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Old Guard versus Newbies

Cooperators are supposed to cooperate, right? In the best of all possible worlds, yes. But in our imperfect world...well, if you want to learn just how hard it can be for co-op boards to cooperate with neighboring co-op boards – and for neighbors to cooperate with neighbors – take a visit to the gorgeous communal gardens of the Jackson Heights Historic District. Its beauty belies its battles.

A century ago, after the opening of the Queensborough Bridge, a visionary developer named Edward Archibald MacDougall trained his eye on 325 acres in Queens. It was farmland at the time, but MacDougall saw something quite different. He saw cooperative apartments with lavish shared gardens that would become a green oasis in the heart of a frantically growing city.

And so in 1917, the year the Interborough Rapid Transit (No. 7) subway line extension arrived, MacDougall unveiled a complex of 14 low-rise buildings arranged around a communal garden. Inspired by the Garden City movement in England, he dubbed it “The Garden Apartments,” a most appropriate name because they were to become the first co-op garden apartments in America. Over the next eight years, as the 1920s began to roar, MacDougall built more than 1,000 units facing some kind of green space and gave each complex a name to befit its elegance: The Towers, Greystones, The Chateau, Hawthorne Court, The Willows.

Today, MacDougall’s oasis forms the heart of the Jackson Heights Historic District. The area’s most unique feature – all that green space – has been both a magnet and a headache in recent years. Newcomers, attracted by the beauty, end up battling old-timers over the future.

Ask Gloria Daini. Her family moved into Greystones in 1955. Six years later, she moved into Linden Court, ten co-op buildings that surround communal gardens between Roosevelt and 37th Avenues. Those gardens have been both blessing and curse.

“The biggest bone of contention is the gardens,” says Daini, 76, who’s now president of her 16-unit co-op’s board of directors. “Should people be allowed to walk on the grass? Should children be allowed to play on the grass? Should people be allowed to barbecue?”

The questions became so pressing and the answers so elusive and divisive that the board decided to act several years ago. The problem at Linden Court, as in the rest of the historic district, is that the garden is shared space, but each of the ten buildings that surround it is a self-contained co-op. Getting ten independent corporations to cooperate has not proven easy.

“We decided we had to do something, we had to find a compromise,” Daini says. “So we formed a committee with people from each of the 10 buildings. We met several times and drew up several drafts of rules, then refined them. We sent them to each building, got their suggestions, and made more modifications.”

Today, all potential apartment buyers receive a copy of the resulting five pages of rules governing the communal gardens. They know, before buying, that the gardens are there for “quiet enjoyment” and “passive recreation.” It’s okay to sit on the grass and for toddlers to play on the grass; but there is to be no music, no alcohol, no barbecuing, no picnicking, and no playing on the grass.

One source of the recent friction, according to Daini and many others, is the changing nature of Jackson Heights. As one quip has it, Jackson Heights is the new Park Slope. Young couples starting families are finding that Queens is more affordable – and sometimes much more bucolic – than the priciest Brooklyn neighborhoods.

What some of these new arrivals fail to realize is that many of the people living in the Jackson Heights Historic District co-ops have been there for years. The old guard remembers the days when the communal gardens were muddy, run-down magnets for vandals and criminals, littered with baby diapers and used syringes. Those long-term residents helped bring about the rebirth of the gardens, and they were here when the neighborhood was designated a historic district by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1993. As a result, they are frequently averse to sudden change.

“What has happened is that the price of everything has gone up, but the old guard doesn’t want to spend the money,” says Daini. “The people moving in want to do the expensive jobs. That’s where the culture clash is. The young ones don’t want to listen to the older people – it’s like listening to their parents. The old people hold back because they don’t feel you should be spending everything you have to do things all at once.”

Despite this generation gap, Daini believes the rules governing the communal gardens are the one area where the Linden Court co-ops have learned to cooperate. “But,” she acknowledges, “it’s very hard to satisfy everyone.”

She won’t get an argument about that from Ron Gonella. A retired teacher, Gonella, 66, moved into Hawthorne Court in 1973 and, after serving on his building’s co-op board in various capacities, is now president of the Garden Association, which oversees the maintenance and use of the communal gardens.

For many years, Gonella says, policies governing Hawthorne Court’s gardens were very restrictive. “You could look at the grass but don’t touch it!” he says. The “siege mentality” was so entrenched that there were only two or three garden events open to all 14 co-op buildings every year. And the gardens were not opened to the public for the popular walking tours sponsored every summer by the Jackson Heights Beautification Group.

That began to change when Gonella joined the Garden Association about seven years ago. “I have tried to bring people along from the idea of ‘Don’t touch the grass!’ to the point where we have one or two major court-wide events each month, when people have unlimited access to all common areas. We’re trying to slowly open up the lawn. Our landscaper warns us we have to go slow because the grass in the spring is fragile.”

But as at Linden Court and several other co-ops in the district, the new arrivals at Hawthorne Court don’t want to go slow. “What’s happening,” says Gonella, “is that families with younger kids are moving in, they see the list of garden events, and they decide they’d like to see things changed yesterday. One mother wanted unfettered access to the gardens for her children, 24/7, simply because it’s there. Another woman said her husband has a very stressful job and likes to sit on the lawn and read his New York Times at the end of the day. Another woman started holding yoga classes on the lawn.”

This culture clash was bound to produce sparks, and it did. In the summer of 2007, a group of new arrivals launched an aggressive campaign to ease the garden rules. “Change is an evolutionary process,” Gonella says, “but [the new arrivals] don’t have an institutional memory. They’re very impatient. It almost became a test of them against us.”

The newcomers proposed a set of revised rules. Some even threatened to take control of one-fourteenth of the communal area and secede from the court-wide Hawthorne Court Council. The discussions, says Gonella, got “nasty and hard-edged.”

In the past, each of the 14 buildings that surround the garden got one vote on issues affecting the communal space, similar to the electoral college in national elections. This time, however, each shareholder unit was allotted one vote. When the votes were tallied, it was 77-63 in favor of keeping the existing rules but continuing to study possible changes.

There are encouraging signs that a dialogue is developing. At the recent wine and cheese party in the garden, the traditional summer kick-off, about one-fifth of the 120 celebrants were toddlers. One 90-year old woman looked down the table and remarked, “My, look at all the little people!”

Gonella was delighted. “I was pleased to see a certain amount of interaction between the two groups,” he says. “Of course there was some screaming like you get on a playground, but the older residents were able to see that if this happens only once or twice a month, the gardens will be able to handle it.”

Meanwhile, the parents have asked for three more picnic dates during the summer, a request that the Garden Association and the Hawthorne Court Council are now considering.

“I feel we should listen,” says Mary Reddy, a resident since 1986 who is now president of her Hawthorne Court co-op board and president of the court-wide council. “We have evolved and we’ll evolve more as we get more young couples with young children. However, we want to maintain these as garden apartments. It’s not a football field and it’s not a playground. There’s a noise factor when you have a number of children playing outdoors. The children should be watched at all times.”

While she’s pleased with the progress, Reddy concedes that differences remain between the old guard and the new arrivals. “I’m concerned there will be more friction,” she says.

Daniel Karatzas may know the neighborhood as well as anyone. A resident of Hampton Court since 1987, he’s currently president of one of its 11 co-op boards. He’s also the author of Jackson Heights: A Garden in the City, the definitive history of Edward Archibald MacDougall’s dream.

“Getting 10 people [in a building] to agree is one thing,” Karatzas says, “but getting 130 people [on the court] to agree is something else. It tends to fall into factions. People who’ve been here a long time don’t always see the sense in changing.”

But the main issue, he contends, is not length of residency. It’s level of participation. “The people who’ve done most of the work in the green spaces are more concerned about things getting trampled,” Karatzas says. “What I’ve learned from living in New York City is that everybody can have an opinion. But is it an informed opinion? Have they contributed in the past? If they haven’t contributed, I don’t think their opinion is as valid. If you’re really concerned, you should get involved.”

“I would agree,” says Gonella. “A lot of the newer families, with both parents working, maybe think they don’t have the time to participate. We would very much like the kids to come out on planting days, for example. They haven’t yet, but maybe that will change.”

So what’s the key?

“The key to a happy co-op, if such a thing exists, is having people who really talk to each other,” says Daini, of Linden Court. “And you’ve got to have people who put the building’s interest above their own self-interest.”

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