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“The Meanest, Rottenest Landlord”: CAGe Leads Discussion On Manhattanville

1973453_10201985823342489_7270227400612543939_oYesterday 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.

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  • Wow says:

    @Wow This is a great article.

  • fact check says:

    @fact check “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.”

    I guess people jump to the “visual observations” because that’s the section of the report with all the pretty pictures. After that, however, they also collected a lot of data on vacancies and land utilization, building code violations, and chemical contaminants (“environmental issues”).

    It’s great that CAGe is starting the conversation, but let’s try to keep it grounded in facts.

    1. according to the study says:

      @according to the study there were only 7 residential structures in the area

      1. Anonymous says:

        @Anonymous Less than 70 people actually lived in the confines of the new Columbia campus and all will or already have received new housing.

  • Julius SEASar says:

    @Julius SEASar “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.”


    1. fact check 2 says:

      @fact check 2 Manhattanville stretches from 125th St to ~133rd St. Washington Heights starts at 155th St, nowhere near the manhattanville construction site.

      Gentrification is of course an extremely important issue that needs to be discussed in both a neighborhood and citywide context, but it’s important to keep in mind that it is both a neighborhood and citywide phenomenon.

  • anyny says:

    @anyny Idk the new campus will bring jobs for unskilled workers where there previously were none. I think it is good for all sides.

    1. its unfortunate says:

      @its unfortunate Not very many of the jobs available, which are not very many, are going to people in the area.

      1. Alum says:

        @Alum The faculty and senior researcher positions will be filled like all such jobs at Columbia, with national or global applicant pools. But most other jobs will be filled locally. Residents of Harlem and other nearby neighborhoods will get many of them. There will easily be hundreds of such jobs on the completed campus. Maybe even thousands.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous This is old news. This new campus is an improvement for all, and everyone knows this. This is a very slanted one sided report. Columbia completely changed the design of the campus from an enclosed gated campus like Morningside, to a completely open concept with open streets, parks, and plazas between buildings all completely open to the public. All kinds of new business have and will be opening. The first floor of each building will have commercial local businesses. We can’t live in the dark ages anymore. Sometimes change is for the better.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Gentrification is a racist term used by blacks to say “we don’t want white people in our neighborhood.” Why was that girl “horrified” white families moved into her building? Racism at its finest.

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous So I have a few issues with your comment.

      First, you use the term “racism” to describe how you think blacks feel about white people. I just want to point out that the way that the term racism is used academically today is prejudice + institutional power, since racism itself isn’t an action, but a system. So to clarify, I think you mean blacks are prejudiced against white people joining their neighborhoods.

      Regarding that point, I disagree. I mean it could be possible that that’s a thing, I haven’t talked to people in that area. I think people can naturally want to insulate their own communities, so okay let’s say that’s okay.

      My counterpoints are that I don’t think this is the main issue and why gentrification is an issue. The significance of gentrification is that it pushes people out. It makes people relocate when they don’t want to leave. This is mostly a function of increasing prices (rent, food) rather than interpersonal racism (but also I believe institutional policies).

      Obviously I am not qualified to predict exactly what’s going to happen with the Manhattanville expansion, but here’s what I imagine is possible:
      1) short term unskilled jobs will increase during construction, and possibly in the long term to maintain facilities, work in shops, etc.
      2) most of the jobs will not go to unskilled laborers. They’ll go to the people working at the center, who are not from that area.
      3) the area will be come increasingly attractive for students and other workers who want to live in the area, and with an increase in demand will come an increase in rent prices.
      4) these rent prices will cause families who are currently living in the area to move out, probably farther form Manhattan.
      5) There are a lot of factors when people are displaced. It disrupts children’s education, it can make people unable to get to jobs that they could access formerly, and it increases commute. Parents commuting more –> spending less time at home with kids educating, nurturing, etc. which can have pretty big effects on the child’s education.

      Hope this makes sense.

  • New? says:

    @New? It was news to you that your tuition dollars fund the school’s activity?

  • It's not gentrification says:

    @It's not gentrification When columbia was here first. Some students here are so fucking clueless. Want your mind blown? Look at what the area around columbia looked like in the 30s and 40s and look at what it looks like today. Total shit hole now. If anything, expansion into manhattanville will clean up the mess Columbia created about 50 years ago.

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous I didn’t know Columbia created Harlem

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous I’m surprised and impressed by the quality of comments on this post. Good job, Columbia.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous “The ugliness the administration is hiding.” Yeah, building a research building and an arts center is just so vicious! Lol.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous There were less than 70 people living in the entire 17 acre Manhattanville campus.

  • Alum says:

    @Alum The author needs to think more critically. It’s great he listened to what the project’s opponents have to say. But he didn’t listen to its supporters before deeming himself (and everyone else in the room) “thoroughly acquainted with the issue”. He’s only fully acquainted with one side of it. The article treats that side’s perspective as objective fact, with no hint that the author verified what was said or listened to contrary views. He doesn’t even acknowledge that there ARE contrary views, let alone that reasonable people can hold them. He also fails to acknowledge the benefits of the expansion before deciding the costs outweigh them.

    Consider this statement: “While [CU] accepts community input on a surface level, it doesn’t allow it to influence their projects in any meaningful way.” That’s only true if you equate “meaningful” influence with substantial control.

    Columbia has made several major (and costly) changes in light of community concerns. Some planned academic space in Manhattanville will be a public school instead, for the community’s sake. The housing will be on Broadway instead of 12th Avenue because that’s what the community wants. CU is putting up brand new apartment buildings (after buying the land beneath them) for the sake of residents whose current buildings will be razed. The academic will include community facilities and services.

    This pattern is not just about Manhattanville. The Social Work building was going to be built on 113th Street, but the community didn’t want it there. The Broadway dorm was going to be larger and faced in red brick, but the community wanted it smaller and tan so that’s how it was built. (It also incorporates the facade of a historic brownstone that was originally going to be removed, and it includes space for a public library.) There are several apartment buildings in Morningside Heights that CU owns but has not turned into university housing, as concessions related to other projects.

    There will always be neighbors who feel CU hasn’t done enough. Some of their grievances are reasonable, some are not. That doesn’t mean CU ignores their input.

    The author should have considered these points (among many others) before calling CU an “expansion monster”, or deciding that it was “appropriate” to call the expansion a racist takeover. It would be one thing if he had heard the arguments pro and con before taking sides. An opinion based on a broader perspective is worthy of respect. The opinion of someone who feels “thoroughly” informed after hearing just one side is not. I expect better from Columbia students.

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous for the record the author is named alli and is female

      1. Alum says:

        @Alum Thanks for the correction. The byline says “Ali”, which is usually a man’s name.

        1. You're right! says:

          @You're right! Sorry I did make a mistake in my correction! She does spell her name Ali, and I see now how you thought it was “Ali” the man’s name. Nicely done, Alum.

          1. Alum says:

            @Alum Thank you!

  • commenter from above says:

    @commenter from above sorry I realize that not all of this comment was a response to your points and more to everyone comments.

    1. oops says:

      @oops sorry bwog i don’t know how to use the internet u can delete these

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous pretty ballsy to call this guy a “maven” (even though you were joking) when his reaction to any kind of old news is “WE DID THAT??”

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous It’s just a cutesy intro, ffs. Why not contribute something meaningful to this discussion?

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Why weren’t representatives from Columbia invited and allowed to speak? Getting one side of a story is hardly “informative.” It would be like only interviewing Putin, then writing a dissertation on the Ukraine Russian conflict.

  • ughhh says:

    @ughhh i cantttt with these comments oh my gawdd *bangs head against keyboard* the Manhattanville expansion is a violent, racist, and illegal displacement of residents if any of the commenters defending Columbia’s appropriation of land had actually taken their heads out of the sand and attended the event this much would be obvious

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous Have you ever been to Manhattanville?
      Just for kicks go up there around dark and hang around between the Pawn Shops, Liquor stores, and Check Cashing locations at 125 and Amsterdam.

  • Alum says:

    @Alum Wow. Who needs to consider both sides of a debtate when we can hurl invective instead?

    1. Alum says:

      @Alum That comment was supposed to be a reply to “ughhh” above.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous Despite this article perhaps being a little one-sided, this is a conversation that needs to be had about not only how Columbia acquired Manhattanville, but also, and more importantly, what its development effects will be for the surrounding areas and what we, as students, can do about that.

    Such questions to consider are:
    How many jobs are there going to be for local residents?
    What housing is public housing?
    What housing is rent-regulated?
    What housing is at market-rate?
    Will new housing be mixed-income?
    What services are coming into the neighborhood?
    Who is most at risk of displacement?
    Who feels threatened?
    Once we know these facts, then we can channel our energy into particular initiatives to help those most at risk of displacement or who feel threatened.
    I don’t know very much about Columbia’s Coalition Against Gentrification, but if they want to have an effect on the community as a whole they should figure out where their efforts are best placed instead of just badmouthing Columbia’s entire Manhattanville project, which is basically a losing game because it’s happening, whether anyone likes it or not.
    For example, if the elderly are at risk of displacement, which they almost always are because they often do not have extra income and moving can be difficult for them, make sure that you publicize the crap out of their struggle and make the landlord look like the biggest piece of shit this side of the Hudson and make Columbia look like it’s totally fine with evicting the elderly! Then pressure Columbia to put up a fund to partially subsidize rents for the elderly so that they are not displaced.
    So, in conclusion, don’t just “boo” Columbia/Manhattanville in general, but “boo” Columbia over a particular issue that we can force them to change! This strategy will get you more allies than if you just blindly attack (though perhaps this perception of your cause is just an unfortunate byproduct of the poor coverage by Bwog).

  • CAGE member says:

    @CAGE member I encourage everyone who has had comments on this posting to reach out to CAGE to find out more about the history of the expansion, how it is unfolding now, what might happen in the future, and how gentrification, as a broader phenomenon, can be understood as a local and global phenomenon. I’m going to try to respond to some of the main accusations or justifications of the expansion:

    1. There were few residents in Manhattanville and it was justified that the area be called blighted:
    – Columbia had been eyeing the 17 acres for the new campus since the 50s, which enabled it to plan a long term strategy to gain access to that land. That implied founding a developing corporation which tried different forms of claiming that land, although at the time, Columbia’s funds were not sufficient for that scale of takeover. Instead, Columbia developed a long-term strategy, in which it bought many buildings bit by bit. This is how Columbia came to be the biggest landowner in New York City. With that amount of power, Columbia was able to create the blight it wanted to see. Buildings were not rented out, repaired, or painted – creating not just the visual ‘cues’ noted by the reports, but the figures about the number of residential buildings – this part of the area was effectively starved to death. Columbia professors, among them Percival Goodman, and also different Community Boards and organizations, proposed several development plans for this area, to make it accessible for low and middle income people, thriving in business, incorporated into the rest of the city, and with public space. However, Columbia had enough control by then to reject these development plans, which would have interfered with their eventual use of eminent domain, which was envisioned for long before the city actually implemented it. It is not just the “one-sided” event that found the claims of Manhattanville as a “blighted” community unconvincing – so did the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, this has been forgotten by Columbia students, who don’t have that kind of memory of the expansion than residents do.

    2. The campus is an improvement for all. Community input is considered.

    I connect these two because there seems to be a contradiction in who we are referring to when we think of who this improvement is for. For me, the biggest evidence that this is not representative of the community’s feelings is the fact that there was widespread opposition to the expansion, that what could be called the most representative community organization, Community Board 9, propose an alternate development plan, the 197-A plan, and that plan was flagrantly disregarded. So while claims could theoretically be made that Columbia has listened to the community in the past, it is unclear how representative those desires were, and it is obvious that it concedes minor things in order to disregard the meaningful changes. From working with community organizations, it is clear that no representative of the West Harlem community would say that Columbia is an improvement for all – all the organizations that can claim that status have been very explicitly opposed to Coumbia’s plans.
    In terms of jobs, by this time, it is clear that Columbia is highly unlikely to deliver on its promises. Most job openings are for specialized jobs which cannot be filled by local community members, because the historic oppression this neighborhood has faced has meant that most members are poor, and have not had access to higher education. Hence, people from outside the community are benefitting, while residents are unable to find jobs in their own community. The few jobs that are available are low paying (we know from Faculty House that Columbia does not provide fair wages to its workers) and very short-term, so no real contracts need to be signed, which leaves workers vulnerable.
    Also, thinking of the displaced buildings (which we know were less, because Columbia systematically took much-needed housing off of public use in order to justify the ‘blighted’ness of the neighborhood) fails to address the less direct, but more insidious impact of losing public or rent-stablized housing and rent prices going up. This is not a question of individual landlords – it is a broader than that. Columbia is associated with pressuring public housing to switch statuses so that tenants can be kicked out if they fail to pay rent, with misleading promises. The expansion is encouraging landlords to try illegal measures to kick current tenants out so it can rent apartments out for more money to students and other higher income people. This means intimidation, cutting heating, refusing repairs, purposeful destruction, among others.

    I will leave it there for now. To learn more about the expansion, like us on Facebook!

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