I had misgivings about throwing Luis a party this year. As organizer of my Tribeca co-op’s annual breakfast gathering for our long-time superintendent, I was concerned less with low turnout at 7:30 in the morning than about the potential for a verbal melee in the mailroom. With threats of lawsuits being flung among shareholders, the tradition of singing “Happy Birthday” to Luis and sharing squares of Entenmann’s Coffee Cake could get a lot messier than the usual white powdered-sugar crumbs scattered over our dark tile floor ever did.
Conflict did not always have such a foothold in our building. Until a few years ago, ours had been that rare vertical dwelling: a cooperative where residents lived cooperatively. Neighbors generally could be counted on to work out the kinks of side-by-side existence in a reasonable manner. Like my downstairs neighbor who stoically weathered my children’s early attempts at violin, piano, judo, and gymnastics and still managed to comment – after a spirited tap dance practice – that my daughter was “really coming along with her time step.” Or my upstairs neighbors, one of whom tracked her radiator leak into my apartment even before I knew the floor was wet, while the other, then a boy, used to lull my then-young children to sleep with the muffled rhythm of his bouncing basketball.
But now on those days when I am fortunate to find myself in the mailroom with a fellow shareholder who is not complaining about another neighbor or demanding some repair be done faster, better or cheaper, the hushed conversation is always the same: what has happened to our building?
The answer confounds because there is no single issue to resolve, no dividing line among residents. Instead, we seem to be suffering the effects of a mass delusion, the growing belief in the existence of a phantom “building” responsible for homeowner woes big and small. Disappointment was inevitable because ours is not a hotel with a 24-hour front-desk clerk to field complaints. As co-op residents, we shareholders are responsible for maintaining our little corner of Manhattan, doing the best we can within the limits imposed by Mother Nature, physics, building codes, the availability of competent workers, and the desire to raise our monthly maintenance as infrequently as possible.
But we all knew this before putting pen to mortgage. What, then, explains our deterioration in a few short years from a community willing to get out of bed early to celebrate the super’s birthday into a collection of individuals prepared to sue our own neighbors – and our own co-op – in a Woody Allen-like entanglement of contradictory relationships?
My money is on the new intercom.
Given that the troubles began after Tribeca went from being a sleepy, almost suburban outpost to one of Manhattan’s toniest neighborhoods, it would be easy to blame the newcomers. With their fat wallets and toned thighs, the young and successful have funded the retirement of many an older Tribecan by purchasing for millions of dollars units originally acquired for thousands. But as a co-op, we were careful to accept only those hardy fugitives from uptown’s amenities who were intrigued by our minimalist aesthetic: no doorman and no well-appointed lobby.
Still, only one quirk gave potential shareholders pause: the intercom. We didn’t have one of those, either. At least not one that opened the front door of the building. Visitors could buzz an apartment from the street and talk to someone upstairs, but the system was not wired to allow a resident who, say, just stepped out of the tub or was in the midst of stirring hot broth into the risotto simply to push a button to admit a guest. We would have to go down to the front door to let them in.
Two decades ago, I went to my interview before the board of directors like so many who came after, assuming the flawed intercom system was an oversight that would be quickly remedied once I brought it to their attention. Instead, I was told what I, as a board member myself, would go on to tell to all those who followed me in the applicant’s chair: that going downstairs to admit people into the building was our highly reliable security system. The theory was that we were immeasurably safer in this comparatively deserted neighborhood if babysitters, houseguests, and the occasional slothful shareholder could not simply press a button in response to a buzzer, thereby risking admission into the building of someone up to no good.
Hugely pregnant at the time, I worried how I would simultaneously manage a sleeping newborn in the nursery and the grocery delivery guy at the building door. How would I stop my mother and father from slipping the baby ice cream while I ran downstairs to let in my husband’s parents?
The answer came soon after moving day. Neighbors.
The lobby, that unadorned hallway connecting the elevator to the front door, was our town square, the piazza of our building. Neighbors always could be found either on their way to or from it, opening the main door to admit deliveries for themselves or for a neighbor in a bind. In the evening, we knew who was getting takeout from where, who had found a new restaurant, who had been sent bad shrimp by another. During the day, stay-at-home parents, freelancers, and artists accepted deliveries for those who worked elsewhere. When someone gave a party, kids in the building were hired to stand sentry at the front door to let in guests and send them on up. While social boundaries were observed and we never devolved to the anarchy of a college dorm, we were neighbors in the most small town sense of the word.
But by 2000, Tribeca was no longer a frontier. Real estate prices and new construction were soaring. As ours became Manhattan’s “it” neighborhood, attracting the rich and richer, the rational for our Luddite-like intercom was rendered obsolete. We who had done the front door trek for decades dizzy with fever, cradling sleeping babies, and holding together the ends of bathrobes finally voted to install the real thing.
What we had not considered was that all luxuries come with a hidden price. Waterfront homes flood. Hilltop homes slide. The Hummer gets scratched. Once you start buzzing people in, your neighbors become strangers.
The new intercom exposed unknown fault lines throughout the building. “I haven’t seen you in ages” became the new “Hello.” We had voted for a capital improvement that cost plenty of the former while providing dubious amounts of the latter. Technology made it easier to admit guests and deliveries, but we were losing touch with each other.
This was not the first time I had lived in a neighborhood felled by technology. Growing up on Long Island during the 1960s, I would wake for school to the sound of neighbors greeting each other as they pulled open heavy, creaky wooden garage doors. A word or two would pass about the weather, the war, the Giants. The “click, click” of a dead battery was quickly followed by the fumbling of jumper cables as a neighbor’s car pulled into the driveway to offer a charge. But by the time I returned from college, the block seemed deserted. No one had moved away, but everyone had installed electric garage door openers. People were now going directly from kitchen to car, pulling out of and later back into their driveways without more than a nod to the rare passerby. The same people were now separated by the isolation that comes from leaving the group for the privacy of the pod.
And so it was with our intercom. Holed up in our apartments, we could more easily inflate our own needs while dismissing those of our neighbors. Leaks, broken elevators, and hall décor were all reasons to grouse. Then threaten. And now sue.
Still, one constant remains. Our super. And regardless of the dramas, his birthday was coming. “Luis should have his party,” my upstairs neighbor said. “It will be good for all of us.” She was right. By the time the candles were lit, an amiable group had assembled in the mailroom. As we stood side-by-side nibbling coffee cake, I caught a glimpse of a happier time. Neighbors gathered downstairs, laughing, talking, and teasing Luis for being surprised year after year, decade after decade. Bits of white powdered-sugar crumbs tumbled off of napkins, down the fronts of trousers and skirts, sweat pants and shorts, jeans and pajama bottoms. Maybe we can make do with the crumbs. Maybe where there is still cake, there is hope.