Yesterday afternoon, Columbia’s Coalition Against Gentrification (CAGe) held a conference about the local implications Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion. Manhattanville Maven Ali Sawyer attended the conference.
I think of Columbia, first and foremost, as a university—guilty of questionable administrative actions (or lack thereof) sometimes, sure, but also a hub for education and events that generally benefits the Morningside Heights community. You probably wouldn’t call my perception particularly disputable. But today, I was presented with a different picture of Columbia as a ruthless real estate giant, colonizing West Harlem without regard for the human beings who reside there. I was taken aback. We know that Columbia prioritizes maintaining a good PR image—based on how little I knew about this issue before, I would say they’re doing a pretty good job.
The event began with an opening speech by Professor Steven Gregory of Columbia’s Anthropology and African-American Studies departments. Professor Gregory presented a history of Columbia’s expansion plans, revealing how much longer this struggle has existed than I’d realized. Columbia’s administration has had their eye on Manhattanville for decades.
One of Professor Gregory’s main concerns was how the university deceitfully seeks and then ignores community input on its expansion plans. While it accepts community input on a surface level, it doesn’t allow it to influence their projects in any meaningful way. This disturbing habit of the university reflects its concern for good PR above human beings, a major theme of this meeting.
By spending millions on consultants and lobbying, Professor Gregory said, Columbia disempowers community organizations that lack the funds to keep up. This news was horrifying to me: my tuition dollars are feeding this expansion monster.
Back in 2008, Columbia hired companies EarthTech and AKRF to conduct studies on the environmental conditions of Manhattanville. The EarthTech report relies on visual observations like “ubiquitous roll-down gates” and “an almost complete lack of trees and vegetation” to declare Manhattanville a “blighted” area. The report ignored the social, economic, and historical richness of the area because of some obnoxious gates and a dearth of trees. Based on this logic, all of Manhattan, save perhaps Central Park, must be “blighted.”
In any case, Columbia took the results of these studies as grounds to seek eminent domain over the area. Columbia’s eminent domain claim was initially shot down in court, but the State Court of Appeals overturned the decision.
Professor Gregory was disturbed by Columbia’s dialogue regarding expansion, describing it as a narrative that “makes expansion seem inevitable”—an eerie, Manifest Destiny–esque characterization of the university’s plans that had never occurred to me before.
Now that the entire audience was thoroughly acquainted with the issue, Professor Gregory moved on to discuss what we can do as citizens. It’s critical to support community boards, he said, and to organize and lobby at a grassroots level to raise support so that they may counter Columbia’s millions of dollars. We must promote counter-narratives, he said, to Columbia’s narrative of inevitable expansion.
Next the discussion was opened to representatives of numerous West Harlem housing complexes, community boards, businesses, and churches, as well as Columbia students.
A man from St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on 126th Street spoke first, describing the racist nature of the expansion, which he termed, appropriately, a “take-over.” Soon after moving to the area, he said, he realized that “Columbia was the meanest, rottenest landlord” for Manhattanville residents. It raised a question that lingered in my mind for much of the meeting: why do so few students know the specifics about this? Or, if they do, why are so few students talking about this?
Next, two women from Manhattanville Houses and Grant Houses spoke. The woman from Grant described having breakfast with PrezBo and some other university bigwigs when someone raised the question, “What makes a community?” An administrator replied, “A university.” The woman begged to differ, saying, “Not in my eyes!”—which was met by snaps from the audience. It’s interesting that the admins invited her to breakfast, yet based on her testimony today, it didn’t sound like the university had met her concerns in any concrete way. She called attention to the university’s robbing agency of area residents and redefining West Harlem on their own terms. “Yesterday I lived in Harlem,” she said, “today I live in Morningside Heights.” The southern boundary of Harlem used to be 110th Street, she said, which certainly conflicts with the perception of many of today’s students.
The Manhattanville Houses representative called attention to another disturbing fact: Columbia drove out small businesses between 125th and 135th by misleading the owners about their rent prices, then suddenly demanding higher rent. She spoke with fiery passion, concluding with, “I could say nasty things about Columbia, but I’ll say, ‘Thank you, Columbia: your evil stuff is teaching me how to play the game.’”
The next speaker began with a few words in English, only to explain that he had decided to present in Spanish with a translator. His choice to insist on being heard in his own language was profoundly symbolic, since Columbia drove Spanish-speaking residents out of buildings in his community. Columbia manipulated these residents by posting notices in English only, demanding rent beyond what they owed, and making it impossible for them to hand down their apartments to successors, he said.
A CC freshman spoke about her personal connection to the issue. She described how her building in Washington Heights, once occupied almost exclusively by black and Dominican residents, is now seeing an influx of white tenants.
The next speaker was a CC alum and a founding member of the Coalition to Preserve Community (CPC). He termed Columbia’s actions in the 1950s and 1960s “ethnic cleansing and economic homogenizing,” reiterating the racial tinge of the expansion. Both he and the final speaker, also of CPC, stressed students’ unique role in this fight. Columbia is desperate to keep its PR image clean, and—as we revealed with the discussion surrounding sexual assault—we have the power to disrupt that image, reveal the ugliness the administration is hiding, and demand change.
Students are indeed in a unique position to take a stance on this issue and demand change from the university. Columbia’s diversity statistics, the percentages of students of color flaunted by Columbia, lose value in light of the administration’s actions toward the surrounding community. The university’s appearance of a commitment to equality is missing actions that actually reflect that commitment.