Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Opening doors

In a building in Manhattan where I’ve spend a great deal of time, one man opens the door and a second man rings the elevator button but never actually enters the elevator. In another building across town, one man helps push along a revolving door while another sits at the security desk. It is, in fact, more difficult to go through a revolving door when someone is helping push it along than to go through the door unaided, just as it is easier to push an elevator button than to wait as someone’s arm blocks yours and prevents you from pushing it yourself.

But the point of living in a doorman building is not about ease of entry-and-exit, or even about safety. In most doorman buildings I've been in, familiar-looking people are let up without question. This means that a psycho ex—the person most likely to cause problems—will be let up, while a delivery guy will be given the third degree. No, the point of living in a doorman building is the same as having an apartment with a “WBF” (wood-burning fireplace) or hardwood floors—it’s something you’re supposed to want, that increases the value of your home, but that is rarely considered on its own merits. Is it actually that much better to have someone open the door for you?

Having tried both, I much prefer living in a non-doorman building. I don't really like paying people to do things for me that I could do for myself, things that the person doing them for me knows I could do for myself. It makes me feel silly to have a door opened for me, like the doorman is thinking, "Look at the princess who can't even open her own damn door," even if I am not a resident of the building and thus had no choice in the matter of who would open the door. I cannot make my own damn jeans, cannot make my own damn cappuccino and still get to work on time; those things I feel OK about paying for someone else to accomplish. But I have two functioning arms, a basic knowledge of key-and-door mechanics, and see no reason for the division of labor to introduce itself into the door-opening part of my life.

For the same reason as middle-class and above residents of New York City at times choose non-doorman buildings over ones with doormen, many are drawn to the Park Slope Food Co-op, an institution which provides lower-priced organic or otherwise yuppified groceries to members who work a certain number of hours every four weeks [or is it month?], such that the store is staffed entirely by its own shoppers. This utopian ideal manifests itself with women standing around one of the prettier main streets of brownstone Brooklyn, wearing fluorescent guard vests with the same designer jeans worn by women on the Upper East Side shopping at Citarella or Grace’s Marketplace.

Is it better for those who can to pay for services they could provide for themselves? Members of the Co-op—some very well-off-looking, and many undoubtedly well-off, given housing prices in the area—prefer to staff their own supermarket, partly to pay a bit less for (allegedly) better food, partly so as to avoid putting themselves in an awkward overclass-underclass situation. But if they put up with this awkwardness, they'd add new jobs to the neighborhood, jobs needed by people who do not consider bagging groceries a charming escape from the world of corporate law, who are not looking for the sense of community empowerment that comes from heaving organic oats with your fellow man, but who want to get paid by the hour for doing legal, safe work.

Aesthetically, I prefer not to see a largely minority service sector serving rich whites. Walking down Park Avenue and seeing blond babies getting pushed around in strollers by poorly-dressed (or, worse, uniformed) black or Filipino women does not make me especially thrilled with the status quo. But which of these two possibilities—an in-demand service sector with snooty sorts making the demands; or an enlightened, self-sufficient bourgeoisie— better contributes to social mobility?

According to the New Yorker piece on doormen, sociology professor Peter Bearman believes that the existence of doorman buildings does not make the socioeconomic gap between doormen and residents any greater. For every dollar that goes to a doorman, it’s a dollar that could not go to the education of resident’s children, and one that could go to the education of the doorman or his children. While this sort of trickle-down may be irrelevant in the buildings on Park in which residents can send large families through boarding school, college, and beyond with ease, not all doorman buildings house the super-rich, and some doormen are also students or are otherwise looking to opportunities to move beyond opening doors, literally.

Living in a community of high-rent walk-ups and DIY grocery stores is a lot like going to a tiny liberal arts college with left-wing pretensions, but where no one without a spare $120,000, a high future earning potential, or an opinion about foreign film will ever be encountered. Everything looks as it should, but somehow, something is not quite right.


Anonymous said...

"In a building in Manhattan where I’ve spend a great deal of time..."

Rather off topic, but this is a grammar error I'm semi-obsessed with, because I constantly make it myself on the blogosphere.

The problem isn't that Phoebe doesn't know the correct grammar, nor is it a 'slip of the tongue' type of mistake. The problem is one of revision.

My guess is that Phoebe started with "I've spent" and changed her mind to "I spend", or vice versa, and only bothered to revise half of what needed to be revised.

I'm fascinated with this because my theory is that this type of error would not have existed in the typewriter era, and is only made possible by the easy revision of computers.


Rather on-topic, I first came to Phoebe upon finding a link to one of her oddly emphatic assaults on civilization. It's a constant thread throughout her writing.

"No, the point of living in a doorman building is the same as having an apartment with a “WBF” (wood-burning fireplace) or hardwood floors—it’s something you’re supposed to want, that increases the value of your home, but that is rarely considered on its own merits."

WTF? Folks like hardwood floors and fireplaces for the same reason they prefer Manchego to American cheese. Nice things are nice.

Just because taste-free idiots are attracted to these things for reasons of status doesn't mean that civilized folk don't prefer them on the merits.

Anonymous said...

My experience with doorman apartments is that it is rather convenient to have someone to receive packages for you, to help with your luggage when you travel, and to make sure that the delivery guys are routed correctly. I once even lived in a doorman condominium apartment complex out in the suburbs, and the guys (male and female) were great.

I wouldn't fret over the number of folks making different choices. 19th century women, in the upper classes, were encouraged to do ornamental sewing only, leaving the actual making and mending of clothes as work for poorer women. So, we get thrift shops full of hand me down samplers, and some poor woman made it through a winter.

I love to cook. I've got a duck confit in progress, some tomatoes to turn into sauce, a leg of lamb to make for a couscous, and a dozen other projects in the works. Most people would rather hire a private chef, or buy prepared food at the supermarket, or go out to MacDonald's, or Per Se.

On the other hand, I hate to drive. Some folks buy expensive cars just so they can drive them. I'll do that when I'm dead and in hell.

One of the great charms of New York City is the sheer number of solutions. Sure, some of them seem quite weird, but that's part of the fun.

Anonymous said...

"Living in a community of high-rent walk-ups and DIY grocery stores is a lot like going to a tiny liberal arts college with left-wing pretensions, but where no one without a spare $120,000, a high future earning potential, or an opinion about foreign film will ever be encountered."

Why does this not apply to "large research universities with pretentions of a liberal arts college"?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

At a research university, you encounter grad students--a population of adults of all ages and income levels. Plus, in Chicago's case, the school has no "pretensions" of being a liberal arts college--part of the University IS a liberal arts college. And anyone who can live in Hyde Park for four or more years and never encounter someone less than privileged doesn't know what they're talking about. I can't really speak for other large research institutions.

Anonymous said...

I do see Phoebe's point about the Park Slope Food Coop. Actually, in San Francisco there's a grocery store called Rainbow. It's a worker-owned coop, which means that the people who work there, part or full-time, share in the profits. It's also oganically inclined, much bigger than the Brooklyn coop, and although the people who staff it, whatever their ethnicity, tend to be progressive or "alterna" themselves, they are people who really NEED the job.

The reason I work and shop at the coop in Brooklyn is that I'm an artist who's also a foodie who's also a person with multiple food allergies and multiple high-end food tastes. If I had to buy what I need (and like) to eat at Whole Foods, I'd have to eat way less. If I had to go to Commodities in Manhattan, that would be a pain.And if I had to shop at Key Food or D'Agostinos, I'd move back to California.

It's simply, for the money and the quality, the best option in town. The rich people in Manattan of whom you speak can't GET this produce. I agree that all the rhetoric and philosophy is a bit silly if you consider how grumpy one's "fellow members" can be. It's why communism didn't work, but as a Brooklyn market it works well enough to feed me and keep me in organic basmati rice and lovely soap that's half the price of the same soap at Whole Foods...

Anonymous said...

One of the coop's accomplishments is that it makes organic food affordable. Who else does that? And, non-organic food is available for even less. The coop model is very efficient and highly beneficial to those thousands who choose to participate, much moreso than providing a handful of (non-meaningful) jobs. 13,000 people get low prices, get to contribute to the operating and decision making of a large institution, get to participate one of the last bastions of cooperation and democracy. They get to co-own a place they can actually have an impact on.

All the while, about 50 people are employed by the coop, considered an excellent workplace with very generous benefits, including an outstanding health plan.

Meanwhile, the coop's environmental impact is dramatically friendlier than anything else you'll find, something which impacts everyone in and outside of the coop. The coop deals closely and personally with local farmers and suppliers, recycles materials NYC doesn't recycle, uses 100% wind energy, donates all unsellable food to soup kitchens (and donates some member labor in the process), composts all the other food, recirculates refrigerated air, reuses the masses of boxes that food is shipped in, recycles the masses of plastic used in the shipping, etc...

Perhaps you might consider learning a bit more about this place and dispensing with your preconceptions.

Anonymous said...

I think Pheobe should review the definition of cooperative. I'm not sure why she is so fixated on bringing the Coop down, other than the fact that she can't conviently get off her lazy ass and stroll on in any time she wants. Oh, the inconvenience!

The coop does have a schedule of member orientation/information session/tours, but perhaps for our dear blogger none of the times fit into her busy blogger schedule, and sliding scale fees.

She seems to imply that the system of hiring workers for low wages w/ little or no benefits is a BETTER system than the Coop. So, is miss sanctimonious really helping the low wage worker? Doing her bit for the little man every time she buys some Cheerio's at the Associated? It's transparent - It's a better system for Pheobe because it is more convenient for her.

Pheobe seems to be, in my estimation, someone who grew up with all of the comforts she eschews. Just another pretentious twit who enjoys biting the hand that feeds her, because she's been entitled to do so all of her little life.

We will miss you sorely at the Coop!