Carmen La Luz has painted, plumbed and performed assorted odd jobs from Chelsea to the Bronx for 40 years.
On the brink of her 87th birthday, she can look back on her life as a pioneer, a woman in what had traditionally been a man's job: a building superintendent.
“Every day, every night, something new, but always the same,” she said of the work.
Female supers in New York City are about as rare today as they were when La Luz first landed in the U.S. in the ‘60s.
But that might be changing. As the city experiences a construction boom of new residential buildings, the demand for superintendents grows. And building owners expect a higher level of professionalism in the people they hire to perform the jobs.
Peter Grech, who teaches a certification course for building supers at CUNY, has had women students in the past, but said that for the first time he can remember he has two 20-something, American-born women in the class.
Still, it's a male-dominated profession.
Of about 3,000 supers who belong to the building service workers union 32BJ SEIU, only a few dozen are women. But there are also some women among the thousands of non-union supers.
A survey conducted by Grech, who is also director of education at the Superintendents Technical Association, found that there were only about 80 known female supers in their network. He figured there are few (10 or so) more flying under the radar, taking over for their husbands and ex-husbands, or working for private institutions.
“This is a heavily male union,” said 32BJ spokesperson Rachel Cohen. “We don’t have control over hiring, but we encourage women to enter this field because of the job security.”
Longtime superintendent Janet Leon told Metro that for decades even handywomen have been shy to the job and that building owners have been reluctant to hire women as supers.
“I’m not talking about the dark ages,” she said. “Very recently, I was surprised by the candor of some employers in New York telling me outright that I wasn’t getting the job because I’m a woman.”
Leon got her start in the field after spotting an ad in the Village Voice. She thought she would work just one year as a superintendent, living rent free in a 34-unit West Village building, while pursuing her passion for photography at the School of Visual Arts.
Eight years later, she realized she was also passionate about the skilled work of maintaining people’s safety and comfort in their homes. She deepened her knowledge with advanced technical courses and earned an associate degree in building engineering at CUNY.
“Buildings now have more amenities, and managers and board members are realizing they need a superintendent with deep communication and resident relations skills," she said. "They want someone who can write a cogent report, concise emails, and make presentations.
“The image of the grimy, paint-splattered gruff super is being phased out…and will soon be as extinct as the oil guzzling No. 6 boilers.”
Leon has returned to the School of Visual Arts, but this time as building engineer for the dormitory residences for over 500 students.
“You want your home to be your sacred little place,” she said. “To not have hot water, to have anxiety about who is going to come and fix it, nobody should feel that way. I love being able to make someone’s life more easy.”
Tenants respond to that commitment, she said, and have told her so.
“People tell me, ‘Gee, we’re so happy you are here. It looks better, it feels better, you have a presence that fills the building.’”