Food and Fights at Floridita

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James Downie finally thawed his hands enough to type a report from 125th and Broadway.

“Two options: Cuban sandwich or chicken with rice and beans.” More than 70 Columbia students made that critical lunchtime choice earlier today, as they joined the Student Committee on Gentrification and Expansion and Black Heritage Month at Floridita to show support for the owner, Ramon Diaz, in his on-going fight with Columbia University.

As students tucked into their free cuisine, a parade of speakers (both student and non-student) expressed their continued opposition to Columbia’s Manhattanville tactics (one feels sorry for any families who showed up for a quiet Saturday lunch). Diaz spoke first, thanking everyone for showing up, and declaring that “at stake here, more than any personal issue, is the issue of eminent domain.” Because Floridita has been declared “blighted” by the city, Floridita’s lease (scheduled to end in 2015) can be summarily terminated as a result of the eminent domain ruling. 

After the plates had been cleaned, and a grateful-looking Diaz had thanked the attendees, the students left for the latest in a series of walking tours given by Dr. Vicky Gholson of Community Board 9 and Nellie Bailey of the Harlem Tenants Council. Gholson and Bailey took students around several Manhattanvile locations, sharing more stories of specious “blighted” claims, and the effects of the Manhattanville expansion upon the current residents. At the end of the tour, their greatest enemy appeared to be the cold – only 1/3rd of the students that had begun the tour finished it.

Back at Floridita, though, the heavy hand of Columbia PR re-established itself as the foe. The event had attracted news channel NY1, who had an interview ready to go with Diaz, before the university (specifically, Manhattanville PR chief La-Verna Fountain) intervened with NY1 and told them that Diaz and the students were “misrepresenting” the situation, leading NY1 to kill the story. SCEG organizer Andrew Lyubarsky sent back an email to NY1, as well as Bwog and the Spec, saying “We are sorry to say this, but Ms. Fountain’s statements have no basis in truth. They are simply lies [bold original], and should not prevent this story from getting out to the broader New York community.” No matter the subject, wars of words at Columbia never seem to end. Lyubarsky’s full email follows.

Dear Jessica/NY1 Newsdesk,

My name is Andrew Lyubarsky, and I am a senior undergraduate at Columbia University who was one of the organizers of today’s event at Floridita Restaurant on 3219 Broadway, at which NY1 cameras were present, documenting the presence of approximately 125 students of diverse backgrounds representing many of the student groups on campus. We organized this event in order to publicize the duplicity of the university administration, which after so many years of verbally promising to accomodate this family-owned community institution that has served the West Harlem community since 1965, has broken off negotiations while Mr. Diaz gets notices from the Empire State Development Corporation informing him that his lease, legally valid until 2015, may be summarily terminated by that body as a result of the eminent domain finding in favor of Columbia University.

We are informed that Ms. Laverna Fountain, a university spokesperson, has contacted you to inform you that the University is currently in negotiations with the restaurant and that we, the organizers, are misinformed about the situation and that Mr. Diaz is misrepresenting reality. We are sorry to say this, but Ms. Fountain’s statements have no basis in truth. They are simply lies, and should not prevent this story from getting out to the broader New York community. Statements from Ms. Fountain, and other spokespeople such as Ms. Victoria Benitez that the university “is committed to working with commercial tenants in good standing” mean nothing in the light of the actual conduct the administration has engaged in.

One does not know what definition of “productive and ongoing” negotiations Ms. Fountain is using, but Mr. Diaz has not had a single meeting with Columbia University officials since October 2008 and has received no explanation from the university regarding the fate of his restaurant after receiving the ESDC letter. The administration has shown Mr. Diaz numerous potential relocation sites, asked him to select one, and then informed him that they were unavailable. It is especially galling that he is receiving this treatment in comparison with the other major restaurant in the area, Dinosaur BBQ, which after being labeled a “destination restaurant” was immediately given a site by the university, despite the fact that its owner is not from the area, and that it has only been there for several years. We think this is very indicative of the type of community the university wants to generate and consider this to be discrimination.

We know that Mr. Diaz has sent you documentation of his case- the letter from ESDC, in particular. Mr. Diaz and our student group would be glad to send you any more information you would need to document this story properly. We feel this is an important story and was a compelling and broadly-supported event, and we do not believe the misleading words of a university official should deter it from receiving the coverage it is due. This case is also independently documented in the Columbia Spectator, with the most recent story found here – http://www.columbiaspectator.com/2009/02/03/esdc-prepares-acquire-cu-properties.

I look forward to hearing from you. [[contact info removed]]. Thank you very much for your attention. Mr. Diaz and Columbia students have worked very hard to put this event on and we hope that we can work together on this extremely important issue.

Andrew Lyubarsky

Columbia College Class of 2009

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  1. Hmmm

    This is silly. If some of you don't realise the magnitude of the space crunch at Columbia you really should go to other universities and see some of the science facilities that have been created in the last few years. Michigan, UNC, Harvard all have major expansions underway or planned and Columbia continues to wallow in this madness. Are we really going to let a restaurant stand in the way of us retaining our place as a research institution? Professors sometimes share offices with 3-4 others and many departments have to cut classes thanks to a lack of space...this expansion is incredibly necessary.

    I would also love any detractors of my statements to give better places to build an expansion to our campus.
    Frankly, if we let a restaurant and a storage facility stop the expansion (which they won't, because at least a few people with some sense run the university and the city) then we deserve to lose out to what will then be better institutions.

    • agreed  

      totally agreed with #1.

      • not completely  

        i think both of you are missing the crux of the issue. this is not an issue of whether the university should be allowed to expand or not - it is an issue of a restaurant owner not getting the right terms for relocation despite being there for many yrs compared to Dinosaur BBQ which is relatively recent and has been provided a proper relocation space.

        That said, I think the University needs to stop acting like an effing corporation and act more like a member of the community. I do, however, support the expansion of Columbia's campus into Manhattanville...

  2. I know  

    I sound like an evil dictator when I say this, but the expansion is for the greater good. Of course, those that must relocate as a result ought to be treated more fairly.

  3. eminent domain

    should be very scary.

  4. omg  

    this article just inflated my twanger x 5.

  5. It's not like...  

    we're running a Michelin-starred brasserie out of business...nor are we taking this guy's land without compensation (he'll be well-paid). If you're going to use eminent domain for something, a well-needed expansion for a world-class university certainly seems like a worthy end.

  6. silent majority  

    my sense is that nearly all columbia students strongly support manhattanville expansion. it is a vocal minority that protests--the same people over and over.
    this is for the public good and columbia will pay these people well. yes, they have an incentive to hold out ($$$) until the last minute. that doesn't mean we have to manufacture PR wound after PR wound. Let's support alma mater. This one matters.

  7. The Answer  

    Columbia should fire the morons who run SDA, Housing, and Facilities, replacing them with younger, more motivated people who are willing to do their work better for less. The cost savings should be used to ensure that those displaced in the Manhattanville aren't getting shafted as many are.

  8. honestly  

    if we are in such a space crunch we should maybe cut down on the size of the school. we can easily get rid of a bunch of undergrads and grads, make the school more exclusive and renovate our existing facilities but yea manhantanville

    • Hmmm  

      cutting down on the size of the school and reducing number of students, professors, research ventures, grants, alumni, alumni $$$, etc...


      expanding into a blighted area of Manhattan and building world-class research facilities for the betterment of humankind

      Decisions, decisions...

  9. BIG FAN  

    Most of the people who work for housing and Facilities are pretty great, back off number 10

  10. so...  

    to address the only important question raised by this post...
    I'd go with the Cuban sandwich. Roast pork is delicious especially with the tang of good mustard and a few pickles all draped with melted swiss. Mmm.

  11. yay institution

    C'mon, you honestly expect us to believe that the pro-expansion posts come from students? The project won't be finished for 25-30 years. Students will be long gone by the time this expansion bestowes even the slightest benefit to the university. And as far as the betterment of humankind, I'm of the principle that you do no harm as rule #1. You can't rob Peter (west harlem) to pay Paul (alzheimers patients) without your efforts collapsing into mediocrity. Humankind can wait for better expansion plans for Columbia, regardless of what self absorbed administrators posing as students would have us believe.

  12. Yes, I'm very real

    And if you are rally so pro expansion, why didn't you organize a counter protest, eh there "student"? Why has there never been any organized student group in favor of the current expansion plans? And how do any of you detractors of yesterday's event explain the cosponsorship of the college Dems, Black Heritage Month, and the turnout of over 100 students? No amount of anonymous BWOG posting can minimalize the significance of events like the one yesterday. And frankly, until you're willing to reveal yourself in the flesh (by name), I will continue to operate under the assumption that you're just Laverna Fountain posing as a gung-ho, pro expansion student.

    • "student"?  

      The blue crown next to the timestamp indicates that the commenter is, in fact, a student. Or a random person who is on a computer connected to the Columbia network. Student is more likely.

      I am also a student and I am pro-expansion. So you are still wrong.

  13. those photos  

    are fabulous! thanks for posting them.

  14. Grad student  

    Kudos to those students (and faculty, and staff as well) who are opposing the usurpation of land and dislocation of small-business owners and families who have called this area home for many years (for this is not Columbia's neighborhood to run as its fiefdom).
    Those who have commented on this post in defense of the administration ignore or obscure two very important things:
    1) 'eminent domain' is to be used for PUBLIC institutions and projects for PUBLIC good. Columbia is a PRIVATE university, it is not legally bound to public interests as a state school is, and therefore the use of imminent domain in this case is unjustified by an honest reading of the law, let alone ethics. Those who have commented that the expansion is for "the good of humanity" need to scale back their rhetoric considerably.
    2) the assumption that the expansion will automatically lead to improvement of Columbia for all students and faculty as an institution is mislead, because the expansion is actually designed to benefit the most revenue-generating segments of the university, not those necessarily engaged in work for the 'betterment of society'.
    What is saddest, however, is the post above suggesting that Manhattanville is a 'blighted' part of the city that needs to be demolished. Such posts are indicative of individuals who see no connections between themselves and the African-American and Latino communities who live around Columbia, and will continue to live there even when students move on. These are people's neighborhoods, not ghettos.

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