper Square Committee in 1959 with nine people, including Thelma Burdick and community planner Walter Thabit. The committee organized the neighborhood with building captains, who brought people to meetings, protests, and volunteered to help run the office. They conducted surveys proving that 93 percent of the neighborhood’s residents would be pushed out of the neighborhood under Moses. After a year of meetings, the Committee produced the seminal Alternate Plan for Cooper Square, based on the then-radical premise that urban renewal can work so long as the people are the beneficiaries. “We fought over every word,” said Goldin.

The Cooper Square Committee forced a vote by the Board of Estimate, which adopted the Alternate plan as the city’s official development plan. But it wasn’t until David Dinkins took office that the group had much real support from the mayor’s office. In 1990, they signed a Memorandum of Understanding that, under the Cooper Square Mutual Housing Association, they would oversee affordable housing development in the neighborhood.

At the panel, filmmaker Ryan Joseph screened a particularly moving clip from his upcoming documentary on Goldin, titled It Took Fifty…, in which families have been invited to purchase their apartments for as little as two hundred and fifty dollars. One senses that many of the crowd don’t absorb the full weight of this occasion, but Goldin is beaming. “Look around you!” She says to the room. “Look at your neighbors. You will never find another group like this anywhere else in the world.” Later, grumbling that the New York Times missed the story, she gives an “up yours” gesture for the camera.

Screen shot of Frances Goldin from "It Took Fifty" (Image courtesy of http://www.ittook50.com)

Screen shot of Frances Goldin from “It Took Fifty” (Image courtesy of http://www.ittook50.com)

“If you don’t have the troops, you have nothing,” Goldin reflected. “And it’s not hard when you say to the people…you want to make sure that you and your children have a roof over your heads? If you don’t fight for it, it won’t happen. Paying dues is good, but you gotta come to meetings, you gotta come to demonstrations, you gotta come to City Hall. And if you don’t do it, we’re closing up shop. You do it, and we do it together, or it doesn’t work.”

Fellow panelist Lynn Lewis was one of those tenants. Back in 1981, Lewis was twenty years old and living in a Cooper Square slum with her three-day-old baby. It was a particularly cold winter,  she was on welfare, and she had gone for six weeks without heat or hot water. That’s when Goldin knocked on her door. “She was saying You’re gonna live like this the rest of your life if you don’t come to this meeting! Which was really, probably true.” Four days later, Lewis brought the baby to the meeting, and Goldin made her chair it. Lewis now directs Picture the Homeless.

“Frances is an organizer, and she’s a leader,” Lewis reflected. “I think organizers push people outside of their comfort zones.”

“In order to have any kind of success for this kind of project, you have to be a visionary,” said the Cooper Square MHA director Valerio Orselli, in a meeting in his office. “A planner can make a wonderful plan, but they usually do not go beyond the plan to implementation.” He remembered a group of professors who met at a summit to discuss plans for community trusts. “They were not grounded in reality,” said Orselli. “What made Cooper Square unique was that we had a partnership between a community planner, Walter Thabit, and a visionary. That was Frances Goldin, who actually believed that she could defeat Robert Moses. Who actually understood the need for reasonable compromises.”

The MHA itself has inspired dozens of tenants to self-organize– for example, Lucielle Carrasquero, an 88-year-old tenant who lives in an MHA-run studio apartment. A few years ago, when the building was in a bad state of disrepair, the city had urged her building’s tenants to go with the TIL program, which often leads to tenants taking buyouts. “If you start renting it to people with a lot of income, you’re going to lose everything real quick,” Carrasquero told me. The Cooper Square MHA heard about their building’s issues and taught them how to lobby the city to get MHA management.

“The joints were sagging towards the middle, it had extensive termite damage, the roof was in horrible condition, the boiler needed to be replaced, the stairs were unsafe due to the lack of center support,” MHA director Valerio Orselli told me in an email. “There were multiple leaks. There were also multiple illegal sublets for profit and as a result the building had a number of squatters.” It took four years of lobbying City Council and members of government, but Carrasquero’s building was finally switched to MHA management, which renovated the building and combined units. Carrasquero is now a shareholder in her own apartment. “Frances taught me everything I know, and now I’m trying to spread it as much as possible,” she said.

I met Goldin later in her spacious East Village apartment. Near the door hangs a large, black-and-white framed photo, blown up from a newspaper clipping, of her then-twenty-year-old daughter Reeni. A policeman was roughly escorting Reeni out of City Hall, where she’d been arrested for participating in a sit-in. “I was so proud of her,” Goldin told me.

The living room is brimming with picket signs. As always, Goldin was wearing her “TAX THE RICH” button.

“Every day, I wear a sign on my back which says TAX THE RICH, and carry five buttons in my pocket,” she told me. “And every day, I come home with none. You know why? Because people tap me on the shoulder and ask me about the sign. And I ask them, if you had a button which said that, would you wear it? If they say yes, I give them one of mine. I just gave out my eight hundredth button.”

Over the years, Goldin has also run a successful literary agency, which represents authors like Barbara Kingsolver and Mumia Abu-Jamal, a journalist and activist who’s been in jail on a life sentence for the murder of a police officer. His guilt has been contested over the years. Goldin just came out with Imagine: Living In A Socialist USA”, a book of essays by Angela Davis, Tom Angotti, Michael Moore, and others, which will all go toward efforts to release Abu-Jamal. It’s no surprise that Goldin would be involved with the “Free Mumia” campaign; housing struggles often intersect with, and even begin, environmental, civil rights, and independence movements. As the panel leader, New School grad student Joshua Barndt, had pointed out, community land trusts themselves evolved from Gandhi disciple Vinova Bhave, and later Martin Luther King’s cousin Slater King.

Now, she’d like to talk to Bill de Blasio.

“Picture the Homeless did a survey of all of the vacant apartments in the city, and found that there are enough empty units to house all of the city’s homeless four times over” she said. “There is a possibility that de Blasio can take over those apartments, and regulate the rent. I don’t know if he’s been asked to do that. I don’t know if a delegation has gone to his office and said We won’t leave unless you take over those apartments for homeless people. But that’s what should be done. I volunteer.”

  • Diamond

    Fran Goldin inspires us more each year, both for her activism and her literary accomplishments. Did you know that Ms.Goldin and Cooper Square were also instrumental in the action now known as The Fifth Street Women’s Building Takeover of 1971? Here’s the story: http://bit.ly/RReu5d xxo, Liza Cowan

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