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.”