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Bridging the Great Divide

Helene Hartig was one of the pioneers. Way back in 1985, when the co-op movement was growing fast, Hartig and her husband Michael bought into a newly converted co-op on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. She became a member of the co-op’s very first board of directors and now, after a hiatus to raise her two sons, she’s back as president.

Over the past three decades, Brooklyn-born and Queens-bred Helene Hartig has seen her co-op – and her city – undergo mindbending changes. As a lawyer specializing in co-ops and condos, she witnessed the bad old days of sponsor defaults, short sales, foreclosures, and management scandals. Today, with the economy galloping and with affluent younger people pouring into the city, the biggest concern for Hartig and her board is figuring out how to bridge the yawning generation gap that has opened up inside their 56-unit, 22-story building.

“The challenge is bringing together the old and the new,” says Hartig, 61, sitting on the building’s sun-splashed rooftop terrace, with a panoramic view of midtown Manhattan spread out behind her. She sports a mop of blond hair, and her rapid-fire speech is punctuated with bursts of laughter. “When you’re a young person in the city, there’s a whole different way of thinking,” she says. “Young people want as many amenities as possible – one-stop shopping, so to speak, a gym, a business lounge. For older people, their biggest concern is keeping expenses down.”

To do that, the board has instituted a 2 percent flip tax, refinanced the mortgage at a competitive rate, and kept maintenance increases small. The board also hired Orsid Realty as managers, for whom Hartig has high praise. Another bridge between the generations is diversity. “Our treasurer is thirty-two years old, and he’s got the pulse of the young people,” Hartig says. “We try to make sure that every voice in the building is represented. Two board members are in their thirties, two are in their forties, two of us are in our sixties, and the oldest is seventy-six.” With the building’s population skewing younger, she’s hopeful younger shareholders will become more involved in the running of the building. The elephant in the room here is technology, one of the biggest wedges separating the generations. “The younger generation is very tech-savvy, and they want everything to be paperless,” Hartig says. “They want virtual board meetings by teleconference to get things done quickly. The older generation prefers to meet people face to face.”

Technology even affects board interviews of prospective buyers. Many ask for interviews via Skype, which brings out the old school in Hartig. “I prefer to sit down in a room with them to size up their demeanor,” she says. “They’re going to be our neighbors for a long time. Nothing beats a face-to-face meeting.”

Such attitudes probably grow out of Hartig’s childhood, when she worked after school and on Sundays in her parents’ mom-and-pop drapery shop on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side. She cut fabric, worked the cash register, and dealt with customers and vendors, who could sometimes be difficult. It was superb training for board service. After earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism at Queens College, Hartig attended St. John’s Law School at night while working full-time for a legal publisher. She eventually opened her own eponymous law firm and rode the wave of co-op conversions.

Which brings us to Hartig’s latest old-school campaign to bridge her co-op’s generation gap. She’s putting together a yard sale, to be held in the building’s courtyard early this fall. Shareholders have already signed up for booths to sell flowers, baked goods, and books, among other things. To help cull the teeming storage bins in the basement, there will be a clothing donation box and a paper shredder. But mainly the event is about getting people together, without smartphones or iPads or Skype. In the flesh. Face to face.

“I was looking for ways to raise a little revenue and build a sense of community,” Hartig says. “It’s about having a relaxed setting where people can get rid of their clutter and meet their neighbors. Mainly, it’s a way for people to connect with each other.”

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