Marc Haken, the veteran co-op board president who was a winner of a Habitat Management Award in 2001, doesn't do anything half way. A few years ago, he came very close to being arrested — not so unusual, perhaps, for an ex-hippie who had once lived in a California commune — except that this particular encounter with the law was televised. When he returned home that night, there were scores of messages on his answering machine from his many friends. They had seen his run-in with the Giuliani administration on cable TV's New York 1, which had filmed the entire scene. The people who knew him weren't all that surprised. After all, Haken is, by his own admission, an outspoken person who fights for what he believes in.
As a strong youth advocate, he made it a point to attend the town meetings then-Mayor Rudolph Guiliani held at the Hollis Hills Jewish Center, and he was well known to local officials. In fact, it is hard to imagine anyone in his part of Queens who doesn't know Haken. Former City Councilman Sheldon Leffler once summed up his notoriety with a nickname, the "Mayor of Hollis."
On this particular evening Haken was in attendance as usual, but was informed that the procedure for asking questions had changed. Instead of simply being called on during the meeting, Guiliani's people had decided that questions must be written down.
As one of the issues was a considerable budget cut in youth services — a cause for which Haken had worked long and hard — he had a number of questions, which he duly wrote down. However, when time went by and he wasn't called upon, Haken had had enough. He began yelling out his questions to the commissioner of community assistance, and when he wouldn't stop, the commissioner turned to the policeman nearest her and said, "Arrest him."
The deputy chief of the Queens South precinct shook his head and said, "You can't arrest him. That's Marc." The woman then turned to Henry Stern, the parks commissioner at the time who also shook his head, and echoed the police chief's words. "You can't arrest him. That's Marc." Equally unimpressed by her command was Joe Mieli, housing commissioner. He just shrugged. "We're not arresting him. That's Marc."
Meanwhile, the entire event was being broadcast over New York 1; hence, the many messages on Haken's answering machine that night. He chuckles when he tells of his friends' reactions: "Hey, saw you arrested on TV last night."
But, as Haken says, he has strong feelings about right and wrong. "I like to think I'm right 100 percent of the time, of course," he admits. "But I will tell the emperor he has no clothes. I'm a straight-shooter."
It is his reputation for honesty, dependability and hard work that has led to Haken's election as board president of his Queens co-op every year for the past 23 years. Haken has been involved at Hilltop Village Cooperative No. 4 ever since he attended his first board meeting in May 1976, shortly after he moved into the Holliswood building. During a discussion of the building security system, he suggested installing intercoms, which would allow the residents to talk with visitors in the lobby. The other residents were so impressed, he was nominated for the board that very night, elected the next year, and made president the following year. Marc Haken has never looked back.
"I bust my ass for this place, and people know it. They think I'm the landlord," he says with a laugh. But his relationship to other shareholders is also clearly very warm and informal. "When I come to their apartment people come to the door in their underwear, They invite me to dinner with their family. They also treat me as if I'm a social service provider. People call me if they need a doctor, a lawyer, referrals to government agencies, whatever." But, he admits, "I like being the guy with the answers."
Board secretary and treasurer Miriam Null, who nominated Haken for the achievement award, agrees: "If you need steak and lots of it, he's the one to go to for recommendations." She says Haken runs a tight ship at board meetings. "He's a real dynamo; very energetic, very devoted. He has his eye on what he wants to accomplish, and will work hard to get there." She describes him as "a tough negotiator but a reasonable person — the quintessential politician."
Haken prefers the term "civil servant." A social studies teacher in New York public schools for 30 years until his retirement in 1995, Haken has long been active in community affairs. He has been on his local community board since 1983, and is vice chairman of the youth committee. He proudly points out that he was the only white person on the Afro-American History Month Committee which organizes events at Grace Episcopal Church in Jamaica, Queens, on Martin Luther King Day. He worked hard for the appointment, which was given to him by Queens Borough President Claire Schulman. He was active in the establishment of three $1,000 scholarships, given to deserving young people by Citicorp. He successfully lobbied to get trees planted in the median strip on Francis Lewis Boulevard.
Born and bred in Jamaica, Queens, Haken is very involved in the local Haitian community; though unmarried, he has a "son," a young Haitian man, and "a Jamaican daughter-in-law." He brings the same sense of discipline to his work as board president. He was responsible for the installation of gas lines in all four of the buildings, which make up the Hilltop Village complex. His devotion extends to small matters, as well.
"If he sees a piece of paper on the lawn, he will pick it up," Null says. "He goes around with the managing agent to see to burned-out light bulbs." She also mentions that he is very strict about graffiti and about garbage in the wrong place. She compares him to a sergeant major, who likes to make sure his co-op is top-notch. "He takes great pride in the way it looks."
Haken admits there is a certain amount of ego in his work. "But," he adds, "I like being involved in things." He calls his reign as board president "a guided democracy." If a job needs doing, it is Haken's responsibility to report to the board that work needs to be done. The more strongly he feels a job needs doing, the more he fights for it. His judgment is clearly respected by the board, or, as he points out, he would not have been elected president for 23 successive years.
"If the board constantly turned down my recommendations, I'd suggest someone else should be president," Haken says, adding that he never suggests anything unless there's money in the treasury for it. Because his co-op is well-run, there is almost always a healthy surplus in the treasury — currently it is in excess of $1 million. One of the reasons for this increase is the contracts Haken worked out with MCI, Sprint, and Nextel to put antennas on the roof of his buildings. They run to a million dollars each, all of which goes straight into the property's treasury.
What, besides hard work, is the secret to his popularity? "Communication," he answers. He generates a newsletter every month, incredibly only missing two months in over two decades. Because of this, he says, things that cause problems in other co-ops don't at Hilltop Village. "For instance, I knew we needed a maintenance increase, so I prepared the residents for it by printing the gas and electric bills months in advance of the increase. Then, when the increase finally came, no one complained about it. They understood; they'd seen the numbers."
Ironically, his efficiency in running the building means that annual shareholder meetings are not very well attended. ("People don't show up unless they've got a gripe," he says.) To generate more attendance at the meetings, the board gives door prizes: VCRs, TVs, rebate checks for one month's maintenance. He even invites the local police captain, congresswoman, assemblyman, and councilman, as well as the Queens district attorney to the gatherings. And they come!
David Weprin, city councilman, has just hired Haken as his community liaison. Haken is pleased, but also finds the idea of the job amusing. After all his years of public service, he is finally being paid for doing civic work. No doubt, he will run a tight ship in his new position. But God help any of Weprin's aides if they so much as toss a gum wrapper on the floor.