Since 1982, Tom Soter has been an editor at Habitat magazine, the definitive publication for boards of cooperatives and condominiums in New York City.

From HABITAT, February 2011

From the Editor 26: Paranoia

by | Nov 24, 2019 | Articles, Habitat 1982- Present

On People, Policy, and Paranoia

I was on the No 1 local as it slowly pulled into the 96th Street station. There was an express train waiting across the platform. Our conductor made an announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, we will be here for some time. The express across from us will be leaving immediately. If possible, take the express.”

Like lemmings or a rat in a Skinner Box, dozens of people crowded into the expess train (I stayed on the local). As soon as they had done that, the doors on our No. 1 local closed and we pulled out immediately – and the express sat and waited.
Can you spell frustration? Can you also spell manipulation? A conductor enjoying himself and his power?

Of course, the possibility that the conductor intentionally misled the passengers is unlikely, but feeds into most people’s everyday paranoia about life in the big city. That paranoia is well in evidence among some shareholders and unit-owners who, when a decision is made that they don’t like, immediately suspect the board of malfeasance.

To these folks, the board members are growing drunk on its power to change the lives of their neighbors. Never mind that the power is limited and that with it come long hours of meetings (with the oft-asked question, “Whose apartment will be the site of our next get-together?”), research (“Who wants to call the references for this potential buyer?”), and complaints (“Couldn’t we talk about this when we aren’t riding in a crowded elevator?”)

I remember when I reported on the May 12, 2005 crisis at the Castle Village co-op in upper Manhattan. A section of the 75-foot-high retaining wall at the 580-unit, five-building cooperative complex in upper Manhattan, had suddenly collapsed onto the Henry Hudson Parkway. For the seven-member board, it would be the beginning of a journey that sometimes appeared to be never-ending: a journey of callous insurance companies and cash-strapped shareholders, of increasing costs and frustrating ignorance, of raised voices and quiet talk.

This was not a board that had been asleep at the switch, either: it was a dedicated group of residents that worked long hours before, during, and after the crisis to keep the co-op running smoothly. Yet, to many in the buildings, the wall collapse was the icing on the cake, a “Truth Is Out There” X-Files moment in which the dark underbelly of the board was exposed. I know because one of the residents called me after I started reporting the story.

“Can you meet me in a coffee shop on the corner?” she asked.

“Why can’t you just come up to the office?”

“They’d know,” she said.

We finally agreed to meet after hours in my office. She wore a dark topcoat and clutched a four-inch thick folder of papers in her hands. When she opened it I found it contained memorandums, newspaper clippings (“Co-op blame game!” screamed a New York Post headline), and hand-outs (“The Castle Village board has chosen to malign your neighbors without cause,” as if maligning them with cause was any better).

She told me that the board was looking out for its own agenda, that the collapsing wall was the tip of the iceberg of board malfeasance and/or mismanagement, etc., etc., etc. That wasn’t my experience of them, I thought, but one man’s hero can be another’s bette noir, and we all know what Lincoln said about pleasing all the people.

So that’s the board members’ dilemma: they may tell everyone that the express train is leaving first (so hop to it), but stuff happens that is outside their control and plans change. It’s the job of the board to explain that to shareholders – and convince them that shooting the messenger is an exercise in self-destruction. 

from HABITAT, February 2011