To Charles Coutinho, Sutton Place offers an air and demeanor of an older New York. The quiet coziness of the Upper East Side enclave suits Coutinho’s own sensibility as a former academic and current businessman. And it’s the desire to preserve the neighborhood’s old world charm that drives him in his role as president of Sutton Area Community.
Long before getting involved in community affairs, Coutinho earned a doctorate from New York University, writing his dissertation in diplomatic history and Anglo-American relations in the 1950s. He taught at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights, but found the industry was not very sustainable.
“Genteel poverty is not something that you can stand very long, particularly as you get a little bit older,” said Coutinho. “If I had been willing to live in places like Kansas or Wyoming or Nebraska, I could have continued, but I had made a determination very early on that I didn't really want to leave New York.”
Coutinho took over an existing family reality business that had been operating out of Westchester, repositioning it to purchase buildings in Manhattan. He’s been managing the business now for 22 years.
For about 10 years, Coutinho and his wife have called Sutton Place home. He became a member of Sutton Area Community (SAC) — a group that aims to “actively engage residents and business establishments in efforts to maintain and enhance the quality of life” in Sutton Place — in 2012. By 2016, he was recruited to the board by the group’s former president, Bernard Dworkin.
“They said they were looking for younger members, and I think only for certain perspectives can I be described as young,” joked the 56-year-old.
By January 2017, the board elected Coutinho to be their next president.
Currently, there are two main issues Coutinho and the board have eyed as risks to maintaining the character of Sutton Place: the 847-foot Sutton Tower being constructed at 430 East 58th Street and plans for a bridge that would cut through Clara Coffey Park on 54th Street.
SAC has not taken the lead in fighting either issue, Coutinho said, but he said the group is playing a supportive role. The East River 50s Alliance has been the main organization fighting the developers of the tower on 58th Street, which neighbors feel is much taller than the existing buildings in the neighborhood.
At Clara Coffey Park, which is mostly frequented by an older population, the city plans to install a bridge that will connect the East River esplanade to 54th Street, and a ramp to the bridge will cut through a corner of the park. Residents are worried about the cycling traffic that will bring through the typically sedate park. Cannon Point Preservation Corporation has sued the city to shut the project down.
“It's the only park that for elderly people, and Sutton Place has an older demographic than the average city neighborhood,” said Coutinho. “It's the only part that they don't have to climb any steps. And that's very important for the neighborhood for our members.”
Contesting the project at the park has been one of SAC’s biggest challenges, Coutinho said, adding that he has been surprised at how challenging it’s been to get elected officials to take an interest in the neighborhood’s concerns about the park.
“I would say it has been very frustrating and a little bit depressing that in an instance where the community is so vociferously opposed to such a project, it doesn't really count,” said Coutinho.
The community expects a ruling on Cannon Point’s latest challenge in March.
One thing Coutinho thinks could help strengthen SAC as a voice in the city in the future is the addition of younger members to its ranks.
“It’s difficult ... to deal with the change in how younger people — under the age of 40 — relate to these types of groups,” said Coutinho.
He thought the lack of participation among the younger generation to some extent could be explained by their use of social media and technology. A December tree lighting and egg hunt in the spring has engaged younger families, but they’re still working toward ways to recruit them as members.
“I think it will be the case that we will resolve it, but it’s still a work in progress.”
"It has been very frustrating and a little bit depressing that in an instance where the community is so vociferously opposed to such project [the Clara Coffey Park bridge], it doesn't really count.”