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     The story was told that when Sidney Hillman was deep in the dream of the first Amalgamated venture into cooperative housing, back in 1926, he put aside all other matters.

     When you think about the scope of the dream, and the enormity of the step the Amalgamated Clothing Union was about to take, his preoccupation was only human.

     The Amalgamated Convention of 1926 had authorized this new venture and showed a growing concern for a better life for its members and their families when it instructed the General Executive Board “to give the matter of housing for our members careful consideration and to promote cooperative housing undertakings for our members in our various cities”.


     In July 1957, the United Housing Foundation submitted its plan for the middle-income cooperative, Warbasse Houses. It proposed to build thirteen 20-story buildings for 5,184 families, reclaiming a blighted 62-acre site in Brighton-Coney Island. Carrying charges would average twenty-one dollars a room per month.

     Utilizing the State Redevelopment Companies Law, the United Housing Foundation requested a twenty-year tax abatement which the law permits, with the tax rate for this period set at the assed value of the land before improvements. The City Planning Commission approved the plan for Warbasse Houses in July 1958. During this period some 3,500 families flocked to the applications office and made down payments toward their apartment equities.

     The battle began when the proposal came before the Board of Estimate for approval. A private builder branded the tax concession a “give away,” although Stuyvesant Town, built under an even more liberal tax abatement, was considered an outstanding success.

     It was clear from the start that this private builder wanted the land for his own rental and cooperative apartments, at far higher costs to tenants. To get the site, he offered the city more tax revenue than the United Housing plan could afford at the twenty-one dollar per room, middle-income figure in its proposal.

     But he misjudged the fighting spirit of Abraham E. Kazan and that of the Warbasse families whose need was matched only by their determination. The Citizens’ Housing and Planning Council and the New York Times were but two of many groups that came out in strong support of the Warbasse project over the private developer’s plan. Warbasse cooperators (2,000 of them) signed a petition to Mayor Wagner urging his intervention. They wrote letters, organized committees, testified at board of Estimate hearings, and visited city politicians to plead the cause of genuine middle-income housing.

     While the battle was joined, the years were passing. In the darkest hour of the fight, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers stepped in, taking on the co-sponsorship of the cooperative and threatening to demand a full scale investigation of the maneuvering behind the scenes in the Board of Estimate fight.

     Finally it appeared that a compromise might be worked out which would permit the United Housing Foundation to build a cooperative for 2,585 families: 24-story buildings on slightly less than half the original site. The United Housing Foundation agreed to a higher tax payment to the city and, regrettably, was forced to raise average carrying charges from twenty-one to twenty-three dollars a room per month to cover this added tax.

     During the dog days of August 1959, hopeful Warbasse cooperators mobilized for the last push to win approval of Amalgamated Warbasse Houses. On August 21st more than a thousand people overflowed the hearing chamber at City Hall, crowded into adjoining rooms, and patiently-and not so patiently-spilled over to the steaming sidewalks outside.

     At long last, in May 1960, final approval came. Title to the land was taken May 22, 1960, and relocation began at once. The plan was finally underway.


     In June 1963, Amalgamated Warbasse Houses shifted from the status of a State Redevelopment Company to that of a Limited Profit Housing Corporation. This made mortgage money available from the State rather then the Housing Company having to seek mortgage money from private sources. Once the mortgage was provided by the State Housing Finance Agency, construction proceeded under the supervision of the New York State Division of Housing and Community Renewal.


     There are some cooperators at Amalgamated-Warbasse who “discovered” Coney Island only since moving day, 1964. However, Henry Hudson landed there in 1609! At that time it was a real island, separated from the mainland by Gravesend bay, Sheepshead Bay, Coney Island Creek, a tidal inlet and a stretch of salt marsh where wild life abounded.

     The Dutch were said to have named it “Konijn Eiland” or Rabbit Island, because of an abundance of-yes-rabbits.

     Sparsely populated until after the Civil War, it then became a “watering place” for New York’s elite, and carriages rolled down Ocean Parkway to elegant hotels, luxury restaurants, boating lagoons and the boardwalk. This fashionable seaside resort was opened to the public by the extension of the elevated subway route just before World War I. Then it was ranked as the most popular seashore area in the United States. On a hot summer day as many as a million and a half New Yorkers escaped to its beaches and cool waters.

     But that was only one side of the picture. Back from the sands and tides and the mask of amusement parks, blight was creeping over the Coney Island-Brighton section. Empty lots were overgrown and littered, Homes were in disrepair, many of them merely shacks and abandoned beach houses.

     Some redevelopment had already taken place. Both cooperative and rental apartment buildings were beginning to change the skyline, as more and more families decided that living close to ocean and city was to have the best of both worlds.
It is here that Amalgamated Warbasse Houses, began to rise, on a 26.7 acre site bounded by Shore Parkway, West 5th street, Ocean Parkway, Neptune Avenue and West 6th Street.


     Co-op families, eager to move into their new building, often paid weekly visits to the site to watch the progress. Amalgamated-Warbasse cooperators saw 1200 piles per building driven twenty-eight feet deep into the ground-almost twice as many piles as is normal, to an unusual depth-because of the high water table in the area. Although 6,000 piles were driven for the five buildings, under the watchful eye of Sam Friedman, construction superintendent for Community Services, Inc. general contractors.

     The skeleton rose at the rate of a floor a week, the brickwork following close behind. How many bricks does it take to build five 24-story buildings? Five million! There are 5.4 miles of balcony and roof railings, while some 12,375 windows 350,000 square feet of glass let in sun and air. It took 1.7 million square feet of pressed oak to cover the apartment floors.

     Each of the five buildings has 517 apartments, with a grand total of 11,362 ½ rooms in the development. Almost 38 percent of the apartments have balconies or terraces. There are eight different size apartments.

     Five laundry rooms, community rooms, professional offices, maintenance and storage rooms, mail box and elevator lobbies occupy the ground floor of the buildings. Each building has six elevators, Every section of the building has two sets of stairs.
Landscaping, included 859 trees and 4,398 shrubs, three playgrounds for young children, an oval landscaped sitting area, and nearly two thousand feet of benches along paved walks.

     Originally designed with outside parking for 1034 cars (now 1,215), a shopping center including 8,500 square foot supermarket, pharmacy, bank, and bakery.
A new elementary school, P.S. 303, built by the city, to accommodate the influx of children in the area, opened on a parcel of land sold to the city by Amalgamated Warbasse Houses, Inc..

     Last, but far from least, is the Total Energy Power Plant designed by the engineering firm of Day and Zimmerman, that supplies Amalgamated-Warbasse cooperators with heat in winter, air conditioning in summer, and electricity throughout the year, all from one source.

     Amalgamated Warbasse Houses, was the second housing development in the country (Rochdale Village was the first) to have this unusual installation. At the time, the estimated balance sheet for the power plant installation of equipment and distribution costs were $4,675,595.


     The original cooperators at Warbasse came from every borough. Brooklyn making up the largest group at 1,982, Manhattan 270, Bronx 196, Queens 136, Staten Island 1, totaling 2,585 families. Slightly under 50% were 50 years of age or older. There were 1,196 children under fifteen and 1,905 persons in the 25-50 age group. Almost 57% of the families included two persons or fewer. Almost two-thirds of the families earned $7,000.00 a year or less.


     July 14, 1964 was the big day. For this some people had waited seven years. Buildings 1 and 3 were occupied first, eighteen families a day moving in, five days a week. Buildings 4, 5 and 2 were completed in short order, and by February 5, 1965, in record time, all 2,585 families had moved in.


     Every cooperator at Amalgamated Warbasse should know that without the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, they would have no cooperative today. In the darkest hours of battle, the Amalgamated stepped forward as sponsor of the development, giving its name and tremendous prestige and influence to assure that the cooperative would be built. At every step along the way in their seven year struggle, Amalgamated was there. In addition to Amalgamated’s President, Jacob S. Potofsky, Executive Vice President Harold Ostroff, the support of Louis Hollander, Morris Iushewitz, Charles Garrahan, and Harry Van Arsdalle, Jr., Amalgamated Warbasse Board of members, was vital, as was the advice and patience of Robert Szold, counsel.

James Peter Warbasse M.D. (1866-1957): The story of the housing cooperative is called Amalgamated Warbasse Houses. Dr. Warbasse, the founder of The Cooperative League of the U.S.A., was a close friend of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. At the Amalgamated’s 1920 Convention Dr. Warbasse brought the message of cooperation. He would have been proud to have his name and that of the Amalgamated coupled in association with this cooperative enterprise.

Copyright © 2008 Amalgamated Warbasse Houses, Inc.