The Man Who Sold the Boro; A Broker of ‘Good People’

June 20, 2006, was a lovely Tuesday summer evening. In Carroll Gardens, the strip of neighborhood restaurants along Smith Street buzzed pleasantly. At the tiny eatery Saul, a throwback group of middle-aged to elderly folks, many of them Italian-Americans, were raising their glasses to one of their favorite sons: a real-estate broker named Allan Gerovitz.

“He’s an institution,” said one. “He’s a matchmaker!” said another. And: “He’s insane!”

“I swore I wouldn’t speak to you tonight,” Mr. Gerovitz told me, with his characteristic acidity. He dressed natty-casual in a blazer and jeans, his delicate-framed glasses perched atop his head—Mr. Gerovitz has one of those blank-slate poker faces instantly transformed by a grin. The broker implied that the evening was supposed to be about pleasure, not business. Allan M. Gerovitz—the Man Who Owns Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens, some say—was trying to throw himself a party.

Most New Yorkers regard real-estate brokers as gutter scum; Brooklynites revere Mr. Gerovitz with a bizarre, often fearful obsessiveness. For over 20 years, Mr. Gerovitz has been the one-man co-op board for a string of random, pretty and pricy floor-throughs that have one big thing in common: They’re all inhabited by people deemed “good” by Mr. Gerovitz in buildings owned by landlords deemed “good” by him, too.

A neighborhood of Good People! Even with so many lawyers, so many media people, so many jewelry makers! It is Mr. Gerovitz who has overseen the change of neighborhoods into Manhattanized paradises for the bespectacled.

“It’s like stepping into another dimension. You think there must be some place where all the decent apartments are hiding,” said the novelist Susan Choi, who showed up at the party later. “When we worked with Allan, we thought, ‘Oh, this is where they are!’”

It works like this, or once upon a time it did: You decide to move to Brooklyn. Someone says, “Go see Allan.” Their confidence impresses you, and you think, “Yay!” And then come the more difficult instructions: “But be very nice, and say I referred you and— Jesus Christ!—be on time. He’ll only help you if he likes you.”

You will be offended in advance and return to your comfortable despair. (What indignity—to be rejected by someone you desperately want to give money to!) Then they’ll say again, “But, really, go see Allan.”

And perhaps you too shall rent 700 square feet near the subway. After a bit of ritual suffering, that is. (I know. He found me my first place.)

Mr. Gerovitz had divided his party into two shifts: landlords and renters. “You don’t often see a flamboyant guy like him hanging out with Italian guys, but there they are,” a former client said. At the party, men in floral button-downs and shorts and ladies in print dresses and pumps milled around, basking in their “I Own Property” confidence. A table of presents was packed—wine, cards, pretty gift baggies, some from as far as Martha’s Vineyard. A large blue hand-painted banner declared, “It’s About Us!” Signed: “AMG.”

The invitation had also declared “It’s About Us!” (The front read “The Party You’ve Requested.”) “Us!” apparently referred to all of Prudential Douglas Elliman, the enormous real-estate firm that bought mom-and-pop Marilyn A. Donahue Real Estate, Mr. Gerovitz’s longtime home, a few years ago.

But celebrating Allan, who endured quite a few changes during the corporate transition (technology, seminars, suits), seemed to be the point. At such a party, Mr. Gerovitz could show his new co-workers the result of two decades of work. And he could show the neighborhood that his man-of-the-street image hadn’t gone the way of Corcoran.

“He’s more like a matchmaker,” said Elizabeth Betteil, who’s lived on Henry Street for seven years. She and her husband admitted they’d rather charge under-market rates, as Allan suggests, than work with any other broker. “We told him we wanted a single female; he came back with a man with a child. He’s found us perfect tenants. Allan’s the reason I work in the industry.”

Laura James, a fund-raiser who’s owned in Carroll Gardens since the 80s, also invoked Cupid. “He’s the only broker I give an exclusive to; I love all my tenants,” she said. “Julianna Margulies was a tenant of mine.”

At some point in the evening, a younger and more boisterous group of people had gathered together, talking loudly, throwing their heads back, gesticulating in exaggeratedly joyful ways, every now and then pretending to dance. These were the Douglas Elliman brokers. Marilyn Donahue, Mr. Gerovitz’s old boss, dutifully led me to their new boss, Dottie Herman, the C.E.O. of Elliman. She was tan and blond, and dressed in a white blazer and white heels; a zebra-ish print skirt swung somewhere in between.

“Tell her how many rentals you do!” someone said to Mr. Gerovitz. “One hundred and fifty a year!”

“The cell phone! He has a cell phone!” Ms. Herman said of Mr. Gerovitz, who someone had dragged over.

“I never used a cell phone before. I hate cell phones,” he said.

“One hundred and fifty apartments?” I said.

“One hundred and twenty, 150,” he said.

“What’s normal?”

“Thirty,” another guy said.

“Is this true?”

“He’s an icon. An icon!” Ms. Herman said. “In rentals.”

Real-estate brokers are chatty and tiring, so I sat down next to three middle-aged native Brooklynites. They were not going to the French bistro Bar Tabac. “I’m hungry, you hungry?” “I’m hungry.” “We’ll go to the dinah.” “The appetizas didn’t quite do it!” “You got a big appetite!” “Where will we go?” “The dinah! I said, the dinah across the street!”

A young lawyer named Rachel Zublatt showed up. Before finding her and her boyfriend Andrew their apartment on Baltic between Court and Smith, Mr. Gerovitz said to her: “I think you’re a strong couple—you’re a little too loud and he balances that.” Andrew, standing nearby, pretended to choke to death.

“We canceled a trip to Napa to take this apartment,” Ms. Zublatt said gravely.

A FEW DAYS LATER IN HIS OFFICE, Mr. Gerovitz was only too happy to dwell on his customers’ satisfaction. And, as if it has been staged, a woman eventually shuffled in bearing gifts: She’d painted him a small watercolor. “See, this is why I needed a new apartment. I do these on my floor,” she said.

“Look at this! Look at this! Right in front of the reporter!” he exclaimed, grinning broadly. Mr. Gerovitz happily pointed out his new gray-blue Theory blazer, found after three and a half hours at Bloomingdale’s, and sipped on a Dr. Pepper. He merely smiled when asked his age. At one point, he put his bare feet on the desk. Books were lined up: The Tipping Point, Change the Way You See Everything, Ken Blanchard’s Raving Fans, Never Eat Alone, by Keith Ferrazzi. When I had first stepped into Mr. Gerovitz’s office, as a client, some years ago, the desk had been decorated with thank-you letters. They were gone.

“A couple of years ago, I threw about 100 letters out,” he said, citing depression. But Mr. Gerovitz eventually revealed two binders stuffed with thank-you letters; he encourages clients to write in. One was from Ms. Choi, printed on New Yorker letterhead and titled “Annals of Apartment Hunting.” Another was from the novelist Rick Moody (“P.S. Book collectors pay money for my signature, so save this letter.”)

Mr. Gerovitz laid out his philosophy. He gives weight to referrals and repeaters. He demands that clients see no other brokers. When people come to see him, they must pass “sit-down time,” in which he figures out why they’re moving and what their needs are: And the couple counseling? “I don’t want to see one person dragged into an apartment that won’t be good for them,” he said. Lastly: “The most important thing,” he said, “is that people don’t overspend so they can save money and buy eventually.”

As for landlords, he’s stopped working with them if they aren’t up to snuff. If they reject someone with a baby, “I read them the riot act,” he said. Once, he told a landlord to spend more time with her noisemaking child. “It’s nice that everybody doesn’t feel they have to gouge,” he said. “It’s going to be pretty boring around here if everybody pays over $2,000 in rent—that’s not the kind of neighborhood I want to live in.

“I like to like the customer. And if somebody is like this”—he turned his nose up with his pointer finger—“it doesn’t work for me,” he said, and acknowledged his own blue-collar roots. He’s from Bloomfield, Conn.

But what about the yelling?

“Yeah,” he said, matter-of-factly. “It’s fair, as long as you’re tough on everyone. I want to believe your story, to learn what I’m hearing is real. So I push a little bit.”

THE INITIAL VISIT TO MR. GEROVITZ’S involves a combination of demands, suspicion and odd insults. And some people—frightened, angry—never go back.

“There’s something Machiavellian about what he does,” said one former client, who added that the broker “worked a fucking miracle” for him. “It’s 60-40: his own craziness and the Machiavellian thing. His way of testing your reliability is to press you, and it isn’t pleasant …. A lot of kids who come and want to live in Brooklyn, and they think they know everything about the world because they read Gawker, and they want a real-estate broker to be a certain way—his method goes against that grain.”

In my case, Mr. Gerovitz took note of my height (I’m tall). One meeting, he didn’t like my hat; the next, it was my skirt that disappointed him. A friend recalled the time the broker called him a “pig” in Yiddish—merely for wondering if there were any places in the neighborhood closer to his partner’s work.

But rarely is the thick-skinned Allanite disappointed with their apartment. Mr. Gerovitz is typically insightful enough to land a client a dwelling on the first try, often in mere hours and—most surprisingly in this post-gentrification depression era—for a relatively decent price. (“Suzy,” he said to me like a game-show host, “I think I have the apartment for you.”)

The referrals help. Ms. Choi hired Mr. Gerovitz on novelist Francisco Goldman’s word; Mr. Goldman, by e-mail from Mexico, expressed guilt for having not visited Mr. Gerovitz in a while. (Mr. Gerovitz is good at eliciting guilt.) Of Brooklyn, it’s tough to say which came first, the writers or Mr. Gerovitz.

But it’s true that he likes “creative types.” Mr. Gerovitz particularly loves New York Times Magazine editor Alex Star, who used Mr. Gerovitz twice, and recommended Mr. Gerovitz to New Yorker writer Alex Ross.

Mr. Ross, in turn, said that during his introductory interview with Mr. Gerovitz, he met Ted Koppel, who’d come into the office with his son. “It’s the closest I came to being a guest on Nightline,” Mr. Ross said. He recalled a bit of dialogue from the day: “Mr. Koppel, this is Alex Ross. He writes for New York magazine,” said Mr. Gerovitz. “Indeed!” said Mr. Koppel. “Uh, actually, The New Yorker,” said Mr. Ross. “Well, I won’t hold that against you,” said Mr. Koppel.

Urban legend has it that another magazine writer was thrown out of Mr. Gerovitz’s car. A couple of people suggested it was Mr. Ross (it was not). Instead, this unfortunate writer, who requested anonymity, clarified that “it was not quite that dramatic,” but that after seeing three apartments and finding them sub-par, Mr. Gerovitz did in fact say, “That’s it! You’re hopeless! Get out of my car!”

New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor endured a sort of rental bake-off with other potential clients, in which the landlord got to choose who they liked better—as they anxiously stood around in the landlord’s living room. On another occasion, back in the slightly sketchier late 90’s, Ms. Kantor, just out of college, had brought her mother along on the hunt. Ms. Kantor hesitated before jumping at an apartment that Mr. Gerovitz had shown them. “Your daughter is a princess!” Mr. Gerovitz said. “If my daughter were a princess,” Kantor mère replied, “she wouldn’t be looking in this neighborhood.”

Sadly, Ms. Kantor didn’t make it to the party, though she expressed affection for Mr. Gerovitz. Two journalism types who did show up for the late-night festivities were New York magazine editor Jared Hohlt (who also said it might have been the ubiquitous Mr. Ross who recommended him, but he’s not sure) and reporter Felipe Ossa.

“When he met me and my boyfriend, Allan declared that I was the ‘dry white wine of the relationship,’” Mr. Hohlt said later by e-mail, “which wasn’t exactly flattering but wasn’t entirely inaccurate, either.”

Mr. Gerovitz was right about my hat, too. Perhaps that’s why he did not invite me to the party, but word travels fast in his weird sub-community. That night, across the room, I spotted the woman who rents to my friends, the ones who told me to go through Mr. Gerovitz. And standing outside the restaurant later, the music having faded from Motown to the Killers, I ran into someone I’d sent along to him: Mina Mishrikey, a 28-year-old sales trader.

Inside, Mr. Mishrikey introduced me to two lawyers he’d just met: Vivian Huelgo, 33, and Emilia Sicilia, 32. “We totally love Allan,” Ms. Huelgo said. “We developed a relationship—we even asked him about single men.”

I mentioned this to Mr. Gerovitz later. “Well, you can say: I’m looking too,” he said. “I’m ready.”