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City and Country

I live in two worlds. My husband and I belong to a co-op in lower Manhattan and a homeowners’ association (HOA) in southern Connecticut. It’s a paradox: the properties have nothing in common, and they have everything in common. Both city and country homes have neighbors within yelling distance, which is good in an emergency and embarrassing during an argument. We can walk to each residence from an MTA station and also bike on nearby waterside paths along the Hudson River or by the Long Island Sound. During Hurricane Sandy, the flooding of these waterways stopped short of our New York building and our Connecticut house. That was good luck. Buying these properties in scruffy neighborhoods before they became popular and real estate values rose was dumb luck. Thinking an HOA would be easier to live in than a co-op was just dumb.

We thought that buying outside the city would give us freedom from proprietary leases and house rules. But we quickly realized our mistake. The annual co-op and HOA meetings occur within weeks of each other. At both gatherings, the board reports on upcoming assessments, territorial squabbles, the cost of maintaining trees and plants, and the inevitable increase in annual maintenance and dues.

Attendees are divided into the same three groups: those who do all the work, those who do all the complaining, and those (like me) who sit silently and bolt out as soon as the meeting is adjourned. Usually both annual meetings conclude with self-congratulations, when one resident rises to declare how lucky we are to live in peace with our neighbors, followed by applause in a moment of collective amnesia.

In reality, since both boards are reluctant to referee disputes, members of the co-op and the HOA often resort to minor acts of aggression. In the city, when a resident finds a full garbage bag in the lobby, he might take the time to inspect its contents and then leave the un-resealed bag outside its owner’s apartment door. In the country, a Sinatra lover might turn up the volume on his outdoor speakers, using the Chairman of the Board to block out Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” blasting from sound system next door.

I try to steer clear of disputes, but when the activities in my apartment or house negatively affect my neighbors, they are not shy about letting me know. In the city, that happened when the new people in the apartment below said they heard scraping on their ceiling at night. That would be me, dragging the bedroom chair between the reading lamp and the television. After they complained, I put felt pads on the legs of the chair. In the country, my neighbor raised a different issue: dying branches from an old willow tree that was threatening to fall on his roof. He asked me to prune them, and I complied.

But sometimes, the request is beyond reason. This happens more often in Connecticut, where freestanding houses, even in an HOA, come with built-in expectations of sovereignty. After the woman next door replaced her old tract house with a Nantucket-inspired “McMansion” – a suburban construction that attempts to invoke a recognizable style and is often too large for its lot – she complained, without embarrassment, that the builder had mistakenly oriented her new house toward my driveway.

She wanted me to solve her problem by planting mature, driveway-hiding trees on my side of our shared border. She invited me to sit on her front porch to experience its uninspiring view of my garage. When I suggested she simply plant whatever she wanted on her own property, she argued that that would make her yard feel too small.

After that, I tried to avoid her and only got caught at the annual meeting. I pacified her with a promise to consider her request. But our saga came to an end when new neighbors on the other side of her home moved in and replaced the old ranch with a tall, thin Mc(Addams Family)Mansion. That was more than she could take. She gave up the battle and moved away – hopefully to much wider pastures.
As for me, I prefer the narrower pastures of the city. Still, whether we sold the house or the co-op, many aspects of my life would stay the same. I would still ride my bike along the water’s edge and still fight to stay engaged at the next annual meeting. And I would still grumble about the next assessment.

The biggest loss in either place, however, would be our neighbors who have become friends. No more just passing by and dropping in. No more spur-of-the-moment suppers. No more neighbor visiting with soup who appears at the door when I’m sick. But for now, at least, I needn’t worry. We are staying put, living in our two different but very familiar worlds.

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