Bwog Daily Editor and Blue and White staff writer Eliza Shapiro delved into the world of Columbia professor housing and brings us this dispatch, which appears in the upcoming May issue of the magazine.
Sometimes, in the morning, Philip Kitcher and Judith Shapiro take their dogs, Teddy and Nora, out to play in Riverside Park. Kitcher, director of Undergraduate Studies at Columbia College, and Shapiro, the former president of Barnard, both live in The Oxford, one of the swankiest buildings on the Morningside Gold Coast, which stretches along Riverside and Claremont between 110th and 120th streets and includes such storied residences as The Cambridge and The Colosseum. The pair has plenty to discuss, like “where we’ve been and where we’re going,” says Kitcher. “What things at Barnard and Columbia are like. We discuss issues and ideas.” Teddy goes crazy when he sees Nora.
Scenes like this take place often, from the fairest green patches of Riverside Park to the plushest red velvet-draped lobbies of the Claremont buildings. This is the world of Columbia faculty housing, where many professors live in neighborhood apartment buildings, in severe proximity to one another. They say that living cheek to jowl with their colleagues can be simultaneously suffocating and exhilarating, awkward and inspiring.
The romantic notion of living in a place where musings on Sophocles and Plato spill out onto the sidewalks is not entirely a Morningside myth. Kitcher recalls a recent jog in the park, where he ran into Gareth Williams, department chairman in Classics. “So here we are, out on the promenade in the park, talking about the difference between the comic text and the tragic text, and about King Lear and Pride and Prejudice,” Kitcher says. “I didn’t have my watch on, so when I got home my wife says, ‘Oh, I was about to send the dogs out for you.’ It’s very nice. You stop and chat, wandering around Morningside Heights. It’s fun.”
Richard Sacks, the perennial Lit Hum professor, echoes the sentiment. “It was exhilarating running into someone on the street who was teaching Crime and Punishment the same week I was. On the way to work I’d end up talking about whether Porfiry set up the painter.”
There is an intellectual intensity that is “almost unique” to Columbia, says former Provost Jonathan Cole. “If you go to a dinner party at Stanford, you’re more likely to talk about your trip to the mountains” than, say, the Platonic Ideal.
None of this happened by accident. In order to bring undergraduate life to the center of the University, Cole spearheaded a project to make Morningside Heights a “truly residential neighborhood in New York City.” By 2003, Cole’s final year as Provost, Columbia had purchased—and sometimes built—8,000 apartments for faculty and grad students. For many faculty members, living in the neighborhood became “almost compulsory,” Cole says, especially considering the sizable Columbia-subsidized apartments that faculty “could not otherwise afford.”
Creating a pseudo-college town in Morningside has helped make Columbia a direct competitor with its Ivy League counterparts. By 2003, Morningside was the third-safest precinct in all of New York City. But in the middle of the city, the college town atmosphere can feel constrictive. Professors often joke about never making it below 110th Street. Kitcher combats the stereotype by frequenting the New Young Fish Market on 108th and Amsterdam Avenue, “and I like the wine store down on 107th, and I wander down that far all the time,” he says. “But we do spend a lot of time up here.”
That occasional suffocation was one of the reasons why, after 13 years at 113th Street and Riverside, Richard Sacks moved his family to the suburban Bronx enclave of Riverdale. While Sacks acknowledges that Riverdale, with its concentration of elite private schools, can still feel like an “intellectual ghetto,” he no longer feels the need to re-route his walk home, like Cole admits having done, to avoid enemies within the university. Still, many professors are perfectly content being bound by what Cole calls “golden handcuffs,” even if in his case it may have required a “high tolerance for pain.”
And pain there can be, especially if a professor has an untimely run-in with an academic opponent in Duane Reade. Eric Foner, who has lived on 116th Street between Broadway and Riverside for the past 30-odd years, feels blessed that his department, History, has a “live and let live” policy, but he acknowledges that if he was in “a department like English used to be, where people were at each other’s throats all the time, then it might get a little tricky to live in the same building as someone who is denouncing you as a scoundrel.”
During his tenure as provost, Cole experienced his fair share of political messiness. “Lord only knows there must have been a lot of faculty members that didn’t like me, but I never thought of it as personal,” he says—just inescapable. What should have been a short stroll home—Low Library to 113th Street and Riverside—often became a portable office session. “I would run into 10 members of the faculty and students and I would stop,” he says, “whether I wanted to or not.” Foner adds, “Whenever you go to buy a quart of milk you’re likely to run into a student who wants to know what’s on the midterm.” Emma Stanislawski, the 17-year-old daughter of History professor Michael Stanislawski, knows that she has to allow herself at least “ten extra minutes when I’m walking to the subway with my Dad because he always gets stopped.”
The inconvenience of continual pestering, especially for Columbia’s “top dogs,” as Foner describes them, often trickles down to professors’ families. Some would rather live anonymously in other neighborhoods, but Emma Stanislawski gets a kick that her father is “famous whenever we get stopped.” Although Emma and her two siblings have all opted to attend college far from the “Morningside womb,” as Cole describes it, she loves her spacious apartment at 448 Riverside. Five of her best friends, all children of Columbia faculty, live on 116th Street between Riverside and Morningside, and commute together to their high school in the Bronx. They even have a “116th Crew” ad in the yearbook. The high schoolers often hold parties in their spacious Columbia apartments. The Stanislawski parents sometimes give the place over to the kids and their friends for the evening. Emma recalls one particularly raucous soiree that was broken up by campus police. The teenagers didn’t have to pay a fine; they simply moved the party to another Columbia-owned abode.
In the end, the awkwardness of bumping into faculty that hate you and the students who worship you is, Foner says, “completely obviated by the fabulous convenience” of living so close to the Gates. And some run-ins are just priceless. One day, as Cole was walking home from work, he ran into Edward Said, decked out in his typical “sartorial splendor,” he says. Cole complimented Said on his particularly “gorgeous” cashmere sweater. Said pulled the sweater off and offered it to Cole, insisting, “In my culture, if you admire something, it’s only appropriate that I take the sweater off my back and give it to you.” Cole refused. Said again insisted. The tug-of-war on Broadway continued before Said thrust the sweater into the reluctant Cole’s hands and walked off. Cole later dropped it off at Said’s office.
And so it goes in Morningside.