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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Filmmakers explore ‘cooperative experience’

By Adam Wisnieski
Posted
Film screenshot courtesy of Gary Axelbank
Bernie Olshan paints in his art studio at the Amalgamated Housing Cooperative.

The world has changed tremendously since the first 303 residents moved into the Amalgamated Housing Cooperative in 1927, on the cusp of the Great Depression. 

But life at the Amalgamated hasn’t changed all that much, according to a new short film and photography exhibition depicting life in the storied co-op.

The film, Neighbors, a Cooperative Experience — the 85th Anniversary of Amalgamated Housing, and the collection of photographs by longtime cooperator Ira Merritt depict an Amalgamated that is more diverse than it was decades ago, but which still upholds traditions of education, volunteerism and contribution to the arts.

“The composition of the neighborhood has changed, the ethnicity, the religion, etcetera, but still wonderful neighbors, still a magnificent group of people with a neighborhood philosophy,” cooperator Tom Chartier said in the film. 

The Amalgamated is New York’s oldest housing cooperative and the oldest limited equity housing cooperative in the United States. Abraham Kazan, president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, founded the Amalgamated in 1926. The first cooperators were mostly Jewish union workers, but now the 1,482 families in 11 buildings are from a variety of backgrounds and ethnicities.

Ira Merritt, 62, a photographer who is a second generation Amalgamated cooperator, photographed more than 60 of his neighbors for the exhibit. For some of the portraits, he paired neighbors who did not know one another. Though they might look different, he tried to find something similar about them, whether a pose, an article of clothing or a physical attribute.

“We came from labor unionists, socialists, and philosophers and we are now professors, civil servants, unemployed, retirees, and individuals with challenges,” Mr. Merritt wrote in his statement about the exhibit.

In an age when arts programming has been slashed and its importance minimalized, Amalgamated offers classes in ceramics, photography, painting and writing, and has studios for artists.

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