Bill Morris in Building Operations on May 10, 2018
This article is part of our occasional series, “The Previous Lives of Property Managers.”
One day when he was growing up in Brownsville, Brooklyn, Alvin Wasserman was out taking a walk with his father, an emigre from Poland who owned a butcher shop in the neighborhood. When young Alvin spotted a dollar bill on the sidewalk, he, like any boy, reached down to pick it up.
“Don’t touch that!” his father commanded. “It’s not yours. If you want money, you have to earn it honestly.”
On another day, while Alvin was doing his homework in the butcher shop, his father said, “You know why you want to get an education? So you don’t have to chop meat the rest of your life.”
The messages sank in. After graduating from Wingate High School, Wasserman enrolled at Baruch College, planning to become an accountant. But world events intervened. In 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, Wasserman enlisted in the U.S. Army, with dreams of joining the elite 82nd Airborne Division. But by the time he finished basic training with an “expert” ranking in marksmanship, the war was winding down. He never saw combat, but he did have an epiphany.
“I met all kinds of people in the Army,” Wasserman recalls, “and I wanted to do something for society. I decided I wanted to be a social worker.”
So he returned to Baruch, studying sociology and, on the side, writing poetry, reading Russian novels, and roaring around on a Harley-Davidson Electra-Glide. After graduation he entered the graduate school of social work at Smith College in Massachusetts, then returned to New York to complete his studies at Yeshiva University. There he met a fellow student named Joan Lehman, who seemed impressed by Wasserman’s leather jacket and jeans. He was impressed by her stunning looks. A month after graduating together in the spring of 1977, they married – and promptly took off on a three-month cross-country roadtrip, a last hurrah before settling into their careers.
After the honeymoon, Alvin went to work at the Suffolk County Jewish Community Center, running social programs for people ranging from adolescents to senior citizens. Joan, meanwhile, worked with developmentally disabled adults in the Bronx. Eventually, Alvin became program director at the Council Center for Senior Citizens in Flatbush, Brooklyn, setting up and scheduling activities, from art to singing to woodworking. “I was developing interpersonal skills, dealing with people of all ages and temperaments,” recalls the soft-spoken Wasserman. “In social work you develop empathy for people’s problems.”
He also developed an enduring interest in the Eastern philosophy of advaita, which teaches that all humans share the same essence and aspirations. True happiness comes not from fleeting pleasure, but from things that are timeless and eternal.
While Wasserman was working as director of social services at the Metropolitan Jewish Geriatric Center in Coney Island, he occasionally attended meetings of the center’s board of directors. “I observed that these men and women had a large sphere of influence,” he says. “They could do good for the community because of their success in business. I saw that my sphere of influence was a lot smaller than theirs.”
So Wasserman was open to suggestion when a grad school friend, Neal Broxmeyer, approached him in 1985 about joining his family’s real estate business, Fairfield Properties. Wasserman took the plunge and was soon involved in converting rental properties to co-ops and condos, and working with the Broxmeyers to start a management division. Today Fairfield manages 8,000 co-op and condo units, owns and operates 10,000 residential rental units, and owns 1.5 million square feet of office space in multiple locations. The company employs 350 people, and Wasserman, 67, is director of asset management and human resources.
“I helped build the business based on the ethics my father taught me,” says Wasserman, whose three sons are now grown. “It goes back to that dollar bill on the sidewalk in Brownsville. If you want money, earn it honestly. Keep your word. Management is a business of relationships, and social work has helped me build those relationships.”
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