Does Anyone Really Want to Pick Apples with the Neighbors?

Original Article Published On The New York Times

By Ronda Kaysen

For many New Yorkers, the best kind of neighbor is a quiet one who offers little more than a cursory nod in the elevator. Yet, when Gotham West, a luxury apartment building in Hell’s Kitchen, announced an October outing to an apple orchard, nearly 50 people signed up in 15 minutes, filling the charter bus, and leaving another 15 names on a waiting list.

Why did so many people jump at the opportunity to spend an entire day with their neighbors at a farm in Warwick, N.Y., a small town about an hour and a half north of Manhattan?

Maybe New Yorkers actually want to bond with the people down the hall, at least that’s what Gotham West management seems to think. Residents who sign up for the building’s $700-a-year amenity package have access to an endless social calendar with events like movie nights, mixology classes, cider tastings and a Halloween costume party.

The trip to Pennings Farm was the building’s first foray off-campus, taking the theme of building-sanctioned fun on the road.

Apple picking “kind of feeds into that club atmosphere,” said Patrick Hazlewood, the event producer who accompanied Gotham West tenants on their trip. “It is part of that collegial, dorm lifestyle.” (Assuming, of course, you want to relive the dorms.)

Next getaway on the agenda: a weekend ski trip. Mr. Hazlewood is considering Vermont, which would mean a sleepover with the neighbors.

Gotham West is one of a handful of expensive rental buildings offering excursions as the latest perk. Common, a developer of co-living housing, led New York City residents to a sleep-away camp near Lake George a few times this year. At 525 West 52nd Street, another Hell’s Kitchen rental, residents visited Storm King Art Center in Cornwall, N.Y., in September. And the Eugene, a rental near Hudson Yards, also took its residents apple picking last month.

In a sluggish rental market where renters at the top have oodles of options, the thinking goes: Shower existing tenants with unusual perks and maybe a new one will sign a lease. Post pictures of the events on social media, and prospective renters, particularly those who are new to the city and looking for friends, might take notice.

Such offerings are also a relatively inexpensive investment compared to a permanent fixture like a pet spa or an indoor pool. A field trip does not occupy valuable square footage, nor does it require expensive equipment.

On a dewy Saturday morning in October, Michael Borth, 43, a Broadway musician who went on the Warwick trip, stood in front of a row of Empire apple trees and described Gotham West as “by far the most social building I’ve ever lived in.” He shares a studio apartment there with his girlfriend, Deborah Avery, 43, also a Broadway musician.

Ms. Avery said that she was a Girl Scout the last time she went apple picking. “There are many buildings where I’ve lived next to people and never talked to them,” said Mr. Borth, who grew up in Wichita, Kan. Apparently, that’s not a good thing. “It’s very strange.”

I get that avoiding the neighbors might seem strange to some people, but do you really want the alternative? Get too chummy, and you could end up with a neighbor like Kramer from “Seinfeld,” who barges in unannounced. I grew up in California, a state where strangers are always striking up conversations. That’s why I left and moved to New York.

Even so, do you really make friends on a field trip for grown-ups? Maybe it’s just a good way to make the most of that hefty $700 amenity fee and get enough apples for a pie.

Residents said the morning ride up to Warwick was quiet as riders nursed their coffees and got a few more minutes of sleep before they disembarked. When the bus arrived around 10 a.m., the group quickly fanned out, couples breaking off together and single tenants wandering alone. Within minutes, everyone had dispersed.

Sign up for the outing without a plus-one and there was a good chance you would stay that way all day. As other orchard visitors meandered past me, clutching sticky children and heavy bags of fruit, I smiled weakly. They had no way of knowing that I had come with a group. I imagined them thinking: What grown-up goes apple picking alone?

Ruth Whippman, the author of “America the Anxious: How Our Pursuit of Happiness Is Creating a Nation of Nervous Wrecks,” likened the outing to the corporate retreat where you go bowling with the group from accounting. “Sometimes that can feel quite forced,” she said.

Yet, people are desperately seeking ways to look up from their iPhones and strike up a real-life conversation — at least 20 percent of Americans suffer from loneliness and social isolation, Ms. Whippman said. “There is a really big need for people to have new kinds of social opportunities,” she said.

But one that is choreographed might not produce the result management wants. “It’s so hard to know whether any social occasion will be a great party or whether it will be intrinsically awful where someone’s crying into their bag of apples,” she said.

The goal of these activities might be to “provide lifestyle enhancement opportunities,” as Christopher Jaskiewicz, the chief operating officer of the Gotham Organization, the developer of Gotham West, told me.

Even so, as enhancing as the day trip might be, people may not actually make friends. At best, you make some small talk until you go home. At worst, you get stuck sitting next to someone you really don’t like.

Melissa, a 38-year-old playwright who lives in a one-bedroom in Gotham West, had doubts about the trip, but she signed up anyway. “I was a little apprehensive,” she said, cradling an enormous bag of apples as we walked. Melissa asked to withhold her last name because she did not want anyone knowing where she lived. “I was worried that I would be picking apples with couples,” she said.

Instead, she spent the morning wandering the orchard alone, gathering fruit. “I got lost and I loved it,” she said. Other single day-trippers I encountered also spent much of the day on their own. While we were chatting, Melissa bumped into a cheerful woman from the building who had also come on her own. They traded pleasantries and went back to foraging for fruit.

As I bit into a crisp Winesap, I asked Melissa what she thought of other Gotham West mixers. Many of the events were geared toward singles, she said. But just because someone signed a lease to live in the same apartment complex does not mean you have anything more than that in common. “They want these events for people to meet other people,” she said. “But if you’re on your own, you just go off by yourself.”

And maybe, you just end up with a lot of apples.