There was a revolution in an Upper East Side co-op. It was triggered by a parrot named Phoenix.
Ahsen Chowdhury and his wife had given the bird to their 11-year-old daughter, and for a year they all lived in harmony in their two-bedroom apartment in a 42-unit co-op in the Carnegie Hill section of Manhattan. Then one day, after a neighbor complained that Phoenix was making too much noise, the five-member co-op board ordered the Chowdhurys to get rid of the parrot – even though, by law, boards have a 90-day window to evict a troublesome pet. Their daughter was devastated. Chowdhury printed pictures of Phoenix and slipped fliers under apartment doors, urging his neighbors to attend the upcoming annual meeting and push back against the board’s arbitrary – and illegal – action.
There were misgivings in the building that went deeper than the board’s treatment of the Chowdhurys’ parrot. The sponsor still owned a dozen apartments and effectively controlled the five-member board, which had been in place for years. The sponsor also managed the building, and board members treated the super like their personal employee.
At the annual meeting in 2014, many shareholders showed up with pictures of Phoenix pinned to their clothing – a clear indication of where they stood on the avian controversy. Chowdhury had hired attorney Howard Schechter to write a letter to the board, protesting the attempted eviction of Phoenix. At the packed meeting, Chowdhury argued that the sponsor should not be running the co-op, and enough shareholders agreed with him to vote in three new board members, tipping the balance of power away from the sponsor.
“The bird got the board kicked out – and the Phoenix cult got elected,” says Chowdhury, who, at the age of 70, still has a boyish laugh. “The majority of the shareholders agreed there was no reason to get rid of the bird. It was like a revolution.”
An Environment Of Friendliness
A year later, Chowdhury’s wife joined the board as treasurer. Educated in Beijing and Singapore before coming to New York to manage databases at the United Nations, she brought an analytical mind to the co-op’s finances. The new board hired a new super and brought in Blue Woods Management, and eventually the last of the sponsor-backed board members were voted out. Last year, Chowdhury took over as treasurer. He, too, brought special qualifications to the role. The son of a doctor, Chowdhury was born in Lahore, Pakistan, in 1949, two years after the partition of India by the British had created Pakistan and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Those were turbulent times, as many Muslim families like the Chowdhurys moved west into Pakistan while many Hindus and Sikhs moved east into India. The dislocations and ethnic violence left as many as a million dead.
But Ahsen Chowdhury had a relatively charmed life. The second of nine children, he devoured books as a boy, everything from Plato to Hemingway, and after receiving a college degree in political science and economics, he earned a master’s of business administration from the University of Southern California’s extension school in Karachi. He then went to work in marketing for Exxon, where he was soon teaching himself to write computer code and create database systems. In 1971, acting on a lifelong fascination with American culture – and a growing weariness with the turmoil in his homeland – Chowdhury moved to New York City. The day after he arrived, he landed a job writing code for a shipping company’s payroll systems. After stints with American Express and Target, he got hired by the U.N. to design computer systems for payrolls, pensions, and legal documents. It was there that he met his wife. After a lightning courtship, they were married, and in 2003 their daughter was born. Eight years later, the family moved into the Carnegie Hill co-op.
When he joined the board last year, Chowdhury faced a challenge quite different from the one his wife had faced. “My last job at the U.N. was doing audits and internal oversight, so I knew how that worked,” he says, “but I was seeing horrendous personality conflicts on the board, screaming and in-fighting. I think I brought diplomacy from my years at the U.N. First, I try to create an environment of friendliness, and then get people to stay on the subject and keep the discussion objective, not personal. Make it a more collegial environment.”
And always remember, he adds, that a co-op is a democracy.
“We were picked by the shareholders, and we’re all equal. Today there are still differences of opinion, but I think we’re doing quite well at getting things done without the in-fighting. I feel good about it. Even the super is smiling.”