Bill Morris in Board Operations on January 4, 2019
She was born Lillian Chin, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, and she grew up on the West Side of Manhattan when the neighborhood still had rough edges. Her father toiled long hours in restaurants and her mother was a garment worker in Chinatown, and Chin and her four siblings grew up conversant with what it means to be poor. Raised eating with chopsticks, she remembers the revelation of drinking hot chocolate and eating Campbell’s chicken noodle soup for the first time – tantalizing tastes of the promise of life in America.
Lillian Chin had dreams. After graduating from Julia Richman High School in Manhattan, she earned a bachelor’s degree in education at Queens College and a master’s at City College. While in school, she met a fellow student named Henny Wong, who asked her out on a date. When he asked her for a second date, she rebuffed him. Stung, he asked why. “Because you smoke,” she told him. He quit on the spot and three years later they were married. After raising a son and a daughter to school age, Lillian Wong embarked on a 31-year career teaching gifted children in New York City elementary schools, finally retiring in 2009.
Long before her retirement, back in 1986, Lillian and Henny moved into the recently converted Terrace View co-op in Jackson Heights, Queens. As in many fledgling co-ops in those days, the Terrace View’s sponsor still dominated the five-member co-op board. Wong, a forceful and determined woman, got elected to the board on her second try, tipping the balance in favor of the 145 shareholders. As board secretary, she immediately got busy pushing for change in the seven-story postwar building.
“When you convert from a rental to a co-op, there are a lot of things that need repair,” Wong says. “The landlord had let things slide, and a lot of the contracts favored the sponsor. As each contract expired, we were able to get people who were best for the building.”
Meanwhile, the board also embarked on ambitious capital projects, including extensive landscaping and facade work in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Both elevators are now being replaced, a $400,000 job. New lobby furniture is on order. Next, new intercom hardware will be linked to the existing hardwired system.
“We try to keep maintenance low,” says Wong, who became board president in 2013. “But we have a doorman from 7 A.M. to 1 A.M. seven days a week, and a big chunk of our budget is personnel. Our last big assessment was in 2002, and we refinanced our mortgage in 2013. Even without a flip tax, we have a $1.1 million reserve fund and a $1 million line of credit.”
Like the rest of New York City, polyglot Jackson Heights has undergone stunning change in recent years. The Terrace View has changed with the neighborhood, attracting older couples downsizing from large homes, as well as younger couples starting families, all of them joining the long-time residents like the Wongs. While these differences produce friction in many buildings today, Lillian Wong describes her co-op’s atmosphere as collegial. Sitting in the lobby, watching people come and go, she says, “This building is very alive, and people stop to talk.” As if to prove her point, nearly everyone pauses to chat.
One is Susan Ross, who has lived in the building since 1971 and now serves with Wong on the board. Ross offers a sketch of the board president: “Lillian misses nothing. She’s aware of every single thing that’s happening in the building – and not in a nosy way that makes her a busybody, but in a way that makes her helpful. She’s conservative about money, but she’s not cheap. She’s good at delegating. She’s perfect.”
Missing nothing is a lot of work. “This is like a full-time job,” Wong says, “and I would not have taken on the presidency if I hadn’t retired from teaching. But I do it because I feel a responsibility to take care of the community and the building. It’s a sense of give-back.”
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