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The Five Stages of a Co-op's Elevator Grief

Michele Cardella in Building Operations on February 19, 2021

Tribeca, Manhattan

Five stages of grief, elevator repair, Tribeca co-op, COVID-19.

A Manhattan co-op went through five stages of grief over an elevator outage (illustration by Jeff Moores).

Feb. 19, 2021

On one of many sleepless pandemic nights, I re-watched the 1979 musical “All That Jazz,” Bob Fosse’s take on his life and projected death. For the first time, I found myself focusing not on the dancing but on the scaffold that frames the story: Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s “Five Stages of Grief” – Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Wasn’t this the road map for living through the last 11 months?

I soon learned that in the 50 years since Kübler-Ross first presented her work, others who paid closer attention to her grief model, or to Bob Fosse’s movie, had already adapted the five stages to explain how we process all manner of loss and change – professional, personal, emotional, physical and, yes, even those associated with the coronavirus.

I knew of another mountain of misery the five stages might help clarify: the reaction in my Lower Manhattan co-op to the loss of our only elevator, in the heat of the summer, during a pandemic. In a co-op that is generally cooperative, months of scaling the fire stairs while sweating in a face mask caused our social fabric to fray. With a little rearranging, the Kübler-Ross model fit us like a pair of yoga pants. The only difference in The Five Stages of Dealing With a Prolonged Elevator Outage is that Acceptance and Anger switch places.

Stage 1: Denial

“It’ll be up and running any day.” Like the coronavirus, our elevator troubles started last spring. Sometimes the elevator wouldn’t budge, increasingly between floors, often with someone inside. Our elevator service company blamed blown fuses, old fuses, the fuse box. The few shareholders who hadn’t left the city for second homes told themselves the elevator would be back in service soon.

Stage 2: Acceptance

“The shareholders working on the project are doing everything possible to fix the elevator.” By August, the increasingly unpredictable elevator was completely shut down. Every attempted fix failed. Various “experts” advised us the problem was caused by electricity from the street, by electricity inside the building, by too much electricity, not enough electricity – by anything other than the parts covered in our service contract. We were told that a custom-made voltage regulator would ensure the correct amount of electricity. The elevator would remain out of order for six weeks while the part was built.

Stage 3: Bargaining

“Maybe the elevator will get fixed faster if I announce that I have a bad back/knees/hips/ankles/feet. That I’m old/have health issues. That I’m young/have little kids. That I have a dog/live on a high floor.” Six weeks turned into eight. The voltage regulator arrived missing a piece. When the missing piece arrived and the device was installed, it fried itself. Once repaired, it didn’t get the elevator running. Next, we were told we needed a new transformer.

Stage 4: Depression

“I can’t keep walking up and down these stairs to schlep my groceries and pick up my deliveries and get my newspaper and walk the dog.” While we waited and waited for the new transformer, new consultants were consulted. Our porter agreed to extend his hours to help residents carry packages. Everyone was hot and tired and sore. And miserable.

Stage 5: Anger

I didn’t buy a walk-up apartment. I’m going to check my rights in the proprietary lease. Our anger will soon become apparent.” A successful test was conducted using a borrowed drive. While waiting for a new drive – a part that was indeed covered by our elevator service contract – the new transformer arrived. After both the transformer and drive were installed, the elevator was back on the move.

The disadvantage of having the solution coincidentally occur while shareholders were deep into Stage 5 is the misperception among some that their Anger actually helped move along the repair process. In reality, the elevator was fixed because of the tenacity of those shareholders who became self-educated in elevator mechanics and electricity, who learned about such things as Megger tests and rectifiers, and who understood the importance of avoiding costly litigation with vendors and with shareholders. Luckily, this group was stuck on Stage 2: they Accepted that regardless of the obstacles, they would solve the elevator problem.

In late October, our elevator was up and running. Unfortunately, the peace restored to our co-op may be an uneasy one. Those who believe in the magic of Stage 5 may be emboldened to mistake Anger for the actual work required to solve our other building problems. Hopefully, I’m wrong enough about this to qualify as an elevator “expert.”

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