One-Bedroom Co-Op in 1950s East River Housing

 Location Lower East Side
Price $65,000 in 1999 ($500/mo. maintenance)
Square feet 500
Occupant Sharon Kovalsky (architect, lamp designer, associate professor of interior design)

You are so smart. You not only got an incredibly affordable apartment, but you have the most astounding view in the history of urban life. From your 18th-story, 250-square-foot corner terrace, you can look down on almost every building in New York. It's a godlike vista, like comic-book heroes have. Has Eclipso visited your terrace? No, but at night it's like paradise. I can see storms, snow patterns move across the city, lightning hit the World Trade Center. When I first moved in, I hardly slept, it was so fascinating.

Your neighbors are clouds and helicopters. When you bought this apartment, two and a half years ago, in one of the three sets of buildings that make up Coop Village—11 towers, 4443 apartments—you got a remnant of the ultimate utopia, a former not-for-profit cooperative financed in part by the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union to provide low-cost housing for its members. They were called "redevelopment" co-ops by the state, as they wiped out old tenements—think of Robert Moses hopping up and down with his Erector set in the background. Do all the apartments here have big open spaces, granite sinks, and bright white bathroom tiles with a pink and a blue one now and then? No, I did all this, took down the walls. I spent about $40,000. I get trade discounts because I'm an architect. I moved to Coop Village four years ago as a roommate in the building across the way, 19th floor. I used to garden on the terrace. I'd get up early, weeding, watering. There was a woman on her terrace gardening, too. We did a lot of friendly waving. Then I came over and visited. She was one of the original left-wing Jewish socialists. Signs on the doors read "Boycott Grapes" and "Che Lives!" When her daughter moved her to a nursing home—the daughter lived out in the desert in Arizona—she said, Who would want this place? Me, me, me!

Sharon Kovalsky in her 18th-floor aerie in Coop Village
photo: Bilyana Dimitrova
Sharon Kovalsky in her 18th-floor aerie in Coop Village

It has not always been roses in Coop Village, which, by the way, is down Grand Street from Moe Penn Hats and Murray's House of Beef. In the '70s, the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund filed suit, saying the co-op board's right of first refusal kept out blacks and Hispanics, and they got a consent decree setting aside two-fifths of vacant apartments. Then four years ago, when members voted to go private—originally owners could only sell apartments back to the co-op for what they paid, like $2600 for a two-bedroom in the '50s—some didn't want to privatize. There were fights, death threats, yelling: "This is a knife in the heart of cooperativism!" Or "Feh, I'm selling and moving to Florida." Privatism won. You got your co-op while they were still phasing out the original financing structure and prices were still capped—$65,000 for a one-bedroom. Three years later, it's worth practically $300,000. But building manager Harold Jacob, who until last June had four generations of his family living in Coop Village's Hillman Houses at the same time, said, "So what about the money! When my apartment went from $25,000 to $600,000, did it mean anything to me? NO! You know why? I'm not moving, ever. My home only has value to me as a home. If something is worth a million and I'm not selling, so what!" That's exactly how I feel. The only way I'm leaving this apartment is feetfirst. I'd buy a second apartment here if I could. Frankly, I like this building no matter how much it costs. There's still that cooperative spirit. When I moved to New York in '84, I had a one-bedroom in Chelsea. I felt invisible in that neighborhood. I grew up in a Detroit suburb in the '60s. At the grocery and bread shop, you had to speak Yiddish to buy anything. This neighborhood reminds me of that. This is where I'm going to make my life.

 
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