New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Business of Management 2021

HABITAT

ARCHIVE ARTICLE

The Frugal and the Free-Spending Come Together

My Lower Manhattan co-op used to feel like a combination of a good college dorm and the bar in “Cheers.” Everybody knew your name, and you could borrow a belt, a bottle of wine or a few minutes of baby-sitting just by knocking on a door. Now, Tribeca is in flux. Residents from the last millennium are selling their apartments to pay for retirement. Newer residents are coming for a toddler’s paradise.

The effect these changes could have on our co-op dominated conversation at a small farewell party for longtime shareholders, a couple who are retiring and selling their apartment to a family with young kids. This transaction is emblematic not just of a generational turnover in our building but also of a widening financial gap among shareholders. With newer owners spending six times more for their apartments than original shareholders paid, neighbors at the farewell party wondered if our co-op’s low-key culture is in jeopardy.

Our board has been able to keep costs relatively low by financing required maintenance but rarely approving the cosmetic upgrades found in other Tribeca buildings. When our newest residents get on the board, a guest asked the group, what kind of expensive amenities would they vote in? My neighbors replied by ticking off a list of possibilities that might have been their own Lotto-winning fantasies, such as a doorman in the lobby, Pilates equipment in the basement and a Japanese soaking tub on the roof. One original shareholder came clean: “Well,” she sighed, “I wouldn’t mind central air.”

How can shareholders with such misaligned financial and generational stakes find common ground? By the time dessert was served, an answer began to take shape.

We would throw a party.

 

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I joined three other longtime shareholders in forming a party committee. Together we would plan the event, which would be financed on the cheap by our board. The buildingwide gathering would be the first of its kind in our co-op’s 40-year history, not counting our meagerly and begrudgingly attended annual meetings. I took it as a good sign that I was already forging new connections just by working on the party with neighbors who, until then, I hadn’t interacted with much beyond passing hellos.

At our committee meetings, we shared our experiences in the building and maybe one or two tales out of school while we came to easy decisions about the party location (my apartment), menu (finger food, no utensils), paper plates and plastic cups (compostable), floral arrangement (a glorious splurge) and drinks (champagne, wine, water and, for our new crop of children, hot chocolate with mini marshmallows).

In hopes of a big turnout, the artist on the committee created a beautiful invitation from an old photo of a horse-drawn cart in front of our building. We sent it off, and then waited. Unsure of how the idea would fly, I was pleased when the first replies came immediately – all from shareholders who have lived in the building the longest. More than a week later the next wave of answers trickled in – from shareholders who had arrived in the building a bit later. Finally, after a nail-biting wait and with the party only days away, the newest shareholders weighed in. By party time, astonishingly, neighbors from all but three apartments were coming.

But could we get them to blend? When guests began to arrive at 6:30, we handed out name tags that included apartment numbers, a dicey choice for a casual party but one met with surprising approval. One neighbor whispered, “Can we get everyone to wear these all the time?” By 7 o’clock, more than 40 neighbors were huddled around my kitchen counter, drinking, munching and getting acquainted – and reacquainted.

 

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To loosen up this sociable scrum, I dinged the silver hotel front-desk bell I keep for such occasions and asked everyone to move toward the living room, where the committee had managed to squeeze in seats for half of them. My husband then welcomed everyone on behalf of the board. He spoke briefly about our building’s success in viewing “cooperative” as both a noun and an adjective.

“Our community works best,” he said, “when getting along is more important than getting our way.”

At the end of his remarks, he asked everyone to introduce themselves and “tell us something interesting about yourself.” The group’s initial discomfort with the request soon gave way to a raucous, hourlong community improv.

Each revelation encouraged the next: “I play in the oldest poker game in the city.” “I’m still working at the same company I interned for in college.” “Now that my kids are out and have kids of their own, I’ll admit they were the teenagers who used to drink beer on the roof.” “In a few years, my kids will be the teenagers drinking beer on the roof.” “We can’t wait for our construction to be done.” “I can’t wait for your construction to be done.” “This is the kind of building I want to raise my children in.”

And my favorite: “I don’t like hot chocolate. Can I just have the marshmallows?”

When the party was running on autopilot, I stepped back and sized up the room, looking for obstacles to the relative harmony we had built over the years. I looked for a divide between longtime and new shareholders, between the frugal and the free-spending. Instead, amid laughter and applause, I saw relief. Children running up and down the front hall with newfound playmates. Novice shareholders and building veterans enjoying the discovery of common ground.

And I saw the party committee, old acquaintances I’d like to know better. After all, they accomplished the improbable: assembling our entire co-op for an evening where, as the “Cheers”theme song goes, it helps to be where you can see that our troubles – and, with any luck, one other person’s belt size – are the same.

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