By Robert Kroll
Being a co-op superintendent is not all glory, glamour, and pride. Much of the time, when the super is not busy making his residents’ lives infinitely better by eliminating as many of the daily annoyances of modern living in an ante-bellum tenement as possible, he is cogitating. He, she, or they have time to ponder such fundamental questions as: why do cooperative apartments even exist?
So, this week, as I was contemplating the nature of cooperative housing and its inmates, it suddenly struck me that I was managing a tiny institution more akin to a kibbutz than an apartment building.
I don’t claim any expertise regarding the Israeli collective farm movement, but I’ve visited some kibbutzim and talked to their inhabitants. I was moved to do some research and reading. Here’s what I learned…
The first kibbutz, Degania in Umm Juni, was formed on October 28, 1910. It was simply explained: “A cooperative community without exploiters or exploited—a commune.” The first Jewish hippies? The first housing cooperative in New York City, then called a “home club,” was established in 1876. The idea didn’t catch on here until 1918, when a group of Finnish builders and artisans built the first co-ops according to the Rochdale Cooperative Principles, an English innovation from 1844, that provided “democratic control and shared profits, open membership, trading done on a cash basis, regular audits, and continuing education.” Like Israel’s kibbutzim, the co-op movement evolved in the 1920s and continues today. The owners of cooperative shares managed to survive the Great Depression because they had paid off their mortgage loans prior to the 1929 stock market crash. Today, more than half of all U.S. housing cooperatives are in New York City.
Under Israeli law a kibbutz is an organization for settlement which maintains a collective society of members organized on the basis of joint ownership of assets. Its aims are self-employment, equality, and cooperation in all areas of production, consumption, and education.
The kibbutz is a creature of Zionism and socialism in a land where there was no State (pre-statehood Israel). Housing cooperatives are creatures of unionism, socialism, and more recently, cronyism.
Kibbutzim started from a set of utopian principles—equality between people, in their rights and in consumption; freedom of the individual from material worries; democracy: no managers and no underlings, the abolition of all hierarchy and rank—so says the International Communes Desk in Tel Aviv, Israel. Same for the co-ops in New York.
Kibbutzim are places where they used to teach “from each according to their ability and to each according to their needs.” To this day, cooperatives teach from each according to their shares, square footage, and the number of flights they climb to their apartment, to each according to their proprietary lease and how squeaky their wheel.
Kibbutzim evolved from of a system of state-supported collective farms to a more diversified capitalist system with separate ownership of the means of production and individual property rights.
Cooperatives evolved from collective ownership of parts of a greater whole into groups of the millionaire’s club dedicated to operating co-ops on principles akin to the running of hedge funds or investment banks. Many co-opers have inflated estimations of their managerial capabilities, and they don’t hesitate to voice their opinion.
Here is how various groups view the kibbutzim, according to Saadia Gelb, Almost One Hundred Years of Togetherness (Kibbutz Kfar Blum):
To sociologists, we huddle together for security. To psychologists, we are interesting variants. To Marxist socialists (if any remain), we are irrelevant deviants. To democratic socialists (if any remain), we are the pathfinders to the future. To historians, we are a passing phase. To reporters, we’re good copy. To tourists, we’re a stop on a guided tour.
Here is how various groups view the residents of co-op apartments:
To Democrats, we offer a reliable vote on election day.
To Republicans, we are a hotbed of liberalism.
To sociologists, we huddle together because we have made a sizable investment in co-op shares.
To psychologists, we are interesting variants.
To bankers, we are an extra-terrestrial breed of real estate and a risky investment.
To historians, we are in for the long haul—like the cockroach.
To midwesterners, we are saps willing to pay $1,000 per square foot for tiny urban warrens with little or no open space on our land.
To westerners, we are the last remnants of parents’ immigrant dreams
To each other, we are our nemesis, our combatants, the lunatics upstairs or downstairs who make our lives a living hell.
Kibbutzniks tend to be Israelis. They don’t like outsiders, non-Jews, or tourists. Co-operators tend to be native New Yorkers. They don’t like newbies, midwesterners, or tourists.
Kibbutzniks tend to be argumentative, opinionated, stubborn, and hardworking. Co-operators tend to be argumentative, opinionated, stubborn, and work hard for their living. Those who are not hardworking are trust-funders.
Kibbutzim morphed from a primarily agricultural purpose to a more industrial and non-collectivized approach. Cooperative housing was built on land that was previously agricultural in nature. It is difficult to say which of these arrangements is better, or whether they are even comparable. But there are striking similarities in the way they fight with each other that makes them interesting. And democratic.