When I was growing up in the ‘60s, our large rental building in Queens was like a village. My mother played mah jong once a week with several neighbor ladies, and Tuesdays were Dad’s poker nights. We kids played freely in the halls, practiced tap dancing in the stone stairwells, and ran across the lobby to "Aunt Linda’s" apartment so Mom could have a few minute’s peace. And while other parts of my city childhood were somewhat less than idyllic, the community that I grew up in remains a golden memory.
I remember when the concept of co-ops really took hold in New York City in the early ‘80s. It wasn’t an immediately popular idea in many quarters. The change was inevitable, however, and our building got swept away by insider prices and the promises of a community of homeowners that was the tidal wave of co-op conversion.
Thirty years later, my mother still lives in our old building. She knows only a handful of her neighbors these days–almost all of them from the original group of tenants. Children are not allowed to play in the hallways, which were renovated at great expense, and mothers cannot take strollers through the building’s million-dollar lobby. An annual party celebrating the birthday of the president for whom the building is named has long since been abandoned. The apartments are now worth five times the original purchase price, but the building seems to have lost its sense of community.
Nostalgia aside, I wondered whether this was a positive or negative development. In talking to some property managers, shareholders, and a psychologist, I discovered some reasons why New York apartment dwellers may keep their distance. My inquiries also uncovered some special buildings that still maintain an extraordinary sense of community. If you long for more cooperation–social or business–in your co-op building, perhaps they will inspire you.
The Call of Solitude