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Habitat Magazine October 2020 free digital issue

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ARCHIVE ARTICLE

The Gatekeeper

Christine Bergen
Chairwoman of the Admissions Committee
Glen Oaks Village
Resident since: 1979
Committee member:23 years
Hometown: Farmingdale, Long Island

 

Glen Oaks Village is aptly named. It’s a cooperative, but with 2,904 units in 134 buildings running along curved, tree-lined streets in northeastern Queens, it is more like an actual village than its vertical co-op cousins in Manhattan. Built in 1947 as a rental and converted to a co-op in 1981, the complex spreads over 110 acres. The red-brick buildings are immaculately maintained.

Christine Bergen is the chief gatekeeper of this green oasis. She seems an unlikely guardian: five-foot-four and wiry, with short brown hair, she looks much younger than her 73 years. Sipping coffee in her tidy living room, she comes across as polite, almost shy, but becomes intense and animated when she starts talking about the co-op’s house rules and her role as chairwoman of the admissions committee, a post that – along with board secretary – she has held for 23 years.

“We mean business,” Bergen says. In fact, a big part of the committee’s role is to impress upon newcomers the rules, which promote safety, harmony, community, and a bucolic look that, in such a large complex, could easily become rundown.  Adds Bob Friedrich, the long-time board president, “Knowing the rules means that everybody has a stake in the general welfare and well-being of the co-op and the quality of life. We have a co-op here of 10,000 residents and we have very few problems. On some co-ops, there’s always a battle between the board and the shareholders. Not here.”

Bergen makes it clear that the house rules at Glen Oaks are dramatically different from their city counterparts. Those rules – rarely discussed at admission interviews in Manhattan – frequently take up a handful of pages, with prohibitions that residents discover only when they defy them. The rules at Glen Oaks, on the other hand, could more appropriately be labeled “Village Rules,” ensuring that this massive oasis maintains its storybook look as a garden enclave far from the madding crowd.

Bergen and the board rely on the admission process to make sure all new residents are keenly aware of what’s in the house rules, which are presented in a 32-page booklet. Remarkably, each rule lists the dollar fine the co-op will impose if a rule is broken. If you obstruct or decorate courtyards or public areas, for instance, the first fine is $50, the second, $75, and the third, a cool $100. If you incorrectly install an air conditioner, the fine is $100, with $100-a-month fine until it is corrected. And if you sublet your apartment without following the house rules, take note: a shareholder recently paid a $1,000 fine when she sublet, without the co-op’s permission, through Airbnb.

It makes sense, then, that the rules are the centerpiece of the weekly admissions committee meetings. With up to a dozen buyers and subletters coming before the 12-member body every week, shareholder representatives make certain that – unlike the practices in city co-ops – everyone receives and reads the rules in advance. In fact, the committee will refuse to interview someone until he or she has read and understood the rules.

Everything else is fairly standard. Finances are vetted by the property manager before the admissions committee conducts its interview, which usually runs about 45 minutes. The committee consists of shareholders, some of whom are board members, with about six or seven attending every week, and the remainder on a bi-weekly schedule, or as needed if there’s a heavy volume of applicants. Bergen, who doesn’t stage interviews herself, is always present, organized, and ready.

Born and educated in Farmingdale, she attributes her success to her parents. Her mother was the first female school bus driver on Long Island, while her father was a welder for Grumman Aircraft. “My mom was very kind and very patient,” she says. What did she get from her dad? “The work ethic. He worked three jobs. He was always working.”

Bergen and her husband Harry have been married for 35 years and have lived in Glen Oaks since 1979. She once worked as a real estate broker, but for most of the past 27 years, she has served as an executive secretary at the Fresh Meadows Country Club in Lake Success. It’s there that she says she developed her organizational skills and learned “how to deal with people,” which helps her on the co-op’s admission committee.

Bergen notes that getting residents to follow the rules is an ongoing battle. “You’re still going to have problems,” she says, “because people are still going to break the rules, even if they know what they are. Sometimes, they claim they don’t know.” She smiles, always the skeptical gatekeeper. “A shareholder said she wasn’t aware of the rule [about sublets], but we weren’t too sure about that – because she had been on my committee years and years ago.”

Ironically, Bergen, the tough committee chair, has never had to face such scrutiny herself. “I came here as a renter,” she says. “It became a co-op two years after I moved in.”

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