Every year for at least a decade, Sylvia Shapiro had decorated the Christmas tree in the lobby of her co-op building on the corner of East 9th Street and University Place. A person who cares strongly about visual aesthetics and crafting—not typical for a type-A Manhattan litigator, but most don’t have a “past life designing costumes for the New York Shakespeare festival”—she would spend hours designing her own ornaments; and she used unusual materials like feathers and beads, or sheets of automotive brass bought around Canal Street.
According to Ms. Shapiro, 59, her trees were always extremely popular, until one year a board member complained about her hijacking the decoration and asked that the whole building get involved. Although the story varies depending on whom you ask, while some residents were unhappy about her flair for decorating, when the time came for volunteers to work on the tree, nobody showed up and the super had to do a last-minute tree job in time for the co-op holiday party. “They had put up a notice on a lobby board for volunteers and people scrawled on it, ‘why isn’t Sylvia doing it, she makes the best trees,”” Ms. Shapiro recalled.
She never meant to be so involved in her red-brick co-op. But, “life takes strange turns.”
In 1991, Rose Associates, the giant family real estate concern, decided to turn Ms. Shapiro’s rental building co-op in one of those sweetheart deals younger New Yorkers never tire of hating—at the time, she said sheepishly, a one-bedroom apartment was going for as low as $75,000. Ms. Shapiro, a lawyer, and a CPA neighbor, Larry Cohen, stepped up and negotiated the buyout with Rose. A year later, she found herself the president of the new co-op’s board, and she set about learning not only the arcana of the social insanity that is co-operative living in New York but also about something more fundamental: her building.
“I read every case I could find regarding co-ops,” she said last month over yogurt and granola at Marquet on East 12th Street. “I took a few real estate courses with Larry Cohen, but when I started I really knew nothing and had to learn everything.”
She has come close. In 1998, her first book, The New York Co-Op Bible, was published by St. Martin’s Griffin. It’s in its second edition, and it’s about exactly what its title suggests.
Stylishly dressed in all black, with silver Mexican bangles jingling on her left wrist and a dandelion poof of curly brown crowning her head, Ms. Shapiro comes across as the kind of person who throws herself headfirst into everything. Speaking at great length and at a mile a minute, her knowledge of real estate cases and contractual law is impressive. Her most recent venture, a blog called highrisesociety.com, dispenses daily anecdotes and advice about co-op living, buying and selling apartments, and the behavior of building residents, which ranges anywhere from odd to maniacally bipolar.
Some of the more outlandish anecdotes she tells include stories of a man who threatened his neighbor with a power saw over the flowers planted outside of her garden apartment, or a woman who was convinced that her next-door neighbor was a terrorist.
“Why is it,” Ms. Shapiro said, “that people who function normally on the outside on the inside change? I think, it’s because they’re living on top of each other.” She believes that people let their guard down at home, the psychic equivalent of being seen in their underwear.
AMONG THE RESIDENTS OF her co-op, Ms. Shapiro’s name is recognizable. Colleen Gray, who’s lived in the building for six years and worked with her indirectly through the board, described her as “thorough” and “passionate,” and someone who “gets down to the most minute of legalities regarding corporation law.”
Marilyn Jacob, a resident of the building (but not an owner) since the 1980s, has known Ms. Shapiro for years as well. “She ruled with a heavy hand,” Ms. Jacob said over the phone. “She was very good for the building, concerned about money, certainly knowledgeable. But sometimes she rubbed people the wrong way.”
Ms. Jacob laughed as she recalled the Christmas tree incident, which she would never have known about if residents didn’t group together and gossip at the mailboxes. While she felt that an assertive, strong woman in power isn’t always acceptable to some people, Ms. Shapiro wasn’t much of a politician in Ms. Jacob’s eyes. “She was very blunt, sometimes pounding on the table, that sort of thing. But she never rubbed me the wrong way because she was extremely competent. I’d rather have a competent person who’s abrasive instead of an incompetent nudnik, and she really knew what she was doing.”
Another longtime resident, who did not want a name published, insisted that Shapiro was pushy and inconsiderate, forcing her way into committees and talking big but with no experience. “She used her own personal situation with the committee to secure her apartment. And she came in like she knew everything and—I’m not calling her stupid—had no knowledge at the time.”
The resident also insisted that Ms. Shapiro led people to believe she was the owner of her own law firm at the time, which was not the case. “She implied!” said the resident.
According to Mr. Cohen, the CPA who worked on the board with Ms. Shapiro for years, she was someone with the “highest level of integrity.”
“We gave detailed explanations and accountings for everything we did. Our financial packages were in painstaking detail, because residents have the right to know what’s going on,” he said. “There’s not a person on God’s green earth who could challenge our integrity. Often on boards, people do things for themselves or take special favors, but not us.”
Pierre Zarzour, a building manager for AKAM, worked with Ms. Shapiro for six months before she left her final term on the board, as vice president. “I was kind of upset when she stepped down,” he said. “She was very involved with the board, reviewed documents thoroughly and was very involved in agreements, and made valid recommendations. It made my job easier.”
When asked if she rubbed anyone the wrong way, Mr. Zarzour demurred. “People respected her and followed her advice, and there’s always one or two people who think something bad about you. I’m sure there are some people here who think that way about me!”
Ms. Shapiro said that she would be the first to admit that she is no politician. But. “It was my fiduciary responsibility to treat the rights of each resident equally,” she said in a later phone interview. “People get on the boards of buildings for all sorts of reasons, and not always the right ones. It’s unethical to dole out favors to some people and deny them to others. We treated every resident equally.”
ASIDE FROM THE IMPORTANCE of fiduciary responsibility, Ms. Shapiro is fixated on the business makeup behind a co-op board itself, something she considers to be archaic and potentially destructive, having “outlived its usefulness.”
“You have unpaid, untutored volunteers—people without the time or background, running businesses with assets in the hundreds of millions—and that raises real challenges,” she said in a serious tone. “Under the business judgment rule, they have the same legal power as the director of a regular business corporation.” She finds this often inappropriate, and it’s the kind of power easily abused in Manhattan co-op life. The source of much of the strain between residents can be as simple as denying a request for some kind of change that clearly violates the buildings bylaws.
“You can walk in an elevator with people and they’ll be like “hey, how you doin,’ then other times they’ll look right through you,” said Mr. Cohen. “It’s not like I denied them proof.”
Ms. Shapiro’s latest project is a novel, cautiously titled High Rise Anxiety, that seeks to fictionalize—and to perhaps therefore better explain—the bipolar business behavior of co-op owners.
An excerpt from the first chapter:
“Mea culpa, mea culpa,” Sara offered up an endearing smile, figuring an apology in Latin would sound more impressive than one in English, and thankful that the only words she remembered from college days were perfect for her predicament. She stood nervously across the threshold, having arrived fifteen minutes late for her command performance before the Astor Towers Board. In a body-hugging tangerine jersey sheath that she’d gotten for a bargain at a sample sale because the label was ripped out—not that she cared whose it was because she preferred to look like herself—she hoped to convince her examiners that she’d fit into their exclusive club even though she was wearing K-Mart underpants and had exactly $115.17 in her checking account.
She couldn’t believe she was on the brink of acceptance at this Downtown bastion, coveted as much for its glorious spaces as its glamorous occupants. Rumor had it that JFK had slept there—in more than one apartment—which added a Presidential Premium to building prices, much like the Clintons move to Chappaqua had propped up the value of homes in all of northern Westchester.
Sara tried to explain that she had dashed out in the middle of a meeting with her editor at Surge, the online magazine where she worked (omitting the fact that she might have jeopardized her job, in which case she wouldn’t be able to pay for the apartment she was buying), tried without success to hail a cab, sprinted five blocks to the subway, got caught in a shooting incident at the Astor Place Station, only to be hit by a delivery guy going the wrong way on his bicycle when she emerged. All this she managed while trying to keep her dog, Rosie, whom she was required to bring to the interview, from jumping out of her arms into harm’s way. She had already taken her pooch for required IQ and psychological testing, administered by the newly created Dog Division of the Princeton Educational Testing Service, but the directors themselves had to determine if she met the building’s etiquette and weight standards.
Only Nora Chase remained unmoved.
“What’s the matter with these buyers?” she had only moments before demanded of her fellow Board members, Miriam Golden and Henry Gardner—of the Newport Gardners—as she posed in the middle of her capacious glass and steel living room cooling her stiletto heels in a midnight blue Prada look pantsuit. “A first year associate—even a summer associate—knows you NEVER show up late before the judge who’s going to decide your case even if it means running over your mother. We’ll never finish all we have to ask.”
“Nora, this isn’t the Inquisition,” Miriam’s wild curly mane and flounced challis skirt laughed along with her, as she tossed her tie-dyed scarf over her shoulder.
All had bought their apartments at this Beaux-Arts high rise back when Manhattan real estate could be had for little more than the string of beads Peter Minuit had paid for the original island purchase. Miriam, an admirer of Che Guevara since before college, had arrived decades ago as part of an experiment in communal living. Nora got her aerie for nothing in a divorce settlement with her husband Marvin, a Scarsdale orthodontist, though she told everyone he was an Italian count. Henry had inherited his mini-mansion from his Great Aunt Agatha, who had no kids, but gobs of old money. Thanks to their auspicious timing and good luck, these directors, who today probably couldn’t afford the down payments on the goldmines they owned, were now the gate-keeping arbiters—and could turn up their noses at people higher up on the socio-economic scale. Being the judge was a power trip that gave Nora a crack-cocaine high.
The novel chronicles the unlikely election of Sara Morgan, an online magazine journalist who recently purchased a co-op apartment, to the board of her building when an elderly resident dies. Sara negotiates living with a typical set of New York eccentrics in the fictitious Astor Towers: the secretly wealthy bag lady, the paranoid neurotic neighbor inspired by fears of terrorism, the amiable board president and businessman with a secret past.
“I thought it was time to take the pulse of group dynamics at the home front,” Ms. Shapiro said. “It’s where we are at our most irrational.”