The Cooperative Century A Historical View of Residential Co-ops

Quick: the first residential co-op was created in (a) 2000 BC (b) the 1700’s (c) the 1800’s (d) the 20th century. Now, don’t laugh off choice "a," 2000 BC. While there doesn’t appear to have been co-ops quite that far back, there are records of condominiums. It might be tempting to choose "d," thinking that the notion of popular "cooperation" must surely have its roots in the culture and politics of the 1960’s, but you’d be wrong. The first known co-op in the world was brought into being after a large fire created a serious housing shortage in Rennes, France in 1720, as explained by Richard Siegler and Herbert J. Cooper-Levy, member and former member of the National Association of Housing Cooperatives (NAHC), respectively, in "Brief History of Cooperative Housing," an article in a volume of NAHC’s Cooperative Housing Bulletin.

There is no clear-cut answer as to when the first housing cooperative appeared in the United States. According to Seigler and Cooper-Levy, the first American residential co-op was established over 150 years later in 1876 on West 18th Street in Manhattan. However, Andrew Alpern says in his book, Luxury Apartment Houses of Manhattan, that historian Christopher Gray has determined the site of New York City’s first co-op to be 152 West 57th Street. According to Alpern, that first co-op, the Rembrandt, was erected in 1881 and "was the prototype of a bevy of other cooperative apartment ventures brought to fruition over the ensuing years." He continues, "Of these, the Gramercy, at 34 Gramercy Park, is the oldest one still extant and operating as a co-op."

Whatever and wherever the first cooperative development was, the co-op has survived the twists and turns of ensuing decades from those first settlements to the hundreds that followed. Is there a place for the co-op in the new millennium? Predictions depend upon understanding the history of co-ops; the motives behind their formation and the criteria for their sustenance.

The Co-op’s Evolution

The cooperative movement itself has, of course, cut across a wider range of consumables than housing — it has provided an economical means of obtaining a variety of goods and services, from groceries to electricity, credit unions to cars. Benjamin Franklin created the first co-op of any sort in the U.S., a mutual insurance company, in 1752.

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