Mass Housing and Consumer Rebellion or What the Co-op City Rent Strike and the Wende Have in Common

Friday, January 6, 2012: 2:30 PM
Grace Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Annemarie H. Sammartino, Oberlin College
With 65,000 residents, Co-op City, located in the Northeast corner of New York City, is the largest planned urban development in the United States. With over 170,000 residents, Marzahn, located in Northeast Berlin, is the largest planned urban development in Germany.

This paper is an exploration of the kind of community that residents in both developments created, an identity that, in key ways, contrasted and conflicted with the communities their planners imagined for them. The paper focuses on two flashpoints where these clashes became real: the rent strike that convulsed Co-op City in 1975-76 and the end of the German Democratic Republic in 1989. Although these two moments are not often or easily analyzed in tandem, I argue that they display some intriguing similarities. In Co-op City, the strikers understood themselves as consumers and understood their strike as a consumer rebellion, while both the development’s planners and New York State authorities saw them as owners. I read this self-understanding alongside Ina Merkel’s diagnosis of the East German revolution as one of heightened consumer expectations that led to dissatisfaction with the regime.

By exploring the transnational history of mass housing and consumer rebellion, this paper will address what Co-op City and Marzahn and their respective ‘revolutionary crises’ tell us about the regimes that created them and about the financial, social, and political upheavals of the post-Fordist era across the cold war divide.

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