St. Martin’s Tower
Upper West Side, Manhattan
Nancy Brandon likes living in the city. And twenty-five years ago, at age sixty, she returned from a self-imposed exile in Queens, moving from a house back into an apartment. It was a reversal of the “American dream,” but one that Brandon, now nearly 85, explains matter-of-factly: “I was married, and that’s where my husband wanted to go. He said, ‘I want to live in a house.’” As a result, she spent a good portion of her life as an art teacher in a junior high school, living away from the urban bustle, “the rumble of the subway train, the rattle of the taxi.”
“I love community,” she says, adding that when people used to ask her, “Where do you live?” she would always reply: “I live in Queens, but I’m trying to get back to Manhattan.”
While there, she felt frustrated by the lack of urban-style community. She tried to start a block association, but, she recalls, “It never quite got off the ground.” She had more success, however, with a community garden – “We lived in this street that had a large mall down the middle, and with a few other people in the area, we did keep it up” – and a traffic light to control a dangerous speeding problem – but she felt it was all a struggle, that the attitude was different “out there.”
Indeed, the urban life was what she craved. “I was raised in the city,” she observes, recalling that she attended the High School of Music and Art on Convent Avenue near City College when it was uptown and called the “Castle on the Hill,” and later attended Hunter College. “I’m a painter, and I like to paint every day. I studied to be a musician, playing the harp, but it took fifteen years before I realized that I was not very good.” Still, she admits that music is a very big part of her life; her seventeen-year-old granddaughter is studying music with hopes of becoming an opera singer. “It’s good to have dreams,” says Brandon with a laugh.
After her husband died in 1978, she remained in the house with her son and daughter and their spouses until 1990, when the extended families moved to homes of their own and Brandon moved back to Manhattan. There, she bought a limited equity co-op apartment in St. Martin’s Tower, a 178-unit high-rise at 65 West 90th Street in Manhattan.
Naturally, she ran for the board and subsequently served for twelve years. She was the chair of the garden committee (and now serves as a member) and has been quite involved in the social committee, most recently organizing a party for the superintendent and setting up a flea market. She has also been active in coordinating with the Naturally Occurring Retirement Committee and with the Block Association, staging a Halloween party and a dog show (albeit at different times).
“If you notice, we have two public terraces in the front and planters all around,” she says. “On our second floor, we have a very, very large private terrace, just for the residents of the building. I’ve always been involved in the planting and the cleaning up of all of those.”
She likes to promote local activities. “The programs they have at Goddard Riverside, in different buildings, are free. From January until March, they had a huge book club for the Upper West Side, and an Ethiopian author, rather well known, read from his books. You were able to buy the books at discount, and then at different sites on the Upper West Side, you could go and discuss the book, and that was called ‘The Big Read.’ I assume they [will] do it again next year, with another local author; it was a wonderful experience. I’m always surprised that more young people, I guess because of their busy lives, are not able to take more advantage of these free or very moderately priced programs. I promote [them], because [they’re] such fabulous things. So much happens here in Manhattan. When it’s right in your neighborhood and just steps away, then it’s almost your obligation to try to promote it and support it.”
She stepped down from the board several years ago, and recently noted: “It’s one of those things where you do your civic duty, you are responsible for certain policies, and things that happen in the building. But it takes time and effort, do you know what I’m saying? After you’ve done your time, let someone else do this.”
Nonetheless, she has recently re-upped for a thirteenth term because she hoped to push forward an idea that had long been on the back burner: converting the limited equity co-op to a market rate property with no waiting lists for apartments, no income restrictions on resales, and the ability to pass the apartment on to a family members.
“I believe in affordable housing,” she explains, “but I would also like to leave something to my granddaughter.”’ She says she knows what it’s like to be kept out, to have doors shut in her face. Many times in the 1950s and 1960s, her light-skinned husband would be accepted as a renter for a property in an upscale neighborhood in Great Neck or Crown Heights, only to be turned down when she would show up. “They saw that I was colored and they made up some excuse for not accepting us. But we knew it was racism.” She adds: “So even though I believe in the concept of limited equity housing, I also believe in leaving something to my family. I’ve paid my dues. I’ve been disenfranchised so often; there are times when you have to be self-serving.”
Her advice to new owners is not surprising: “Get involved. I think that being involved where you live is important. You want to have some input [about] where you live, [otherwise] you can’t gripe when other people make decisions for you. I think one of the reasons that I have a kind of longevity is because I’m participating in life.”