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 –

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