On a cold winter afternoon in 1960, my wife and I pored over blueprints in the Grand Street office of the United Housing Federation, a nonprofit foundation created after the war with the support of organized labor to build middle-income cooperative housing in New York City. Backed by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), the UHF had recently begun building a large co-op in Chelsea. By 1960, the city’s apartment shortage seemed permanent, and Harriet and I had borrowed the $500 deposit needed for the privilege of studying blueprints and selecting an apartment. We finally settled on Apartment 9B at Penn South, 365 West Twenty-Fifth Street, and, a year and a half later, moved into a master bedroom of eighteen by twelve, a second bedroom of fifteen by eleven, an L-shaped living room, a small entrance foyer, a bathroom, a kitchen “big enough to eat in,” and a terrace from which, a minute after we walked inside, we stared at an ocean liner, its long grace framed between massive Eleventh Avenue warehouses, as it sailed down Paul Goodman’s “lordly Hudson.”
Forty-three years later, I find it difficult to recapture our joy on that May morning in 1962 when we left a small studio at 166 West Twenty-Second Street to take possession of Apartment 9B. A move two avenues west and three blocks north was, we felt, our reward for those exhausting hours spent apartment hunting in Manhattan, the borough that outer-borough New Yorkers like us called “the real city.” A week before we moved to Penn South, Harriet learned she was pregnant. But if five years of transforming living-room couch to bed each night hadn’t soured us on the city, pregnancy wasn’t going to either.
For born-and-bred New Yorkers, geography is destiny. Yet geography shouldn’t sustain the identity of a man of seventy-two. I am, after all, son and brother, father and grandfather, husband, teacher, writer, cripple. Only nothing defines me as accurately as New Yorker. This city is the measure of the real and the unreal for me, where a crack in a sidewalk unseen for fifty years is as vivid in the mind’s eye as the face of the first girl I ever kissed. And why not? If Proust could reconstruct the past with a cookie, why can’t a city junkie pledge sidewalk, subway, and street to memory? Because my wife and I are so exclusively products of this city, no investment has affected our lives as much as our decision to borrow $3,250 from the Amalgamated Bank on Union Square, the city’s labor bank, to buy that apartment in Penn South. (The co-op’s official name is the even more prosaic Mutual Redevelopment Houses, Inc.) Almost a full year would pass before all ten co-op buildings were occupied. By then, our son Mark was four months old. And he already had what neither of his parents had ever had growing up in this city, a bedroom of his own.
ORGANIZED LABOR in general and the ILGWU in particular were powerful forces in the New York of the...
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