“It was brand-spanking new, and nobody else had ever lived there before. I grew up in Harlem, and then we moved to the Bronx, and everything was always aged, well-worn,” Berk said with a laugh. “Then we got to move here, and this was going to be our space.”
Though she left for a few years, Berk moved back into her family’s unit after her mother died in 1988. Now, as the complex celebrates its 50th anniversary this December, Berk is president of the board of directors at Riverbay, the management company at Co-Op City.
“We have roughly 1,000 employees, a quarter of a billon dollar annual budget,” Berk explained.
Co-Op City: A city within a city
If Co-Op City were a standalone, it would be the 10th largest city in the state, Berk said. With 15,300 units, “it is a sizable entity with somewhere between 45,000 and 50,000 residents,” she said, adding that it currently has a three- to five-year wait list.
Residents in 700 units have been there all 50 years, and the development the nation’s largest NORC, or naturally occurring retirement community. “Because of its affordability, people tend to stay here — they’re not going anywhere else because it’s an economical way to exist on a fixed income,” Berk explained.
While “isolated,” Co-Op City is self-sufficient, boasting its own garbage collection, police department, two post offices and shopping centers, professional offices and even its own Little League.
Despite “tough times” that included 25 percent rent spikes, infrastructure defects and transportation changes, “people have a sense of community, and it’s hard to compare Co-Op City with any other entity you might live in,” Berk said.
‘I never saw Co-Op City as unattractive’
When Berk and her family moved in a year after Co-Op City began accepting residents, “there was nothing over here. People who came here in the beginning were pioneers, it was really like being on a frontier in many ways,” she said. “There was a sense of bonding because we were all in this together, and we were going to survive together.”
Surrounded by highways, Co-Op City was built on swampland that had been the short-lived Freedomland amusement park. As it was so sparse at first, Time called it “relentlessly ugly” in 1969, something Berk never agreed with — until she recently came across an old photo taken from her living room widow.
“The view was so bare, so stark. It was brown grass, the trees were little baby trees — it didn’t look enticing or pretty at all,” she said. “Now I look out my window and it’s lush with big, tall trees and grass. I never saw Co-Op City as unattractive at the time because, for me, it was a new home and a place that I could help to build and create this community, but when I look now at pictures, it was a little ugly back then — I just didn’t see it.”