Upstairs, downstairs

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October 15, 2002 // UPDATED 1:32 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Julie Landsman
Julie Landsman

The pecking order of a new condo quickly replicates the world at large

Here at 801 Washington, more settlers are moving in. Parties happen, causing noise to spill out into the beautiful atrium hallway. Unfortunately, this same light-filled space conducts sound perfectly. Late-night drinkers stumbling out of Bunker's have startled some residents awake at 2 a.m. with their singing.

Yet this is city life, and this is what we signed on for.

Our son was here over the weekend. He helped lift books to the top shelves, played Lucinda Williams on the CD player, and fell asleep on the couch in front of the fireplace after a late night at Nye's. He flew back to Brooklyn this morning, and so our condo feels even more like a home, as my sadness at his departure becomes part of the air I breathe.

I am learning more about this area of the city, about brothels and wild parties, great bars and secret clubs. I am also learning about condo hierarchies: who is in charge of whom, where you report concerns and who tells the truth.

What is common to this place has been common to places where I have worked. In both, those closest to the actual daily life of the place ultimately have the least say in what happens: how will the floors actually be finished, the order of tasks, and will the lights that shine in the eyes of those trying to sleep be muted?

As a public school teacher for 25 years I concluded that many decisions made in the Downtown office -- far away from the chalk dust, the homeless kids, and the 22-minute lunch "hours" -- had little to do with my life. So I went about my teaching day often ignoring what was dictated from such a remove. After all, I had to deal with the young man from Afghanistan whose father had left him in charge of his brothers while dad returned to the home country. I had to get permission slips signed for field trips. I didn't like the fact that certain decisions were made with little understanding of the building in which I worked, or the neighborhood through which students walked to get to me. I simply decided that, for the most part, hierarchies protect those in power, solidify such power and keep the news from the streets at a distance.

Here, it sometimes feels that way. The man who put in our fireplace also teaches music and is a sound engineer. He could fix the sound problem. No one has asked him. He has been placed in his slot, and it is the installation of warmth. There are tenants who are artists. They could develop some bit of color for the cinderblock wall out back. Those who have come from homes with gardens might have ideas for what plants to put in this fall around the building.

According to the laws of hierarchical organization, there is little place for discussion among those of different status, much less for open and wild ideas. Someone has to be in charge of someone else. Implied in this set up is the superiority of those at the top. I found this arrangement was dangerous in schools and is not healthy in my living arrangement now.

I am not anti-structure. But structures can be democratic and can recognize the worth, the intelligence, the creativity of those cleaning desk tops (often the teacher), those delivering the mail, those laying the sheetrock or doing the plumbing. The danger I see in hierarchy is the lack of respect for, and the assumptions about, people in each position in such organizations. (You mean the carpenter likes opera? The drywall team has a book club?)

As more people move in, and fewer workers arrive at 6:30 a.m. with their mugs of coffee or tea; as we fill up with lawyers, artists, doctors, middle managers, techies, writers, free-lancers and retirees, I hope we do not lose the creativity and expertise of those who have helped us out with our day-to-day survival these first months.

My son, who was a waiter for five years in New York, and who, before that, swept floors and made copies at Kinko's, has given this new place his blessing. We raised him to question assumptions when they appear unreasonable or hurtful. I hope this place continues on with this tradition, and that it is a lively, talkative place, abandoning definitions of individual worth and intelligence based on status. I hope we have here a community as open as the skylights in our atrium invite us to be.