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A Tale of Co-Op City: Lost in Space

By Gregory K. Tobkes

Driving from Queens over the Throgs Neck Bridge, just about mid span, if one looks for it, one can see the tall buildings of Co-Op City. Viewed from this angle it looks to me like nothing less than the Emerald City envisioned by Frank Baum. It just peeks over the Phelam Bay Landfill, which is what we used to call the city dump. I lived in section five of Co-op City with my wife Helene and infant son Eric in the year 1972. It was in that year that something happened to me that would taint my happy memories of living at 100-22 Elgar Place and caused me great mental distress for the next twenty years.

Being a newly minted public school teacher, making the requisite income to be eligible to move to the newly opened section five of Co-Op City, I was ecstatic to be able to get an apartment on the 22nd floor. The view was spectacular. From the balcony I could see all the way south to the Throgs Neck Bridge, The Whitestone Bridge and the northern part of Queens. From the east bedroom window I could look down and see barges making their way through Goose Neck Bay into the Long Island Sound. There was also a train that ran just east of my building which when from my window looked like a Lionel Train set I had as a child. With three bedrooms, one and a half baths, a portable washing machine and dryer, a large living room, spacious kitchen-dining room and foyer with sufficient space for our upright piano, we were set to live many years in this building which felt to us like middle-class luxury. The balcony was something I thought only rich people could afford and we planted boxes of flowers and enjoyed sitting on beach chairs taking in the sun or just relaxing after a day’s work watching the sun set. In addition, just two doors down lived Ed Carmel, a wonderful gentle giant, who used to visit us and stay for many hours regaling us with stories of his most unusual life. I wrote about his further exploits in an article for v.IV issue XIII of this magazine. All this future promise came to an abrupt halt just a year after moving in. Abrupt as in a sudden stop one experiences in a descending elevator suddenly losing power. Why I make reference to the television show, Lost in Space will become clear shortly.

Our building had two sets of elevators. One was for local stops from the ground floor to the top, some thirty floors in total. The other, for convenience was an express which went non stop to the eighteenth floor. One could then proceed locally to the top floor. Growing up in the Van Cortlandt section of the Bronx I and my best buddy Bobby would ride the elevators of the Amalgemated Co-Operative apartments with abandon. By that I mean we would slide the interior door open, stopping a moving elevator and often making faces at those on a landing who could see us through the glass window of the elevator door. We would sometime open the emergency escape door in the ceiling of the car and sit atop while riding the elevator. Had we been caught we would probably have been sent to family court and given a prized JD Card which had much bragging rights in those days at DeWitt Clinton HS where both Bob and I were students. Today we would probably have been incarcerated and/or put on medication. Oddly enough, we were never caught and I became a teacher while my buddy became a cop!

I mention these youthful indiscretions as a preface to what happened to me after spending three and one half hours trapped in the Co-Op City elevator.

It was a beautiful day in March 1972. We had resided at Co-Op City for about a year and loved every moment. We loved the apartment, our neighbors, especially Ed and his family, the parks and shopping. Section One had many stores and on one occasion we met Theodore Bikel who was making an appearance. As many Jewish families lived there at the time, including mine, he had come for a book signing and talked about his career. I knew him mainly because of the Folk Scene, which along with Pete Segar, Bob Dylan, and The Smothers Brothers was still quite active.

On this March day, I, Helene who was eight months pregnant, our two and one half year old son Eric who was in a stroller, two bicycles and four other people began our descent to the ground floor. Just as we passed the fifteenth floor, according to the digital readout on the elevator display panel, we came to a teeth chattering stop. I mean a stop you’d experience on a ride at Freedom Land before it became know as the Land Co-Op City was built on! The history of that can be gleaned in the archives of the magazine this article appears in.

There we were, hanging in space with no exit. Using my former criminal skills I slid the door open only to be faced with a solid sheet of concrete! No way to get out. Trapped like a grave robber in a Pyramid. My heart rate immediately took an up tick. Pushing the red alarm button for several minutes did not result in any communication from the speaker in the panel. No one so much as acknowledged our plight. After several more minutes I decided to once again rely on my criminal skills and climbed up on the rail and opened the emergency escape door. Climbing up onto the top of the elevator, I found a safe spot to sit and began to call out. The shaft we were in also contained another elevator which I could see travelling up and down. Every time a car came abreast of us I’d shout even louder for help. On many occasions I could hear people acknowledging our situation. After a period of three and one half hours the power came on and we began to descend. Upon reaching the lobby floor we were greeted by a throng of residents, emergency workers and reporters from the local newspaper, The City News. Photographs were taken and a few days later we saw an article in the paper whimsically titled “Lost In Space”. The irony for me was that I had a grievance against this CBS show as it had caused the demise of my all time favorite science fiction show, Star Trek!

Talk about adding insult to injury!

It was many days later that I found out from talking to maintenance workers what caused the power failure. It seems a circuit breaker failed and the emergency crew sent to fix it was ….drum roll please…stuck in another elevator in a different building. When someone finally found the circuit breaker it was just a matter of resetting it! That was all that was needed. It should not have taken three and one half hours to fix the problem. Talk about adding insult to injury!

For the remaining year or so we lived there, I would take a local elevator to the eighteenth floor and then walk up the four flights to my apartment. I developed a claustrophobic fear of elevators and because of this constant distress I took to walking up all 22 flights near the end of our stay.

The next apartment we lived in was on the seventh floor and every day, I walked the seven flights to our apartment. For the next twenty years I would not enter an elevator regardless of the number of floors. At the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan, I walked up the fourteen floors to a wedding that we attended.

One positive result of the claustrophobia from which I suffered is that I was in excellent physical shape.

Today I live in a ranch house but will take an elevator, when not avoidable, but still have mild panic attack sensations which I control using techniques I learned from Mr. Spock, the stoic Vulcan of Star Trek fame.

Now that forty years have passed since these events, I still have fond memories of our time living in Co-Op City.

Today the demographics of Co-Op City are radically different from what it was when it first opened. As is true of the Bronx and many other places, neighborhoods continue to go through changes. The Grand Concourse was a prime example, along with the building of the Cross Bronx “Distressway”, and the Bruckner Boulevard overpass of how whole neighborhoods were eliminated or radically changed.

As much as we would wish for things to remain the same, it is a function of every viable borough to experience dynamic change.

The Bronx went through a period of decay and rebuilding and Co-Op City along with Parkchester are a testament to the enduring strength of its people.

My hope is that any Bronxite who reads this will not only enjoy this anecdote but might relate to it. There must be hundreds of former residents of Co-op City that might be encouraged to write of their experiences living in “The Emerald City” of the Bronx!

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