By Robert Kroll, co-op super and woodworker
Close your eyes and try to envision the worst neighbor you’ve ever had in a co-op tenement. Recall the sounds, the smells, the early morning and late evening sights, the garbage bags in the hallways, and, mostly, the words, the slurs, the curses, the slanders, the incessant complaints.
The building super is the frequent target of the complaints and always the vessel into which the aggravations of those neighbors are poured. It’s the super’s job to keep things calm, clean, correct, corrigible. Those are the four C’s. It’s the tenant’s job to supply a steady diet of small earthquakes to unhinge and challenge the super’s efforts at maintaining the four C’s.
Our typical NYC residents tend to fall into four categories:
1 – I’m the only one that counts. Screw the neighbors.
2 – Don’t come near me or my apartment.
3 – You tell me the issue, I’ll tell you who’s to blame.
4 -The weather is here, wish you were nice.
Those categories are not mutually exclusive. Tenementarians come in all combinations of them. There are blamers and finger-pointers. There are the recluses who won’t stop talking when you need to be handling more pressing issues—like flushing the boiler or setting roach traps.
Tenants are not like the people you see at work, where there’s a boss and rules to follow. And paychecks can be “good behavior” motivators. Any co-op occupant understandably feels a proprietary right, having paid rent or a maintenance fee, to be a crab, a crackpot or a cranky old coot.
What follows are some suggestions and lessons learned about making the best out of bad tenancy chemistry:
Lagniappe: the little extra, the bonus that warms up a chilly relationship. Put the proper tilt on the person’s mezuzah. Bring up a heavy package to the recipient’s door. Append a note with “Have a Super day”. Hold the door for someone coming up the front stairs.
Never side with or express confidence in the accusation of a snitch. This only encourages more and retaliatory snitching. Every accusation should be met with a somewhat dubious: “Oh really? Doesn’t sound like something they’d do…” even if it does. Suggest reasonable alternate explanations for the conduct in question.
Get things done: don’t leave projects unfinished. Be sure the occupant is happy with the repair and knows whom to thank. If the job is done by a tradesperson, check on the work before the worker leaves and don’t hesitate to include the resident in the approval process. If the resident has unreasonable expectations of the quality of the work, explain the issue out of the presence of the handyman (unless it’s you).
Anticipate obvious needs: if the mailbox door is stuck or bent, fix it or replace it if possible. If there is an upsurge in bugs or rodents, get the pest control company out before you are asked to.
Introduce new residents to the existing group and drop an interesting fact about the newbie that might endear them to someone and give them a leg up or ally in the next controversy.
Communicate positive messages frequently: “We got the sticky front door fixed…hooray!” and keep the negatives, demands and requests for compliance, to a minimum. If one person is thought to be leaving a common door ajar, address everyone with an upbeat: “Let’s be sure we’re closing that front door fully. We have a fun neighborhood, but not that fun!”
Life is sweet when people have the sense that they matter, are believed, are not viewed as a source of problems, and are not being excluded. The payoff is the much happier atmosphere around the building. Have a Super day.