Unearthing a high-altitude horror story

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Last month, when Karen Zerek, a Times correspondent for the Metro office, got information from a tenant of an apartment building in Lower Manhattan, she wasn’t sure it would result in an article. The guide wrote that elevator service in the building has been choppy, at best, since the fall. Ms. Zerik thought elevator outages were unfortunately common in New York City, particularly in the city’s public housing complexes.

But one thing about this interruption was unusual: This person’s building had 59 floors, 56 of which were residential. Although the bank of the lift serving floors one through fifteen was operating well, the lifts that carried passengers to the sixteenth floor and above were known to fail. Residents of higher floors can struggle to climb back home, which means filling out a prescription or mailing a package can become a long, hours-long journey.

The sheer height of the building made the problem completely out of the ordinary. “I was like, ‘Wow, that’s crazy,'” Mrs. Zerik said.

For the next three weeks, she and Ashley Wong, an associate at the Metro office, spoke with more than a dozen residents of the building, 20 Exchange Place, a bustling high-rise in the Financial District with both luxury amenities and some rent-controlled units. Residents described experiences that were stressful (attempting 33 flights of stairs after a 12-hour work shift as a nurse) and, for some, debilitating—those with mobility issues who couldn’t navigate stairs at all. Residents cannot go out without a reliable elevator.

Some residents, unable or unwilling to climb, have packed their clothes before a night out in case they need to stay in a hotel, not knowing if the lift will work when they return.

Although the building’s residents were furious, the biggest challenge in reporting, Ms. Zarek says, was getting people to sign up. Some signed nondisclosure agreements with the building; Others feared management retaliation if their names appeared in the newspaper.

So I got creative. One of the tenants posted Mrs. Zerik’s number inside one of the (operating) elevators, and others began distributing it to friends, neighbors, and most importantly, members of the building’s group chat. Soon Ms. Zerik was inundated with dozens of calls, emails, texts and social media messages. That’s when I sought help from Ms. Wong, who followed up by phone with those who wanted to share their stories.

When word spread, Ms. Wong said, “Everyone wanted to talk to us.”

Ms. Wong said the obvious inconvenience was the physical inconvenience, but as she talked to more people, she realized that she and Mrs. Zerek would also need to account for the anxiety of not having reliable elevator service for nearly five months—or worse, the possibility of getting stuck in an elevator.

“Even those who were physically able to walk up and down felt trapped by the uncertainty,” she said. “The elevators weren’t completely shot at, but you never knew when they would arrive. People were in a constant state of uncertainty, helplessness, and despair.”

After speaking to residents – and in Ms. Zerik’s case, visiting the building (where the lifts don’t work, as expected) – the reporters reached out to the building’s owners, DTH Capital. Zarek said the company apologized, but was also not prepared to accept the blame, blaming the electric company Con Edison. The utility company said it was unable to determine the cause of the outages but said tests indicated it was not a problem with the power supply. “No one is arguing that this is a problem,” Ms. Zerik said. “But they both don’t know how to fix it and think the other party is wrong.”

Since the article was published online on March 28, calls, texts and emails have continued to pour in from residents.

The article sparked a conversation on social media. It has also received some criticism from readers, who note that elevators in public housing, which are often poorly maintained, break all the time. Why are breakdowns in a luxury apartment building, where one-bedroom units can run as low as $5,000 a month, news?

This was perspective, said Ms. Zarek, whose editor, Joanna Barr, encouraged reporters to think early about the process – and touch on it in the article. In this case, the fact that the building was a skyscraper was uncommon and the situation was worth exploring.

Ms. Zarek said the outages were still going on at press time – and residents were still calling.

“We definitely plan to continue following this story,” Ms. Zerik said. “And hopefully, for their sake, it will be fixed sooner rather than later.”

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