New York tips its hat to doormen

April 23, 2006|By SAM ROBERTS | SAM ROBERTS,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- The threatened walkout by apartment building employees last week prompted a million or so New Yorkers to contemplate the value of an everyday amenity they take for granted: the doorman.

As it turns out, the question of a doorman's dispensability was officially answered by the government six decades ago. During World War II, when some landlords wanted to save money by dismissing doormen altogether - but without reducing rents - federal officials defined when a doorman is essential, at least in wartime.

"The doorkeeper who is dressed like a Balkan general and who performs no necessary service, but flatters the tenants' vanity by saying, `good morning, sir' or `good evening, sir' or `do you want a cab, sir,' is of course not essential and can be eliminated without affecting the rent," said Louis H. Pink, the New York-area rent director for the Office of Price Administration.

"But the doorkeeper who is really necessary to the smooth running of an apartment house and to the comfort of the tenants, who aids in the distribution of mail, packages and supplies; who keeps peddlers and suspicious characters out and prevents tramps from sleeping on the red plush furniture in the lobby; who aids visitors in locating the apartment of their friends; who sees that children get safely across the street on the way to school does perform a real service," he said.

Doormen in residential apartment buildings have been fixtures in New York for more than 140 years, and the strike would have been the first since 1991. But the building workers union, which represents about 28,000 elevator operators, porters, handymen and superintendents, as well as doormen, reached an agreement with building owners and managers early Friday that gave the workers 8.5 percent raises over four years.

Peter Bearman, a sociology professor at Columbia who recently published a book on the very topic, Doormen, said a strike would have further revealed the value of doormen in the social fabric.

Their real and perceived role as gatekeepers and guards, he said, has been magnified by post-9/11 insecurities and by the growing tendency of nesting apartment dwellers to order in meals, watch movies at home, and have groceries and other merchandise delivered from Internet retailers. They often can be more like next-door neighbors than like robotic workers sticking unflinchingly to management or union rule books.

"Doormen stand between the exterior world of the street and market and the interior world of the apartment and heart (or stomach)," Bearman wrote. In an interview last week, he said: "They have an identity that isn't about `working to rule.' It's about the provision of service."

On Friday morning, the 1943 federal ruling and Bearman's postulates were validated in the lobby of a red-brick apartment building on East 64th Street in Manhattan by Rudy Rivera and Luigi Francone who, cumulatively, have worked there for nearly six decades.

Alexandra Jones, an actress who has lived in the building for 30 years, thanked them profusely for helping her elderly mother, who had fallen in her apartment, and expressed relief that the threatened walkout had just been averted.

"They're golden," Jones said. "It's like a big, happy family."

Jesus Rivera, who has worked in a building around the corner on York Avenue for 15 years, five as a doorman, also agreed with Bearman's conclusion that the job is more demanding.

"It's busier," said Rivera, who worked with Rudy Rivera's father but is not related. "We have to attend to the delivery guys for security reasons - log them in, see that they stay in the lobby, get the porter to escort them, log them out. We have more duties."

City and state housing laws do not require doormen. In the late 1940s, when automatic elevators started replacing elevators with operators, tenants fearful of crime unsuccessfully lobbied for legislation to demand that buildings with self-service elevators hire doormen.

Some buildings have them only at night. In others, porters or handymen fill in. Some wear white gloves. Some wear blazers. At 1185 Park Ave., the uniformed doormen bear a striking resemblance to police officers - a vestige of the 1950s, when the judge who presided over the Rosenberg spy case lived there.

Bearman also suggested that while residential doormen "like bagels ... are quintessentially New York," their relationship with the residents is sometimes incongruous.

A stand-up comic, Billiam Coronel, once marveled at the very existence of a doorman's union. "What are they going to do?" the comedian asked. "Go on strike and stand in front of your building?"

On average, the residential building service workers make about $37,300, which is more than graduate teaching assistants, bartenders and travel agents, but less - at least before tips - than postal clerks, flight attendants, truck drivers and fitness instructors.

Most residents of doorman buildings earn far more.

"The beauty of doormen for me," Bearman said, "is that actually it's really possible for these quite discordant social classes to figure out a way to relate to each other in a way that elevates the status of both, and that's pretty unusual in the world we live in today."

Driving their symbiotic relationship, he writes, is that "tenants strive for distinction and doormen strive for professionalism."

He continued: "For doormen to be professionals, they must have distinct tenants. For tenants to have distinction, they must have professional doormen. For the system to work, both sides have to bridge the extraordinary gap between too much closeness and too much distance, acknowledging both but connecting each side through the patina of professional service."

Bearman says that most doormen prefer not to live in a doorman building even if they can afford it - "doormen know how much they know about tenants and would prefer not to have someone know that about them."

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