I have always been drawn to small buildings. Within weeks of graduating from high school, I rented a tiny studio atop a five-story townhouse on 38th Street, registered for college night classes, and then snagged a job in the garment center. For the next two years, I lived a quiet life in my 200-square-foot-studio. I shared the top floor with three other young women whose studios were identical to mine; we lived peacefully, mindfully, each of us contained within our pod-like spaces. Each of us had one small window and a romantic glass skylight graced the pitched ceilings. We didn’t see anyone or hear anyone. Except for sending a rent check to the managing agent for $175 each month, I had no involvement with building operations.
The landlord – whoever that was – kept the building and front yard neat and clean, trash disappeared mysteriously. Edward Gorey lived on the parlor floor spinning his magical tales, while Alexis Kirk, the jewelry designer of the moment, lived on the third floor, attracting chic editors from Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar into our environs. I felt like a princess every time I ascended the double-wide stone steps leading to the glass front doors with their scrolling ironwork. Sadly, in the thirty-plus years I have lived in the city since, I have never managed to replicate the genteel atmosphere in which I was lucky to have lived those first two years as I became a city girl. Instead, I have become a stoic board member after trial by fire.
In 1987, I was widowed suddenly and my tenant-landlord lawyer advised me he could no longer guarantee my safety in the tenement building in which I had lived with my husband since 1977. I found a co-op in a newly renovated townhouse on 15th Street and thought I would be returning to the state of grace I had experienced on 38th Street.
However, it turned out the sponsors, long since bankrupt, had left some serious structural problems behind that we had to work to resolve with our neighbor building to the west. But that’s not as easy as it sounds: much bad blood had passed between our buildings because we had gotten the owner’s illegal renovations shut down by the city. He was also cited for illegal venting of his laundry machines. Still, we had to make friends with him because of a crack between a shared wall that allowed water to seep down into the basement unit in our building, causing the oak floor to warp and bellow out.
We needed access and we needed money: how do we do this with all the bad blood? The answer was simple; the board let our tactful managing agent with the melodious voice negotiate a 50/50 resolution. Changing the face for the building – the face of the enemy – proved to be a good tactic.
To the east, we have another four-story rental building that was bought by the current owner after the original one was foreclosed upon. He left behind an overbuilt terrace that can present problems of noise and smoke for the shareholders of our second and third floors. I spoke to the new owner, informed him the terrace was overbuilt and did not seem to be within code, and we agreed that if it was not a source of smoke, barking dogs, and other noise nuisances, our buildings could be friends.
He has, for the most part, kept up his end of the agreement. Often, a friendly conversation between his offending tenant and our shareholders has kept relations good. We have even joined forces against another building where rogue construction has been a nightmare to both our buildings. His lawyers were successful in getting the city to shut them down. We do not have any resources to pay for actions such as this; having him on our side helped.
Co-op living is not for everyone. And though I like small spaces and small buildings, my next home will be in a building with at least 300 shareholders. Or, maybe, 300 renters. Life can be easier, I think.