New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



Learning to Swim

Like the best and worst things in life, my tenure on the board was an accident. I was quietly keeping to myself at an annual meeting for our building, a vibrant but relatively peaceful 35-unit co-op in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, when suddenly all eyes turned to me. “You’ll serve, won’t you?” asked the vice president who was stepping down. “You’ll be great.” Who me?

My hesitation wasn’t false modesty. As a professional modern dancer for the Mark Morris Dance Group, I spend my days in studios and on stage, rehearsing, performing, and teaching. The intricacies of building management, contracts, construction projects, tax law, and budgeting were like South Pacific archipelagos: vaguely familiar but far and difficult to get to.

But there I was at our first meeting a week later, agreeing to be president. President! “Hoo-ha,” as my grandma used to say. Those islands were no longer far away; they were towering over me as I treaded water just off shore. When you’re at risk of drowning, it’s amazing how quickly you learn to swim.

I realized that although we might not always know it, performing artists already have the crucial skills we need to be co-op leaders. We understand the value of teamwork; working hard never phases us; being strapped for cash most of your life helps you manage a budget; we always consider our audience (in this case, shareholders); and attention to detail is important in both construction projects and ballet class.

The five members of our new board didn’t always agree on issues, but we liked each other and worked hard. We lobbied for and instituted a flip tax, hired a brilliant superintendent, refinanced our mortgage, upgraded the gym, quadrupled our reserve fund, revised our purchase application, laid the groundwork for an exterior renovation project, and started a building newsletter. Applause, curtain.

Not quite. After 25 years of performing, I know that unless your soul is invested in what you’re doing, you feel a void. The steps might be right, and audience might leave happy, but you know if your heart’s not in it. As the months of my presidency rolled along, I felt this void grow. Mediating insurance disputes, handling leaks, and fighting over bicycle racks had educated me and shaken my nerves. Now I wanted to do something that would make an ethical difference to the world beyond 375 Lincoln Place. I wanted to make our building greener.

Ryan Enschede, an architect and neighbor who specializes in sustainable design; Peter Hamlen, a fellow board member; and I brainstormed, researched, and argued. We dreamed big (green roofs, rooftop wind turbines) but agreed that small steps done right were better than large, costly steps that would be hard to justify to shareholders.

We started with common sense: we replaced hallway incandescent bulbs with CFLs, installed a digital thermometer for common area heating, and signed on for Con Edison Solutions’ green power for the building’s electricity. We asked our super to restock his inventory with environmentally safe cleaning products and ordered a techno-trash box from Green Disk for recycling electronics.

Without an intermission, we commissioned a NYSERDA audit of our building’s energy use. Then we decided to ask shareholders to consider making changes.

This was a huge public relations risk. To me, co-op residents are socialist libertarians. They like the democratic possibilities of co-op operations but wince at the thought of being told what to do. Now, with our proposed Green Guide, we were going to slip something under their doors telling them to eat organic lettuce.

For the 14-point guide, I went back to fundamentals: build a team, get the details right, and always keep the audience in mind. Three neighbors and I shared different interests – eating locally, avoiding plastic water bottles, installing compact fluorescent lighting (CFL) – but we worked them into one cohesive document. Clip art trees provided a catchy visual theme for pennies. And then we distributed it (printed on 100 percent recycled paper, of course).

The audience was silent. We’d slaved over this thing and shareholders said nothing. Had we been self-righteous? Had we crossed a line? Had our Green Guide just ended up in the green recycling bins?

Our answer arrived during the most recent annual meeting. I was briefing residents on the results of our energy audit. Just to make sure someone was awake, I asked if anyone had installed CFLs this year. Suddenly, almost every hand shot up. The excitement was palpable and contagious. Our building’s communal spirit increases as our carbon footprint falls. And with small steps, our green ambitions grow bright, like the warm light of a glowing fluorescent bulb.


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