A beastly brouhaha has erupted at the Dakota Building, arguably the snootiest and most self-regarding apartment building in all of Manhattan, after one of its long-time residents filed a lawsuit this week accusing its managing board of straying beyond the bounds of familiar snobbery into outright racial discrimination.
The building where John Lennon lived before being assassinated outside its grand front entrance in 1980 was quivering yesterday, or should have been, from the shock of the legal assault, set in motion by Alphonse Fletcher, a prominent Wall Street financier and an African American, who has lived there for almost 20 years.
Angry that he was refused permission to buy an apartment adjacent to the one he already owns to accommodate his growing family, Mr Fletcher has let loose against the building, which, like many others in Manhattan, operates as a co-operative. The suit accuses the co-op board, of which he recently served for several years as president, of systematically discriminating against residents and would-be residents who happen not to be white.
Like countless other co-op buildings with fancy addresses on Central Park, the Dakota sees fit to exercise all kinds of apparent legal discrimination when vetting prospective buyers of its apartments. To gain approval, would-be residents must demonstrate stellar levels of financial security. Other conditions vary but range from the kinds of pets you have to the amount of money you are giving to institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Generally, a co-op board can say no thank you without explanation. Over the years, the Dakota has famously rejected the likes of Cher and Billy Joel. Also turned away were Melanie Griffith and her partner Antonio Banderas. But allegations that racism is involved come rarely and can cause deep damage.
A series of purported slurs are given billing in the suit. The plaintiff alleges, for example, that the singer Roberta Flack, who lives in the Dakota, suffered serial humiliations at the hands of the board when she sought to replace a broken bathtub. Mr Fletcher says he heard members titter each time a new obstacle was put in her way. She was also obliged to use the service lift after walking her dog, while white owners of dogs were directed to the main lifts, he alleges.
The suit recalls co-op members speaking of one applicant couple belonging to the "Jewish Mafia".
On another occasion, somebody suggested that a Hispanic man was seeking to buy a ground-floor apartment so he could more easily buy drugs on the street. The applicant, who was rejected, was married to a "prominent financially well-qualified white woman," the suit says, dangling the suggestion that the two in question were Banderas and Griffiths.
"Although such conduct by a co-op board on the Upper West Side of Manhattan at the beginning of the 21st century may seem surprising, this behaviour was consistent with the defendants' extensive pattern of hostility toward non-white residents of the building," the lawsuit, which was filed on Tuesday, suggests.
Mr Fletcher, who is seeking $15m in damages, also accuses the board of spreading smears about his financial condition. For its part, the board appears to be standing by its original assessment that its accuser, in spite of his running his own long-established hedge fund, did not have the cash to be buying another apartment.
"Mr Fletcher's application to purchase an additional apartment in the Dakota was rejected based on financial materials he provided," it insisted in a statement. "Any accusations of racial discrimination are untrue and outrageous... The Dakota board is confident in the soundness of its decision."
Residents and applicants
Among its many famous residents, the one most closely associated with the Dakota is John Lennon, who was just opposite the building when he was shot dead in 1980. The composer Leonard Bernstein, who wrote West Side Story, was another musical resident; 16 years after his death, his home went on sale in 2006 for $25.5m.
The horror actor Boris Karloff's ghost is said to haunt the building he occupied in the 1950s – not the only spooky association: Rosemary's Baby was filmed there.
Yet another musician, Roberta Flack, has been dragged into the racism allegations that have brought attention back to the co-op, with the litigant Alphonse Fletcher claiming that whereas white residents are allowed to take their dogs in the lift, she had no such privileges.
Not every celebrity who wants to live at the Dakota is lucky enough to get a place. Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas were summarily turned down when they tried to buy a place, as were Gene Simmons and Billy Joel.