I grew up in a 12-story, rent-controlled apartment building on Riverside Drive in Manhattan. I learned early on that it was okay to borrow milk, butter and other necessities from certain neighbors and that one of the elevator men was something of a perv.
As a family, we were friendly with roughly one third of the people in the building (there were 60 apartments) and the rest were either slightly mysterious or to be avoided.
As a child, I frequently played with the other children in the building. There was no need to make what we now call a “playdate.” It was sufficient to simply ring the doorbell and see if they were free.
And if they were we’d get our bikes from the basement and ride incessantly around the block or chalk a hopscotch game on the sidewalk in front of our building.
I knew our neighbor’s kitchens as well as my own. Likewise, my best friend (and next door neighbor) Margaret knew where my mother kept the Mallomars. When our mothers would converse standing on their ninth floor doormats, her little brother loved to run into our living room to watch TV, which was verboten in their apartment.
There was a real sense of community and the feeling that we were living our lives in interchangeable apartments.
At Andrew’s on the eighth floor, we’d ask to stay for dinner when his mom was serving her delicious spaghetti. Strangely, Andrew preferred my mother’s Chef Boyardee and he’d ask to eat at our house when she was serving it.
The building itself, which was constructed in 1918 and was comprised of huge apartments with glorious views of the Hudson River and New Jersey, provided us with ongoing adventure as we explored the dark, byzantine basement and the grand, marble-floored lobby.
There was even, at one time, a revolving door.
We felt pride about The Dorchester, which was the building’s official name (it said so on a large mat in the vestibule) and bragged about the interesting people who lived there, including actors Brock Peters and Brooke Adams, singing and speech coach Arthur Lessac, classical pianist Ursula Oppens, and theater director Jack O’Brien, as well as a world-renowned neuroscientist, a Swedish cinematographer, a host of writers, copywriters, lawyers and psychoanalysts.
We were particularly proud of the fact that an opera singer lived on the first floor and you could hear her voice (and those of her students) as you walked from the front door to the elevator.
These days I live in four-story, rent-stabilized apartment building in Park Slope, which is much like the Upper West Side of yesteryear. I still borrow milk, butter and other necessities from certain neighbors. As a family, we are friendly with just about every one in the building and know much about the triumphs and travails of each other’s lives. Indeed, here too there is a sense of camaraderie, especially when we have our building-wide barbecues and stoop sales.
When my son was younger his best friend was a boy named Eddie who lived in the apartment below us. “I’m going down to Eddie’s” was a constant refrain and the boys were inseparable for many years. Eddie’s parents used to call my son Thumper because every time he ran or walked across the dining room their chandelier would swing – fortunately they were good-natured about it. With four children of their own they knew that noise from their apartment was probably wreaking havoc on the life of the neighbors below (who also had children of their own).
Like me, journalist Beth Harpaz grew up in an apartment building in Manhattan in the 1970’s. But her building was quite unlike the Dorchester.
“It was scary, dirty, anonymous,” she said. “In the apartment building I grew up in you never said ‘Hi’ to anyone in the elevator.”
She now lives in an apartment on Fourth Street in Park Slope that is, she says, the antithesis of where she grew up. “It's a little world unto itself. My kids grew up here as if they were in a large extended family. When they were little, they played ball in the street with the other kids. They'd go in a pack from one house to the next. They could walk the dog around the block alone at the age of seven or eight, it felt so safe,” she said.
Musician Bob Goldberg, a music teacher who runs the Famous Accordion Orchestra, lives in a coop on Third Street where there are many musicians.
“Talking about your neighbors can be such a minefield. Children, dogs, and instruments all can be loud sometimes. But we get along mostly. We fix leaks and boilers when we have to and occasionally share a barbecue.”
When the co-op board first interviewed Goldberg and his wife, his wife suggested he downplay his career as a musician and to emphasize the office job he had at the time. As it turned out, that wasn’t necessary.
During the interview, he discovered the strange coincidence that he’d played trumpet with one of the board members back in third grade, who was now a classical musician. Another board member was an elementary school music teacher.
Needless to say, the children who live in the building now are also very musical.
I wondered if there were issues related to the cacophony of all the instruments.
“There are complaints about dogs barking, but not about the music,” he told me.
On brownstone blocks there can be the same kinds of connections between people that exist within apartment buildings. Playwright Rosemary Moore who lives in a brownstone on 10th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues in Park Slope wrote to me of her one-time neighbor, Paddy.
Paddy was a permanent fixture, sitting on his stoop every day, all day.
“One day we saw him coming down the sidewalk leading my daughter, Faye, who had escaped out our front door, in just diapers, pushing a pink toy baby stroller. Turned out she had waddled down, as far as Fifth Avenue and Paddy's eagle eye saved Faye. For 14 more years after that, Paddy called her Run Away Faye with a thick Irish brogue.”
Some like author Barbara Ensor have horror stories about coop building neighbors.
“I had a crazy neighbor who wrote insane, threatening notes and appeared in my living room with a knife when I happened to be naked. He was demented and it turned out the realtor had done an elaborate dance to prevent us meeting him prior to buying the coop, which had only two units,” she said. “Just when all seemed lost he up and died. I swear I did not kill him.”
Even in Park Slope some neighbors take a long time to get to know each other.
It was almost five years before writer Nancy McDermott spoke to her neighbors across the air space between their limestone apartment buildings.
“Even so it was strangely intimate. I'd see the man standing illuminated in front of the fridge in the darkened kitchen in the dead of the night. When I'd dash across the kitchen wearing only my bra, I consoled myself with the thought that I'd seen the woman do this a thousand times before too,” she said.
When they finally met, she liked them very much. They were older and had been in the neighborhood for a long time.
“I nearly fell off my chair when they told me that for most of my pregnancy they just assumed I was getting freakishly fat.”
McDermott says that there’s what she calls a “silent assumption” that these airshaft neighbors only interact on the street.
“The space between the window is our buffer that keeps our lives separate – if visible. We stick to this most of the time. It's only in extraordinary circumstances that we deviate from this. There was the time she called once to let my husband know that our son was waiting for him to leave the kitchen then climbing up to dance on top of the refrigerator. She was afraid, (reasonably in my estimation) that he might break his neck.”
You’ve heard that it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe it’s an apartment building or brownstone block that really does the trick.
Beth Harpaz remembers coming home from work when her kids were younger.
“If it was a good day I could get to my door and one of the other mothers hadn't stopped me to tell me about some knucklehead thing one of my kids did. But I loved that –because it was like 50 moms were watching them, not just me.”