Don’t hold yourself back
Written by Bwog Staff
In which Bwog freelancer Joseph Meyers journeys uptown for a free-for-all public hearing on Manhattanville.
Next Wednesday, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer will decide whether or not to rubber stamp Columbia’s proposed expansion plan in Manhattanville. It’s only an advisory decision—but that didn’t stop hundreds of impassioned Manhattanville residents from descending on City College’s Aaron Davis Hall last night to make sure he makes the right choice.
For over four hours, Stringer sat on stage as community residents, local business owners, activists, and students waved “Bollinger dollars” in the air and railed against Columbia’s proposed rezoning plan, the 197-C. Those who spoke in favor of the plan were, without exception, interrupted by booing, hissing, and bilingual shouts of “Harlem is not for sale!”
A few business owners, construction and design firms contracted by Columbia for phase one of the expansion plan, and a smattering Manhattanville inhabitants broke the overwhelming anti-expansion consensus. But President Bollinger himself served as the University’s chief defender, calmly opening an evening of heated debate with a succinct address.
Throughout the night, Stringer tried to keep the boisterous and angry crowd calm. Often adopting the tone of a strict schoolteacher, Stringer’s cranky attitude and repeated threats to close down the hearing early made this reporter wonder when our Borough President’s bedtime is.
At one point, community activist Tom DeMott broke form by grabbing the mic, facing the audience instead of Stringer, and leading a chant—now familiar to veterans of his protests—of “Harlem—not for sale!”
“Columbia’s sitting on a time bomb here,” he said, urged on by cheers and clapping. “Whether they like it or not, we’re gonna’ make it a time bomb. When the time comes we’re gonna’ be out there in front of those bulldozers!”
Columbia students spoke out as well.
Bryan Mercer, CC ’07, decried Columbia’s use of political consultants rather than constructive negotiation to achieve their goals.
“People are not only silenced by Tasers,” Mercer said, referring to the recent incident at the University of Florida. “People are exploited by negotiations, golf course deals, and bargains made in mansions like the one on 116th and Riverside Drive.”
Towards the end of the meeting, this reporter was approached by a smooth-talking man dressed all in black named Jay Strell, who told me he had been working to make sure “some of the other voices in the community” were heard. He then proceeded to hand me documents, including one published by the Columbia University Office of Communications and Public Affairs, in strong support of the expansion project.
When asked if he lived in Manhattanville, Strell said, rather evasively, “No…I live in New York.”
Though Strell spoke in support of the pro-expansion group Coalition for the Future of Manhattanville, he in fact works for Sunshine, Sachs and Associates, a public relations firm. PR gun for hire Ken Sunshine, the head of the firm, represents celebrities such as Ben Affleck, Jon Bon Jovi, and Leo DiCaprio, as well as various New York City unions. According to Wikipedia, Sunshine previously served as chief of staff to former mayor David Dinkins, who is now a SIPA professor and who tonight spoke strongly in favor of expansion.
Victoria Benitez, press officer at the Columbia University Office of Communications & Public Affairs, denied that Columbia had funded the pro-expansion group.
For the record, Strell thinks we’re doing a great job at the “Bee-Wog.”
Even if Columbia’s plan is approved by Stringer and the City Council, there is still hope for Manhattanville, said Norman Siegel, a civil rights lawyer who represents some Manhattanville small business owners in their challenge to the use of eminent domain.
Siegel is also currently involved in a lawsuit to force the city to release documentation of business it has done with consulting firm AKRF, which has given consultation to the city on Manhattanville’s status as “blighted.” AKRF, Siegel says, also contracts heavily with Columbia, creating a significant conflict of interest. Read more about the case here.
“Hopefully Stringer will vote the right way on Wednesday,” Siegel said, “If not, we’ll hold him accountable.”
City Councilmember Robert Jackson (D), who represents West Harlem, attended the meeting. Jackson sits on the Land Use Committee, a subcommittee of the Zoning and Franchise Committee. In the event that Stringer approves the plan, it will be passed on to these committees for discussion and then a vote before being sent to the entire City Council.
Jackson said that in general members of those committee vote in line with the representative of the district in question, in this case, him. He added, however, that the issue would most likely be settled by the time it reached him.
“If it’s unsettled when it gets to us, someone’s going to be happy, and someone’s not going to be happy,” Jackson said.
Jackson has publicly stated his opposition to the use of eminent domain, but at tonight’s hearing he said that he was just there to listen to what everyone had to say.
The activists tried to make it a matter of cold, political reality for the politicians involved.
“Politicians, I warn you, this is your litmus test—if you want to be in office you have to oppose this plan,” said Nelly Bailey, of the Harlem Tenants Association.