New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Insider Guide



Lower Manhattan Co-op: A Swirl of Neighbors Rising and Falling Together

If I were asked to describe life at my Lower Manhattan co-op, I’d say we’re like a marble cake — a swirl of neighbors who rise and fall together in a 12-story loaf pan. As Aristotle might say, our co-op is greater than the sum of shareholder similarities. Or differences. 

Maintaining this environment would be easier if the board had to blend only two elements, like the marble cake’s chocolate and vanilla. Instead, we are the equivalent of those two flavors plus pumpkin spice, pineapple, lemon poppy seed, pinto bean and berry cornmeal. We have shareholders who have lived in their apartments for 45 years and others who are young first-time buyers. Some live in modest single units and others in combined luxury apartments. We are artists, bankers, teachers, lawyers, scientists, politicians and retirees. Our tax brackets are at the low, middle and top end of the scale.

Still, our ability to maintain a smooth consistency is due largely to our collective aversion to spending money and enduring inconvenience. So when the board decides to do either, the moderate temperature of our co-op rises. Heat absorbed by a gooey cake batter causes the mixture to rise into a fluffy treat; if I apply the metaphor of that endothermic reaction to my fellow shareholders, we also rise, but in our case it’s in opposition to the board.

Usually, disagreements don’t cause spillover beyond a few group emails and a bit of grandstanding at the annual meeting. It’s understood that complaints about the cost and disruption of projects such as brick repointing and elevator repairs often are expressions of regret at not living at one of those magical co-ops where building systems and exteriors are not only new and under lifetime warranties but also self-correcting. Opposition dwindles and the temperature falls to the level where we resume peaceful coexistence.

Only once can I recall dissension causing our marble cake to fall flat. It wasn’t during blackouts, floods or monthslong gas outages. And it wasn’t during hot summers when the elevator was out of service. Our cake came closest to failing during the first year of the pandemic.

Disagreements about safety restrictions and vaccine efficacy quickly turned personal. People were shunned, both in and out of the building. Our cultural reference was less “The Great British Baking Show” and more George Orwell’s “1984.” Even as the virus waned, our most strident shareholder tried to persuade the board to enact and enforce tighter restrictions. Furious, he put his apartment on the market and moved out just as we began to move on — and once again swirl.

As Barbra Streisand sings, “What’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget.” As the masks came off, the usual trials and expenses of living in an old building returned. It was time for another assessment so we could put up the sidewalk shed and scaffolding and repoint the building — again. We had to fix the gas boiler and at the same time try to come up with an affordable way for our nearly 100-year-old building to comply with the city’s carbon-emission requirements.

But the most binding ingredient has been the sudden emergence of a plan for a nearby 900-foot luxury residential tower. Construction would go on for years, and the structure would block all direct sun from shining on our building, squashing any hope of putting solar panels on our roof to help reduce our carbon footprint.

My plants may not survive in the shadows and my parking space will be lost when the lot is demolished. But watching the swirl of my neighbors bringing their different opinions, talents and resources to the fight is delicious.

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