How NYC buildings create community (and turn into a small village)

By Beth Stebner | October 20, 2015 - 9:59AM

Donna Kreeger looks forward to her building’s annual Halloween festivities, knowing it’s a time not only for the kids to enjoy, but for the adults in the neighborhood to bond. Children line up in the building’s lobby for a parade and, later, rush to the tables set up for a pizza party. Sometimes they trade a building lobby for a nearby restaurant, but the heart of the event is always the same—it’s a way for Donna to get to know her neighbors in (and out) of costume, and be a part of the community. 

In a city of eight million, some New Yorkers are finding their buildings are more like small towns, teeming with warmth and cordiality where, to paraphrase Cheers, everybody does know your name. Though the idea of a tight, close-knit community in New York may seem foreign, save the strained and often feigned energy of co-op board meetings, many buildings throughout the city have evolved into micro-communities out of a mixture of necessity, geography, and camaraderie. 

The friendly, communal building in which Kreeger lives—a small condo in Harlem —has been putting on the annual Halloween fest for years, the lobby of the condo morphing into headquarters for fairies, princesses, and superheroes eager to collect piles of treats (and a trick or two), and for grown-ups to check in with neighbors. “Many of us like the lobby for its intimacy and quiet setting,” Kreeger, a broker for Citi Habitats, says. 

For Lauren Gale-Napach, a life coach who lives in a prewar Upper West Side rental, the community goes so deep that she has neighbors popping by just because, or for the proverbial cup of sugar. 

“We walk across the hall to one of our best friends and borrow from their kitchen whether they are there or not. We have each others keys and we use them often,” Gale-Napach says, adding that she doesn’t know the magic reason behind why it’s worked in this particular building.

She says the building has always been this way, "and we know it is rare to have this in NYC, or anywhere for that matter," Gale-Napach concedes. (It has, in fact, been one reason some have rented in the building.) Her annual holiday party is something her entire building looks forward to, and her neighbors are all welcome.

The Battery Park City Block Party brings neighbors and visitors together (photo credit: Battery Park City Block Party).

All ages and stages

In some places, these communities span generations, from babies to octogenarians who have lived in the building for decades, and everything in between. While not entirely rare in city living, rising rents and costs of living make it a challenge to have multiple generations under one roof, making it all the more special when building residents feel a sense of fellowship and affection for their neighbors.

Other buildings in the city have millennials seeking  out a rather more "foraged" and "authentic" version of community (read: marketed) through high-concept (and high cost) living spaces like Pure House, a rental building in Williamsburg that “[facilitates] the convening of distinct people and their passions.” It's often for younger transplants looking for a way to build their social and professional networks through coordinated activities. That includes pop-up dinners, yoga classes, and concerts, and whatever ideas may come from sharing communal spaces.

Of course, this option isn't open to everyone. Pure House puts prospective tenants through a vigorous screening process. Sure, you could argue that the vetting process isn't so different from a co-op board interview, but gatekeeping it nonetheless is. (A rep for the company didn't immediately return our request for comment.)

The birth and death of great New York communities

City planner Jane Jacobs once said that cities “are not like suburbs, only denser. They differ from towns and suburbs in basic ways, and one of these is that cities are, by definition, full of strangers.” 

Communities that offer a sense of belonging by way of scheduled activities or Halloween parties is one way to make a big city feel much smaller—in a good way. Strangers can only be strangers when you don’t know them. (That was another one of Jacobs' points; a real sense of community doesn't have to be centered around a town square. A tight-knit neighborhood could look like a good block association or a building where tenants really care about one another.)

It's something that keeps tenants in their apartments for years, if not decades, as these New Yorkers know a good building is just as valuable as the neighborhood or school district it's in.

Halloween at Stuyvesant Town (photo credit: Flickr/Eden, Janine & Jim)

Go big or go home (or both)

At Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, the behemoth complex originally built for World War II veterans (and, ironically, championed by Jane Jacobs’ nemesis, the controversial urban planner Robert Moses), there are community events galore.

The huge complex runs from 14th Street to 23rd Street, from First Avenue to Avenue C, and the with that many apartments (more than 8,000) Halloween is a huge hoopla. The complex is putting on a Halloween Spooktacular on October 24, complete with a haunted house, pumpkin patch, face painting, and live music. The event is only open for residents and their guests, meaning if you don’t know anyone, you’re out of luck.  

The air of inclusion for residents (and, by proxy, exclusion of others) is appealing for residents like Joanne Gamel, a broker with Citi Habitats, who think of Stuy Town and PCV as a respite from the city, an insulated pocket full of familiar faces.

“Once you step foot into the community you really do feel like you've left Manhattan,” she says. “It offers a small town atmosphere. I often feel as if I live in a members-only country club like community where walking my dogs takes 20 to 30 minutes because of all the stop-n-chats," Gamel says.  

Stuy Town/PCV is opening up its own ice rink at the end of the month, another perk to residents who don’t care to fight the crowds at Central Park of Rockefeller Center. There’s also a greenmarket, community room, sports teams, and even a newspaper, the Town & Village. 

And on her floor, there are weekly dinner parties (dogs welcome!) and weekend trips upstate to go apple picking with friends and neighbors.

A lot of condos and new constructions are offering perks like this as a way to lure community-starved city dwellers, but there is something to be said about buildings with an organic, home-spun sense of belonging. 

Gale-Napach says her building throws many parties throughout the year,but long after Halloween, Christmas, and Valentine's Day, the desire to connect and entertain remains.
“Our apartment is like Grand Central Station, with my children’s friends coming in and out at all times, my friends popping over for a visit or to borrow something, or just a guest who witnesses all of the goings on in disbelief.”

She thinks New Yorkers are unfairly stereotyped as antisocial and secretive. “I believes that we are some of the most giving and helpful people of any place in this country,” Gale-Napach says.

“We are willing to jump in help people in need at any moment. I’ve witnessed it over and over in the 25 years that I’ve lived in NYC.”


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