Columbia’s “Noble Mission”

27 Feb
One of Columbia's photographs of blighted Manhattanville

One of Columbia's photographs of blighted Manhattanville

“COLUMBIA has a great and noble mission,” University President Lee Bollinger said to student group leaders at a February 3 meeting. “And to fulfill that mission,” he continued, “we need more space.”

Students complaining about the lack of lounges and the scarcity of social areas would not disagree: the university is squeezed between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side; its students spill out into the streets in a daily effort to breathe.

What many of them take issue with, however, is the manner in which university officials are going about the process of expansion.

Nell Geiser is a student activist and member of the Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification, formed to deal with Columbia’s proposed expansion. “There is a lot of concern that the university should be held accountable to the community that lives (in the surrounding area),” she said.

The site of the proposed expansion is Manhattanville—an area five blocks uptown from the Morningside Heights campus, from 125th to 133rd Street, west of Broadway. Bollinger claimed that the area is only inhabited by 150 residents and assured concerned students that displacement would be minimal.

But many remained unconvinced that the university has the community’s best interests at heart, since Bollinger neglected to mention that the two buildings which house these residents are participants in the Tenant Interim Lease (TIL) program. Through the TIL, the City of New York allows tenants who meet certain conditions to purchase their units for $250 after a period of three years. For some of these tenants, this period is about to expire. If Columbia’s plans are successful, the city will hand over the leases to the university. While alternative housing can be provided to these tenants, they will lose the opportunity to own their homes.

And these are just the people who will have to physically leave the area to make way for Columbia. The other major problem facing the Manhattanville expansion proposal is that the neighborhood sits next to one of the most important cultural landmarks in the United States: the historic black neighborhood of Harlem. Opponents of Columbia’s entry into the neighborhood argue not only that the project would displace those living directly in its path, but also that it would dramatically alter the vibrant African American community adjoining it—a neighborhood that Nelson Mandela has called “the black capital of the world.”

The ripple effect of gentrification—the process in which property values increase in developing areas and low-income residents are forced out—could affect the entire neighborhood. In Harlem, gentrification means that students and faculty could take the place of long-time community members.

It also means that a neighborhood synonymous with black arts and culture—with the Apollo Theater, the springboard for many black musicians and stand-up comedians; with the Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X was killed; with the Lenox Lounge and other nests of jazz still hugging the curbs—might have to make way for other communities. As Maritta Dunn, long-time Harlem resident and head of Community Board Nine, the liaison between the community and the university, put it: “What if there were no black people in Harlem?”

Just as alarming for the Harlem community is the notion of eminent domain. This refers to the power of the state or municipality to take private property for public use in return for just compensation. In 2005, a controversial Supreme Court judgment broadened the use of eminent domain to include private economic profit, meaning that Columbia could use the process to pursue its expansion project. Columbia has refused to take eminent domain “off the table,” while publicly reassuring community members that it hopes it won’t have to put it to use.

Residents of Harlem remain suspicious of the university, especially since Columbia clandestinely gave $350,000 to the Empire State Development Corporation last year to retain the option of eminent domain.

Harlem’s distrust of Columbia is the result of a long history of what many in the community see as bullying by the university. In 1968, Columbia acquired a 50-year lease for most of Morningside Park to build a new gymnasium. The park, which serves the crowded West Harlem area, went for a nominal $3,000 per year. By the admission of then-Columbia trustee Harold McGuire, purchasing a comparable piece of property in the neighborhood would have cost the university $1.7 million.

Columbia planned a separate back door entrance for Harlem residents, who would only have access to 11 percent of the gym’s facilities (it was dubbed “Gym Crow” by students who held sit-ins and took over campus buildings in protest). The escalating protests and riots caused enough bad publicity that the university was forced to abandon the project.

Today, Bollinger dismisses protesters by saying, “The people who criticize Columbia are really missing the point.”

But Dunn and a 1,000-strong mailing list of residents and students opposed to the expansion project disagree. They question the genuineness of Bollinger’s sops: offers to construct a public school on university land and provide 9,000 new jobs to the Harlem community. Dunn said, “No one asked us if we needed it, what kind of a school we needed. The first we heard about it was when (Mayor) Bloomberg was talking about it in a speech. Columbia never dignified us by asking us about a school. That tells you how much they value the community.”

Geiser contests Bollinger’s figure of 9,000 new jobs. She says, “Most of those jobs are for Ph.D.s, for laboratory technicians, professors and researchers. Harlem residents can’t fill those jobs.” The real number, 20 percent to 30 percent of 9,000, is only marginally higher than the existing jobs.

David Maurrasse, Assistant Professor at the School of International and Public Affairs and the author of Listening to Harlem, a book about the economic development of the community, agreed that the university needs space. “But Harlem also needs space,” he said. “And because there is a shared need for space, Columbia has to take the community into account.”

In the meantime, West Harlem’s residents are mobilizing to save their community. Tom de Mott, a resident of 125th Street, works with the Coalition to Preserve Community, which liaises with Community Board Nine. Mott, like his neighbors, said that he is not going to give in without a fight. “It’s an attempt to drive out one community and supplant it with another,” he said. “We’ll fight it for 10 years, with 10 lawsuits.”

This article was printed in the second edition(PDF) of the student newspaper of the School of International and Public Affairs, Communiqué, where I was editor-in-chief, in the spring of 2006.

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