Is Your Home Your Castle, or Just a Fortress? Experiencing your co-op as a community

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

"Making a community in large buildings has become difficult because people work. There are not as many people staying home," says Ester S. Buchholz, professor of Applied Psychology at New York University, and author of the book The Call of Solitude: Alonetime in the World of Attachments. "In that circumstance, talk with the neighbors is much more short-lived."

In addition, New York attracts people who desire a certain amount of anonymity. "New Yorkers are hard-driven," states Buchholz. "They want their down time. Making friends takes quite a bit of energy and some people have the attitude of ‘my home is my haven.’ They don’t want to do the things at home that they do day in and day out." Often, any energy shareholders have is directed toward running the housing corporation.

Beth Markowitz, president of Manhattan property management firm Merlot Management, finds that "people tend to feel that home is home and if you want social activity, you go out." In her buildings, the business of the corporation fulfills people’s needs for community. "When you have business input in the co-op, that is your social involvement. You have to relate to each other to make the business decisions." Markowitz suggests "It’s useful to set up committees where shareholders can participate. That way, the board is not viewed as working in a vacuum as some ominous, elite body." Markowitz says that some boards in her buildings use newsletters to keep in touch with other residents.

Ron Harris, a partner at Birchland Realty Corp. agrees. "Newsletters are good, and I will send out a building-wide letter occasionally." Harris–who manages mostly smaller buildings–feels that size factors into community. "Smaller buildings are great, because they do have community," says Harris. "And less tenants mean less factions, so it’s sometimes easier to get things done."

In larger buildings, cultivating community can make running the building a more pleasant task. "If you have a more personal relationship, you have the opportunity to build trust." says Buchholz. "So you may feel less worried about bringing up problematic issues. You already know how [a person is] likely to react. In addition, a certain intimacy can ameliorate angry feelings." In other words, it’s harder to stay angry with a friend than it is with someone you only know as the Neighbor With the Loud Radio.

New York University professor and management consultant Ron Esposito owns an apartment in a 600-unit co-op on the Upper West Side. Of the boom in the co-op housing market he says, "What started as a community became a business enterprise. In addition, our natural tendency in New York is to be pretty private at home. Not that people don’t want to make connections–It’s just a way to insulate ourselves from so much stimulus." Esposito’s building, however, was not content to lose the social warmth it had always enjoyed as a rental property. "There’s a real sense of neighbors here," says Esposito. "The building is like a small town. We even have our own voting district."

It Takes A Village

Esposito attributes the strong community feeling to a variety of social activities that were started by interested shareholders. His wife was a young mother when she pulled together other mothers to form a parent’s playgroup. The building now sports both a playroom and an adult gym. They have an internal television station, a monthly reading group and an active senior citizens club. All of these things were a response to resident appetite.

"Inherent to a condo or co-op is the sense of partnership," says Markowitz. "It’s up to the shareholders to decide how much they want to participate. People have to start asking themselves what they want: Do they want to be involved with their home and their neighbors, or do they just want to write a check every month?"

The slow road to warmth and inclusivity in a large residential building is best begun with a single step. A building might start with something familiar and add to it; adding food and beverages to the annual meeting, for example. Something as simple as homemade brownies and fresh coffee can turn a bare conference room into a place for people to mingle, talk, and work together to make the most of their home.

Shareholders might also organize lectures on topics of particular interest to residents, like lifesaving techniques, or financial planning tips at tax time. A good place to start, suggests Buchholz, is to look at the composition of your building. What are the needs of the individuals? "People with children are often more interested in community," she says.

"Try to develop an activity," suggests Esposito. " It doesn’t matter what, just try something. But it’s for the people in the building to initiate, not the board. In our case, the board worked out the legal issues and provided space and funding."

Esposito adds. "I think our building is not typical. It’s what should be. Building communal activities makes a more enjoyable place to live–it’s a healthier environment for kids. A true co-op can provide the community and familial support that many of us have been missing."

Creating community in your own building isn’t something that can be done overnight, but it can be done. Shareholders and owners hungry for the comfort of knowing and trusting their neighbors have only to step outside their comfort zone and make the first move. One friend of mine bakes cookies whenever she moves into a new building and takes them to the neighbors above, below, and on either side of her apartment. You could find something you’re interested in and post flyers in the laundry room to gather like-minded neighbors. Or, you could just shrug off your classic New York reserve and say hello. As for me, I live in a commune outside the city. We’ve been discussing the foyer furniture for at least as long as any co-op board. My kids just ran across the hall to "Aunt Deborah’s" room to watch a movie so I could write this article in peace. Mah jong, anyone?

Ms. Mulhare is a freelance writer living in Forest Hills, New York.

Related Articles

What Should a Board Look for in a Management Company?

Some Key Traits

Being Good Neighbors

Investing in Community Beyond Your Building

Removing a Condominium Owner

A Complex Legal Process