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Trailblazing real estate veteran puts partnerships in perspective

For Merle Gross-Ginsburg, one of the early pioneers for women in New York City’s real estate industry, her early years and economic needs came to define how she pursued success in the toughest of times.

Gross-Ginsburg founded the Association of Real Estate Women (AREW) in 1975, an organization that served as a powerful force for women in the real estate industry, most recently merging with another women’s group, NYCREW, to form CREW New York.

Originally from Galveston, Texas, a seaside town along the Gulf of Mexico, Gross-Ginsburg had a traditional childhood before her father passed away when she was just 10. His untimely death forced her mother to go back to work to support the family, and Gross-Ginsburg did too.

After college, she attended Rice University in Houston, a school known for its engineering and physics programs, and a very uncommon move for a woman in the 1950’s.

“I fell in love with history and really wanted to become a lawyer, but I matured in the 50’s when there were very few opportunities for women to enter any other professions other than teaching or nursing or other domestic arts professions,” said Gross-Ginsburg.
Her mother, who was widowed and working to support her, had also herself gone to work at a young age to support her brothers and sisters, and wanted a traditional life for her daughter, and discouraged her from going to law school.

Gross-Ginsburg decided to get a doctorate in history, and went to summer school at Harvard University after graduating from Rice. She met a man while taking a course there that would eventually become her first husband, and the two moved to NYC.
She got her first experience in the real estate world purchasing a brownstone on the Upper West Side with her husband, which at the time only cost $47,000. However, the neighborhood then was poverty-stricken and crime-ridden.

“I was very young and naïve and didn’t realize what a maelstrom we were moving in to,” she said. She and her husband were robbed many times over the course of three years that the couple rented rooms in the brownstone.

“I’m pretty stubborn I guess, and I was determined if at all possible not to move to the suburbs, which loomed to me like a huge trap,” she said. “Somehow it was easy to be a young mother in Manhattan and not feel like you were in a trap, because there was so much vitality, even in the worst areas.”

In the years between 1964 and 1972, during Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, Congress passed sweeping legislation for cities that had been through difficult periods. Financing from traditional banks had been almost impossible for downtrodden areas of the city, even if the purpose was to improve a property.

With the new legislation, those seeking financing were able to get it as long as they adhered to certain guidelines. For Gross-Ginsburg and her husband, they were able to qualify as long as they turned their brownstone into 7 apartments, be willing to put the building under rent control, and hire a contractor that would pay union wages, among others.

Despite numerous challenges with their contractor, financial struggles, and several moves, the couple was able to renovate the building – and then did four more. By 1970, Gross-Ginsburg and her husband had purchased and renovated multiple brownstones, one of which was the first-ever brownstone co-op in New York City (four more followed).

A few years later, with Gross-Ginsburg’s son entering junior high and her husband’s business not doing well, she took a job at a small, now-defunct real estate firm selling brownstones and co-ops for two years.

“I couldn’t stand the disorganization at the office, and one day I stayed late and organized all the listings,” said Gross-Ginsburg. A woman took notice of her skill for putting things in order, and gave her a proposition.

“She said ‘my husband needs an assistant – someone just like you,’” recalled Gross-Ginsburg. Her husband turned out to be Edward S. Gordon, who had just started his own firm a couple years prior. Gordon was looking for someone to manage his buildings – which included 450 Park Avenue and 25 W. 39th Street – and take care of lingering construction problems. Though she started out working for Gordon part-time, she was quickly thrown into the fire. One of the first things her new boss gave her was all the leases at 450 Park Avenue to abstract.

“I sat in the office for an hour,” she said. “I told Mr. Gordon ‘you will probably let me go when I tell you this, but I have no idea what this is.’”

“He gave me one of the most important lessons in life – he said ‘I’m never afraid of people who tell me what they don’t know, I’m most afraid of people who don’t tell me they don’t know.’”

Gross-Ginsburg may not have known what to do, but once she learned, she found that she “absolutely loved it.”

“Like a duck being thrown into a pond,” she said.

For the next several years, Gross-Ginsburg became a powerhouse in commercial real estate in Manhattan. She worked with contractors and engineers, solving problems within buildings, managed accounting, hired personal, and supervised the management of each individual building. It was also during that time that she split from her first husband.

“I’m five feet tall, and I wore 3-inch high heels and dressed as professional as I could, and here I am climbing ladders,” she recalled. “The engineers from the buildings were absolutely terrific to me. They found it almost amusing – here was a woman coming to solve problems that the men couldn’t solve.”

After several years with Gordon, Gross-Ginsburg was the head of management at the company and had built the department from 450,000 s/f in 1974 to 7 million s/f.

In 1975, the year she founded AREW, 125 women came to the first luncheon the association ever held. She was inspired to form the group after being turned away from men’s organizations that had limitations for membership based on not just gender, but age as well.

“It became fairly successful relatively quickly,” she said. “It turns out there were lots of women out there who went to work and felt equally isolated and this became a place they could go and feel comfortable, to learn, to hone skills, have committees – do anything that successful organizations do.”

Gross-Ginsburg retired in the early 1990’s, and has done work on non-profit boards for many years as a real estate arm. She’s also active in fundraising for political candidates in Florida, NYC, and Connecticut, where she and her husband have homes.

Reflecting on her career, she lists helping to transform the Upper West Side neighborhood she lived in, the associations she has been a part of, being able to send all her children to college and graduate school, and her creation of a brownstone co-op as some of her proudest moments.

“Poverty is the world’s best motivator,” said Gross-Ginsburg. “I truly had no choice. I was saddened more when my peers in the office didn’t seem to respect what I was doing – but these were guys who only cared about making money, they didn’t care about anything else. Their sold focus was where the next deal was and how much money they could make on it.”

Gross-Ginsburg’s proudest personal achievements are her four grown children and nine grandchildren, and happy and successful marriage to her second husband, whom she just celebrated her 35th anniversary with.

“My message has come to be, that if you can, to be prepared technically and with experience, in the field you wish to succeed in,” she said.

“Whether that means night school, on weekends, whatever it is that you need to know to give you what you need to be taken seriously. Even though we’ve come a long way, I think there’s difficulty against women succeeding in fields that have technical and financial requirements.”

She also stressed the importance of having a partnership – both professionally and personally.

“Whether it’s marriage, an ongoing long relationship, between standard gender relationships or non-standard – if there’s a choice of building a partnership and having some kind of family unit, the ability to communicate and respect each other’s needs both professionally and personally is the key to the success of that partnership,” she said.

“There is no such thing as equality. There is always a time when someone will be dominant and some less, but there’s got to be some of that, otherwise it’s almost untenable.”

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