Linda Berk had it rough growing up in Harlem. Her parents were a mixed-race couple, which meant that Berk and her sister didn’t fit on either side of the sharply etched color line of the 1950s. “It was always challenging,” Berk says. “I was different and I stuck out and got into a lot of fights.”
From that unpromising beginning, things got worse. After her parents separated, Berk and her mother and sister hopscotched among the apartments of numerous relatives. Then her mother contracted lupus but thankfully was able to keep her job with the City of New York. “We had to move around a lot while she was sick,” Berk says, “and I went to three different elementary schools, two different junior high schools. We stayed with my grandmother or my aunts. With my grandmother, we slept with three people in one bed.”
Finally in 1969, when Berk was 17, her mother got her own apartment in the massive new Mitchell-Lama development in the far northeast corner of the Bronx aptly named Co-op City, a self-contained city on the fringe of a huge city. “I can't tell you how excited I was when I moved in here!” she says. “Everything was brand-new, nobody had ever lived here before. My sister and I, we had our very own room. I think this excitement has a lot to do with the passion that I have now, 50 years later, about Co-op City.”
That passion has propelled Berk, 67, to the presidency of Co-op City’s 15-member board. She is, in effect, the mayor of 35 residential buildings that are home to more than 43,000 people. The complex has 3 shopping malls, its own police department, a power plant, a newspaper, schools, and cultural and community centers.
Berk, a stylish woman who exudes warmth, started to acquire leadership and communication skills while attending Cornell University, then earning a master’s degree in communications. When her mother died in 1988, Berk, divorced at the time, moved back into the family apartment with her son.
At first, Berk was not interested in co-op politics. She was busy managing numerous hip-hop and R&B artists, including Ashanti. “I was the cool aunt in the family,” says Berk. “I was taking the kids to shows and parties, and they were meeting so many artists. Next thing I know, my niece turned up in an Ashanti MTV documentary.”
But the music business changed, and eventually Berk found she was hemorrhaging money instead of making money. Her glamorous life came to an end, and at the age of 55 she ended up working for the Census Bureau, a job that would ultimately lead her to the co-op board. “I was speaking to all these different community organizations in Co-op City about the census and why it was important to participate,” Berk says. “Then one day, after a speaking at the Coalition to Save Affordable Housing, I'm walking down the hallway and this guy comes running out. He says, ‘Linda, Linda, would you like to run for the board of directors?’ I said, ‘Not really.’”
But neighbors and board members kept pestering her to run, and in 2014, she relented. “I decided I’d be the poster child of someone struggling,” Berk says. “There are a lot of people here struggling. I see people like myself, paying their carrying charges the last day of the month before they have to pay a late charge. So I jumped out there and I ran. And I won.”
After overcoming her initial intimidation, she plunged into the work, studying, learning, asking questions. Cleve Taylor, then the board president, became her tutor, and in 2016 she succeeded him as president. She constantly reminds her fellow board members that they’re running a business. A washer that doesn’t work or dirt in some corner – that’s management’s business.
When the board decided to move a Chinese restaurant to another location, the granddaughter of the Chinese owner showed up at the board meeting crying. “Some of the old-time board members said, ‘That's shameful you all would allow that,’” Berk recalls. “My comment to them was: ‘This is a business. They're going to be better off in the new location, and we're going to be better off as a community.’ We cannot make a wrong business decision for the corporation and the community because a young girl comes in here crying.”
Flexing muscles, fixing finances
Under Berk’s leadership, the co-op has flexed its political muscle. “Co-op City used to be powerful in the ’70s,” says Berk. “We were large in terms of voting bloc and taxes, and we had every bank here in this community. We had the power. Then it got to the point where it was just complacent. We woke up the sleeping giant. We might not always get what we want, but nobody walks over us any more. We have an input.”
There have been other changes. “When I came on the board,” Berk says, “we had $900,000 in our bank account, and that was only because we held back two bills. If we had paid those bills, we wouldn't have had any money. Now we’re able to finance our current $150 million capital budget.” Among the 15 ongoing projects is the modernization of 160 elevators, a massive undertaking.
In June, Berk will have to leave the board because of term limits. She and Taylor, the former board president, are engaged to be married. “What I will feel the proudest of when I leave the board is not just the things we've achieved,” she says. “What I feel proudest of is that I'm getting the board to look at problems from 30,000 feet above. We should be up there. We've got to stop looking at this day-to-day stuff and let management manage. We are a business.”
Berk still feeds off a lesson she learned from the music business. “It took eight years to get the deal that worked for Ashanti,” she says. “Two deals fell through. I told someone yesterday, ‘If there's one word to describe success, it's persistence.’ I just refused to give up.”