August 2, 2002

Showdown: Co-op versus co-op

No fewer than four of my friends from high school are or soon will be living in co-ops next year at their respective colleges. From what I understand, a co-op is a communal living environment where the baked goods are vegan, the coffee must be fair trade, and the food is organic. They refuse all but the finest, carbon-compound-rich fare. (Don't we all?)

Whenever one of my friends mentions her co-op, it takes me a moment to remember that she is not referring to a high-end apartment. Shouldn't such two vastly different living arrangements have different names from each other? Perhaps there is something behind their shared name. Certainly people may grow up in co-ops of the posh variety, move into the other sort while in college, and then, post-advanced-degree, find themselves back in the type they started out in.

This summer, I am living at home with my parents in their co-op of the non-communal type. The Upper East Side is not known for vegan utopias, not when one can order a grilled cheese for a mere $14.50 plus tax and tip at a casual local café, or a cappuccino for something more modest still at any number of places. The building we live in has many rich old ladies and a few younger people. Many of the older women have lap dogs. Our downstairs neighbor keeps her two tiny, old, greasy-looking dogs in a cage, but presumably this is not the case for all of the dogs. The fine progress of modern plastic surgery can be seen when scanning the faces and bodies of this building, as well as the Upper East Side as a whole. Doormen open doors, elevator men push buttons, and the air conditioning is turned on to high in the lobby at all times.

How is any of this relevant to the co-op vs. co-op theme? Well, on the Upper East Side, a strict hierarchy is in place: residents, super, doormen/elevator men, those making deliveries, caged dogs, and, at the very bottom, the mice, given that the building provides traps free of charge on demand. Then, you have the college co-ops. All residents share in the chores and other duties. Many are at the very least open to pleasing one another sexually. All eat the same politically sound food items and take turns stir-frying the imitation meats and pesticide-free vegetables.

Which co-op is better? Perhaps a Soc class could be devoted to this very subject. On one hand, you have an egalitarian paradise, if you can get past the fact that it is populated by the elite just as much as the other kind of co-op. On the other hand, you have an unchanging, predictable system of needs being met, maintenance being paid, people being employed, and so on. The drawbacks of the college co-op are: bad food, expensive coffee, sexually "free" people who may well turn out to be unattractive, and a potential intolerance for conservative ideas among its members (unlikely, but potential). An Upper East Side co-op furthers a capitalism-induced social order and forces its staff to wear weather-inappropriate suits.

Which would I pick? I think something between life as a caged, greasy lap dog and a college career spent eating mung beans would be fabulous.