The Vertical Village

May 3, 2012

Courtesy of Frederick Peters, President of Warburg Realty

In art and movies of the thirties and forties, the quintessential depiction of loneliness is often the same: a man or a woman framed in a pool of light inside an apartment building window in a soulless urban environment. There is no place, the message seems to be, where you are more alone than in the big city. And what city is bigger or more indifferent than New York? It is thus one of the particular pleasures of a career as a residential agent in New York that today, we sell community as much as property.

Over the last twenty years co-ops have become more and more focused on creating internal communities. Buildings have in-house newsletters. There are Board committees which plan internal events. Annual or semi-annual cocktail parties in the lobby bring residents together, as do Halloween parties and chance encounters in the gym or the yoga room or the playroom or the library. Today there is a context for the neighbor you see in the elevator: you have almost certainly seen them around the building SOMEWHERE before.

As a child growing up in a New York co-op I experienced none of this. There were no gyms in the co-ops (of course, there were more or less no gyms, period, except in schools.) There were certainly no playrooms where the kids became friends. Basements were devoted first to coal storage, then simply underutilized by building residents, who would only go downstairs to visit their storage areas or use the laundry machines. Not much community building there!

Over the years the buildings gradually perceived an opportunity to make their residents not only happier, but also more united and cohesive. Co-owners do have shared interest in the value of their investment, and increasingly they also share pride in the quality of their home environment. These buildings have become real vertical villages, with the elevators and lobby the equivalent of sidewalks, the gyms, libraries, and playrooms standing in for shops and clubs where like-minded people encounter one another. And like any village it is all overseen by an elected group of residents, making decisions for the public good.

An interesting sidebar to this community building is that it works much better in co-ops than condominiums. While condos, especially the newer ones, may have spectacular amenities, the presence of part time residents and investors among the ownership ranks more or less guarantees both chronically empty apartments and a substantial transient population of renters rather than owners. Short term renters will, by definition, be less community oriented, less concerned about property values, and more indifferent to the comfort of their fellow tenants.

As agents, we are frequently frustrated by the judgments of co-op Boards, which can sometimes seem (and be) arbitrary. But we are also aware that, in addition to safeguarding the financial stability of their buildings and, by extension, our entire real estate market, these buildings provide an oasis of small town connection amidst the chaos of our urban lives.

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