To many co-op and condo owners, the following scene may be startling: a board meeting filled with petty (and not so petty) prejudices writ large.
“It’s not on the agenda, but I think we need to talk about the use of the elevators,” says Coles, a 70-something co-op board director, who is sitting with other board members and a managing agent in a posh Fifth Avenue apartment.
“What’s the question?” asks Doug, an intense 40-year-old director.
“Well, who rides on what elevators?”
“The tenants ride on the front elevators,” Doug says. “What’s the issue?”
“Well...what about the people who work for the tenants?”
“Our maid has always used the front elevator.”
“Oh, I don’t have any problem with your maid. She seems like a very nice young woman. She’s an Irish girl, isn’t she?”
“Well, I’m the least prejudiced person in the world, but the other day I got on the elevator and there was a strange black man in there.”
“A strange black man?” asks Doug, amused.
“Yes. I’m not embarrassed to say I was somewhat uncomfortable... The minute he got off, I asked David, the [elevator] operator, and he said he’s the new houseman for the Willoughbys... Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t have any problem with black people. It was just startling. He was a large man and it is a smallish elevator.”
The discussion continues (“We wouldn’t want a strange man, black or any color, riding the elevator with our wives,” argues one director). After voting to require hired help to ride in the freight elevator, the board soon turns to pets, and Bill, who works for the manager, talks about requiring height limits for dogs in the building. “You wouldn’t want to get on an elevator and have a Great Dane staring you in the eye,” he says.
“Or a strange black man,” deadpans Doug.
Can a board actually have been involved in such a discussion? Well, yes – and no. It is, in fact, only a reflection of real life in the days before the famous Nicholas Biondi case made such discriminatory talk less blatant and board members more circumspect (Biondi was a board president who was held personally liable for damages in a discrimination lawsuit brought by an interracial couple who were rejected for a sublet in Biondi’s building). The exchange cited above actually comes from actor/writer/radio-talk-show-host Charles Grodin’s new play, The Right Kind of People, which will open at New York’s Primary Stages, at 59 East 59th Street on February 7, 2006. (Three scenes from the play were read by Grodin and a group of actors at a gala benefit for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum at the Roosevelt Hotel in midtown Manhattan on May 19.)
A scathing satire of the absurdities – and often ignored responsibilities – of co-op board members, the play is drawn partly from Grodin’s own experiences from 1986 to 1992 when he served as a director at a luxury Fifth Avenue cooperative off Central Park. Grodin, much like his surrogate in the play, Doug Bernstein, was drafted by a fellow director to serve on the board. “They asked me on because they didn’t think I was a wild partygoer or a Hollywood type,” he says.
The idea for the drama came to him during his first meeting, following a discussion of a prospective purchaser for an apartment. “The board said something which I thought at first was a joke. They were going to turn someone down because he bought his suits off the rack. I said, ‘Well, I buy mine off the rack.’ And someone said, ‘We can tell.’ That was when I thought, ‘There’s a play here.’”
It all seemed absurd to him – but also a little frightening, since boards were allowed to practice what Grodin terms “legally sanctioned bigotry.” He began taking copious notes at meetings – “I was respected for my dedication to the job; no one imagined I was taking notes for a play” – and sought out real estate attorneys and brokers for more information. What he found was that his board was not an anomaly; abuses existed citywide. “I’m sure it’s a national problem,” he says.
Although he acknowledges that co-op boards fulfill a necessary function, he thinks that a great number of people get carried away by their power. He points to his own co-op. During his term of service, a dissident group, angry at the way things were being run, rose up and replaced the sitting board. Seeing Grodin as a kindred spirit, the rebels asked him to join them. He did, but says that the new board quickly became as bad as the old one; the only difference was that they were focused on different issues.
“There’s a lot that’s good about co-ops,” Grodin admits. “After all, they own the building and they’ve got to take care of the property. But a lot of it is about prejudice. Lawyers tell them not to give reasons for why they turned a purchaser down. They know what they’re doing.”
Grodin, who moved to Connecticut after leaving the co-op, spent 12 years writing and workshopping the play (which has seen four incarnations and had its premiere in San Francisco last November). With each version, he has tried to strengthen the characters and make them more complex. His intention, he says, is not to slam co-op boards but to shine a light on problems that currently exist in co-ops in particular and society in general.
“I don’t think it’s all black and white. People are not all good or all bad. This is a complicated situation,” he admits. “On my CBS radio commentary, whenever I talk about a controversial subject, I try to give a very balanced view, because the issues can be complicated. What I’m saying here is that with co-op boards, there is a possibility for abuse.” He adds: “My intention was to be provocative. To get people thinking about the issues. I think the situation reflects the world at large. Bigotry exists everywhere, in all 50 states. Some people feel more uncomfortable when they see a black man coming down the street than they would if it were a white man. It’s ingrained. People have a comfort level – they look for ‘our kind of people’ – the right kind of people.”
THE RIGHT KIND OF MUSEUM
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which featured the reading of excerpts from The Right Kind of People, Charles Grodin’s new play about co-ops and discrimination, was founded in 1988 to promote tolerance and historical perspective “through the presentation and interpretation of the variety of immigrant and migrant experiences on Manhattan’s Lower East Side,” according to a spokeswoman. The museum’s tenement building, at 97 Orchard Street in Manhattan, has been designated a national historic landmark. In 2004, the museum hosted more than 119,000 public and group tour visitors. For more information: www.tenement.org.