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June 10, 2011 10:10 pm

East Side storeys

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Madonna, for example, has been rejected by a co-op. So, reportedly, have Mariah Carey and Calvin Klein

Almost a year ago, I heard on the grapevine that a friend of a friend was trying to sublet a “wonderful” apartment on the east side of Manhattan. I duly visited, fell in love with the views – and made a bid with the real-estate broker.

So far, so normal; or so I thought. I have previously lived in several continents, and rented apartments there with relative ease, after providing references – and hard cash.

But not, in New York. The Manhattan apartment I fell in love with turned out to be a so-called “co-op”, or a building where owners do not actually “own” apartments, but hold stock in a corporation and have proprietary leases that permit them to live in their apartments. To most New Yorkers, this co-op system seems an integral, albeit maverick, part of the Manhattan fabric. Indeed, the system has existed for almost a century, and some 30 per cent of all New York properties (and 80 per cent of high-value apartments) are “co-ops”.

It is a long-standing principle of anthropology that what is accepted as “normal” in one society looks profoundly odd – and revealing – to outsiders. And New York’s elite co-ops are no exception. The only surprise, perhaps, is that this system has not sparked more riots and lawsuits. And anthropological research.

In my own case, for example, the targeted flat turned out to be run by a co-op board that operated with pretty strict (but not atypical) rules. These stipulated that owners could only sublet “their” flats once, for a short period – and only to tenants that met standards set by the co-op board, not the owner. “It’s a lot of paperwork,” the broker explained. “But you have to do it.”

“It” was astonishing. First up, I had to provide more personal financial details than I have ever offered up in my life (even to my British mortgage lender). Then, I had to offer proof of employment, a vast deposit, and “at least” six character references (“get important people,” a friend wisely advised). Next, I had to write an essay on my “cultural and philanthropic activities”. I didn’t know whether to laugh or squirm. To someone, like me, raised in England, talking about “charity” seems crass. But in New York philanthropy is a social weapon and tool of advancement. Even in a sublet.

So I duly submitted the essay. Then the co-op embarked on a very expensive credit-cum-intelligence investigation of my life. “But why don’t you just Google me?” I asked, pointing out that journalists are highly visible. To no avail.

Finally – weeks later – I was summoned for an interview with the co-op board. In New York lore, these interviews are an infamous rite of passage; websites offer tips on how to survive the ordeal (“treat it like a job interview… don’t expect to keep any personal information ‘personal’,” advises one). However, my grilling was actually painless: once the co-op board ascertained that they were friends with my (carefully selected) referees, I was waved in.

. . .

That, of course, was no accident. If you ask the average resident of Manhattan why this co-op system exists, they will often justify it in terms of economic security (or note that it emerged in response to another Manhattan real-estate quirk, namely rent controls, which deterred landlords from buying buildings in a more normal way). After all, the argument goes, alongside the elite co-ops, there are lower-income co-ops, too (mostly outside Manhattan). And if you are living next to people in small spaces, you need to know that everyone can be trusted to maintain common spaces and uphold property values. Group control and trust is key.

However, there is a social factor as well. After all, what the application process does (at least at the elite co-ops) is define who is part of the acceptable group – and who is not. Some applicants are excluded simply because they are too poor or weird. But others are just deemed not to “fit in” (the co-op board never needs to explain itself). Madonna, for example, has been rejected by a co-op. So, reportedly, have Mariah Carey and Calvin Klein.

In some senses, this seems profoundly un-American and contrary to any ideals of egalitarianism. But it might also be seen as a corollary of the ideal of the “free” melting pot. In a country such as the UK, traditional class hierarchies are so deeply entrenched that elites do not need to use forms to assess if someone “fits in”. In New York, however, people constantly reinvent themselves. Amid that fluidity, tests that seem crass to English eyes start to make more sense. Or to put it another way, this snobbery is arguably more transparent – or honest – than anything seen in the UK. Either way, seven months later, I adore the apartment. And my (carefully screened) neighbours. Just don’t ever ask me to write an essay on my “philanthropic activities” again. Even in the pursuit of a new anthropological experience.

gillian.tett@ft.com

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