On Roosevelt Island

Best to Worst: My 25 Years Downhill in Manhattan Park

Updated 4 years ago David Stone, Peter McCarthy
Manhattan Park. Outside.
Manhattan Park. Outside.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

It’s the worst kind of nostalgia, to be there again, in the place where we fell in love with Roosevelt Island, unable to ignore the loss with so much changed. 

Walking down the hall to see a friend, I spotted single, folded sheets of paper tucked inside each doorway.

They announced that hallway remodeling will start next week. Sorry for any inconvenience. Signed by that always foggy Manhattan Park entity: “Management.”

No number to call with a question, no flesh and blood person, no useful information, like what kind of work or what to expect when.

But I knew what was about to happen. Over four months ago, we got the same notice, except in our River Road building, “Management” saved paper by haphazardly taping two 8 1/2 X 11 sheets to the wall with blue duct tape.

It was the beginning of the end, we know now, one last proof of the disregard “Management” has for tenants. 

(See a slide show.)

In the Old Days

We moved into 40 River Road in spring, 1991, taking advantage of a great deal from a new complex struggling to increase tenancy on Roosevelt Island, the community still a secret to the rest of New York City.

No Cornell Tech nor FDR Four Freedoms Park nor a lot of other things to get Roosevelt Island’s name bouncing among talking heads and print media.

Then, if you wanted to drive down the helix onto our island, unless you worked at Coler or Goldwater Hospitals, you stopped at the Public Safety booths just off the bridge for a 15 minute pass.

With no parking on Main Street, fifteen were all the minutes allowed for unloading and driving back off the island.

Some complained, but our roads were all Z-brick without much beneath them, not built for any but light traffic, a unique feature we hoped to keep.

A community in the heart of New York City that never had a traffic jam, almost never a roaring motorcycle or cabs turning left from the right lane? Pretty amazing.

Roosevelt Island Bliss

Settled in Manhattan Park, we were thrilled. Getting to jobs across the river was much easier than commuting from Montclair in New Jersey. Whether it was from work, shopping or entertainment, we came home to the radical peacefulness and quiet of Roosevelt Island.

On a day of bliss, we unloaded both of our cars. The tram, subway and occasional rentals were all we needed.

I was so eager to make new friends, my wife wondered if I was “too outgoing.”

I met Steve, who worked for Dick Ebersole at NBC, while waiting for the red bus, and Eshagh, a financial wizard, while working out in the first floor gym. Lynn and I got acquainted while stuck in a subway snafu under Rockefeller Center, both newcomers figuring out how to get home with the Q, which served Roosevelt Island then, missing.

They and their spouses became our friends. We commuted by elevator for shared dinners and walked the Promenade to catch the tram for movies or the subway for Broadway shows.

Manhattan Park was filled with cultures from around the world.

How many languages could you identify between getting on the elevator and reaching the subway?

Out running as the sun lifted the city out of darkness, I met Sal, a librarian and marathoner from Mexico, and Djibril, a diplomat from Senegal.

Sure, Manhattan Park already had peculiarities in how electricity got billed and getting anything repaired took persistence and patience. 

And there was this nasty guy in the rental office who angered so many people that, when I represented Manhattan Park on the Common Council, I got a call from a tenant who wondered if he was racist. That, I had to tell him, didn’t explain it. He was an equal opportunity son of a bitch, rude to everyone.

He must be related to somebody, we figured.

But we didn’t care. The pluses so outweighed the scattered minuses.

Halcyon Days on Roosevelt Island

Change was gradual. All things age, and if the pace is right, you barely notice.

Manhattan Park was lucky that way.

While the buildings still had that shine of newness, a few things were fading early.

Screens designed for our generous windows shared a couple of flaws. First, they fell out. After windstorms especially, they littered the ground below.

Second, if they broke as they often did after a fall, you couldn’t get them replaced. Rumor had it that their nonstandard frame size saved money in construction, the future be damned.

Building maintenance people broke ranks and aided tenants, pilfering screens from vacant apartments. The future be damned.

Management indifference was unsettling.

Another problem that lingered for more than twenty years was main lobby heating and cooling. As I recall it, if the gym was properly cool, the lobby was a sauna. Or maybe, it was the other way around.

I remember running on a treadmill, the vent above me covered with a panel torn from a corrugated box and duct taped in place.

At times, the lobbies got so hot, concierges removed their mandatory jackets. At others, you could safely hang meat.

And my wife will never forget the project where they replaced all the toilets to meet newer buildings standards for efficiency.

Management’s wise heads parked a dumpster along River Road, directly beneath our window. All day long, a guy with a sledge hammer banged discarded toilets into smaller pieces to make better use of the space.

My wife was in college then, working on her degree in art history, home a lot, bent over her word processor. When the ceaseless crack of the hammer all day became too much, she called to complain. John, the building manager, arrived promptly.

“That’s pretty loud,” he confirmed

But the hammering and smashing continued unabated. My determined wife decided to graduate with honors, in spite of Manhattan Park.

Management got away with a lot because, no matter what messes they made, you still woke up every morning on Roosevelt Island. Slipshod management was not enough to overwhelm the pleasures of community and the friends we were lucky to make.

Until it was. 

From Annoying to Resentful to the Worst

The longer arc of decline at Manhattan Park rose slowly, then, around 2010, it accelerated. Was it new owners? New managers? What?

Who knows? But conditions went bad fast.

After a couple of years away, we moved back in the spring of 2000, renting space in another River Road building.

Times changed.

Now, without any deals available, we assumed the lease of a vacating tenant, and although our credit was perfect and we had seven previous years with no issues, we were forced to cough up three months rent in advance.

We wanted to be back home on Roosevelt Island and in Manhattan Park, and we got it done.

Maybe You Can Go Home Again

Changes, including rising rents, gave us freedom to complain more openly about deficiencies. Or so we thought.

My letter about shoddy maintenance got a snappy response from Sandy Holden, then property manager. If we didn’t like it, we could leave, breaking our lease without penalty, she wrote back.

A shot fired across the bow.

In spite of the rarity of having carpeted hallways vacuumed or shampooed, we still loved the place. Our neighbors were still amazing.

We met friends from the international community we’d later visit in Vienna, Venice and Rome. We were invited to parties with entrepreneurs from around the world.

Most days, we stayed home, appreciating the view upriver, currents churning into and out of Hell Gate. Poor management was a minor inconvenience in a place otherwise close to perfection.

When Home Is No Longer Home

Then, about five years ago, long neglected seams began coming apart.

You saw it in little things first. A chunk of faux marble beside an elevator broke loose and was put back in place, secured with, of all things, strips of Scotch tape.

Elevator breakdowns became so common that a handyman was assigned to sit on a stool in the freight elevator, the only lift still working, and take passengers up and down like the 1930s.

If you wanted to go out, you had to call the lobby and request an elevator. If you wanted to go up from the first floor, you waited until the next time the freight doors opened. If you wanted to go up from any other floor…. well, forget about it.

Management had let things go so far without maintenance that even the concierges, masters of decorum usually, rolled their eyes. But there was nothing you could do. Complaints brought promises of improvement.

Things got worse instead, much worse. 

Touching Bottom

Friends fled to lower rents and bigger spaces, Steve and Ellen to Westview. Amy and Alberto, too. Lynn moved to Queens. They were lucky, getting out before disastrous Local Law 11 Facade Work started.

And before the geniuses decided to rebuild the elevators at the same time as jackhammers rattled the exterior all day. It got so bad, when our lease renewal came up, I asked for a rebate.

My wife was reluctant to stay, but I reminded her of how much we’d love the place again after the plastic came off our windows and the roaring stopped. I was right, too. Briefly.

If you observe the facade work being done elsewhere, you know it can be far less obtrusive than it was in Manhattan Park where multiple jackhammers jangled nerves early in the morning.

Working at home most of the time, I remember how relieved I was when crews took their lunch breaks and when weather shut them down. The work went on for a year and a half.

Parents carried newborns to the lobby to appeal for relief. One woman brought her distraught cat downstairs in a carrier.

Our cats suffered, too. Our oldest hid in a deep corner in the bedroom closet. When we rushed him to the Animal Medical Center emergency room in the middle of the night, the first question was, “Is there any construction work going on in your building?”

When I asked why Management decided to have our elevators replaced at the same time, “We decided to get it all over with at once,” a supervisor answered.

No one consulted the tenants, of course. No one warned us. Management seemed to see us as an inconvenience to be worked around.

Turn for the Better, But Not for Long

Most of the diplomats that made our building resemble a mini United Nations left Manhattan Park. Families with children became fewer. 

But once the noise abated, new elevators began running and plastic was peeled off the windows, it looked and felt bright again.

Wide, gorgeous views returned. Tensions receded. Corridors were still discolored with ground in filth, and maintenance remained poor and slow. But you rolled with it. 

The grace period was brief.

The early months of 2014 were the coldest I remember from my twenty-five years in New York. Electric utility rates soared as much as 35%, according to published reports that went on to say consumers were furious. Politicians did their usual schtick about getting something done to relieve our constituents… and blah, blah, blah.

Winter’s end was likely to be the only relief any of us would get — unless we moved. Plenty did.

Curious thing was, Manhattan Park got hit worse than anywhere else in the country, as far as any of us could find. A 35% electric rate increase? Ours was upwards of 80%.

Anger rose. Our neighbors appealed to RIOC about protections in the ground lease, (waste of time), the Public Service Commission about HEFPA violations (also a waste of time) and started working with State Assembly Member Micah Kellner over charges that seemed deeply suspicious. 

But Kellner got caught up in a personal scandal and was bounced from his office before progress was made. 

If you’re curious about RIOC’s response, you can find it here: RIOC Caves, Aligns with Manhattan Park and Dumps Tenants in Sub Metering Dispute.

More tenants fled as Management throttled complaints and RIOC played along.

And Manhattan Park came up with an answer for filling the vacancies. 

Over the next two years, its four market rate buildings were transformed into largely dormitories. Soon after families of four moved out, room dividers were put up to house five or six unrelated, transient adults while a third party arranged to pay inflated rents a year in advance.

New faces shuttled in and out so quickly, we barely got to meet our newest neighbors.

Forget about the “luxe apartment” signs hanging from the buildings. The only thing luxe were the rising rents spurred by crowding more people into apartments than they were ever designed to handle.

Dizzying Pace of Change In Manhattan Park

Our newest neighbors are young Asians staying from one to six months, some to attend college, others for work experience. Taken as a group, they are brighter, livelier and more optimistic about the future than their American counterparts.

While many adapt easily to our nerve-rattling city, some seem to hold back, cellphones constantly raised like shields.

Unlike the period when Manhattan Park tried setting up dormitories for American students, our stairways aren’t smelly from marijuana and tobacco. Music so loud it penetrates apartment walls and leaks into corridors isn’t part of this package.

The trouble now is a matter of balance. If the dominant demographic consists of transients who come and go in a flux so continuous you barely get to know your neighbors, how different and more shallow must your community be? 

When most larger rentals are divided up into just bedrooms with a small, shared kitchen, where are the “spacious, luxe apartments” the banners claim wait inside?

Frustrations arise unexpectedly.

Our concierges, burdened as never before with trying to keep track of who lives where, for security if nothing else, no longer count on the standard New York City bonus of Christmas tips that used to supplement salaries. 

Gradually, our front desks are losing the friendly, reliable men and women we thought of as friends. The replacements are disappointing.

The situation has grown so annoying one building employee suggested that River Road’s name be changed to Flushing and Main be replaced with Canal Street. Maybe Manhattan Park can emulate their competitors “Octagon Express” with its own exclusive “Orient Express.”

The Last Straw, From Best to Worst

Signing our lease this summer, my wife and I were roughly in agreement that this would be our last. Conditions had gone so far from where they were on the day we moved in, Manhattan Park was beyond the point of no return.

The diplomats weren’t coming back, and neither were the families where we watched children grow up in regular hallway encounters. Even if they wanted to, no rooms were left available for them.

But surprise of surprises, not having learned a thing from disrupting tenants lives with obtrusive, sloppily managed projects, this spring, Manhattan Park announced that they were about to remodel the hallways.

Thoroughly cleaning them might bring as much improvement at lower costs, and what’s with the super dark designs? Easier to mask neglect?

Still, any change seemed better than the ground in filth we’d tired of complaining about. But we may be wrong. 

Here’s why.

On a morning in May, a couple of weeks after remodeling notices were randomly duct taped in two places, I opened our door on my way to a JFK pick up our niece and found that we were sealed in behind plastic.

Through the translucent shield, I could make out a man spraying our ceiling and white material filling the air. Because I had to get to the airport, I took a chance and tore loose a corner of the plastic.

“Is it safe to come out?” I yelled above the noise.

The worker failed to answer. He did not understand English.

There wasn’t a single sign anywhere to explain what was going on. So, I took my chances and escaped to the nearest elevator.

It shouldn’t surprise you any more that it surprised me that Management responded to a complaint with total silence.

I’ll spare you some details here, although you can get a look at the current status of our remodeled hallway in the slideshow I’ve posted.

Today, four months after being sealed in without warning, splatters of dried paint make the carpets look like something Jackson Pollack spent five minutes on before giving up. 

Baseboards have been ripped out, leaving plaster dust aligning the walls instead.

The bare wires from which our half-assembled ceiling lights hang have been exposed so long that some of bulbs have already burned out. 

New wallpaper has been hung, but the paint work for doors and incidental areas paused, unfinished, two weeks ago. We have no idea when the work might resume or when it will be done. 

Hell, who would’ve estimated four months just to get halfway?

Once again, our community is disheveled with a messy, unmanaged annoyance. Information is a scarce commodity.

Enough is Enough

In twenty-five years, we’ve watched Manhattan Park deteriorate, accelerating recently, from the best place to live on Roosevelt Island to the worst.

Management indifference and expediency at tenant expense leave us no choice. Neither RIOC nor our elected representatives, we’ve learned, will do much of anything to help.

We’ll pay our rent on time for what’s left on our lease and get to know our always new neighbors while playing out the string.

Things change, not always for the best. We will too.

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