[URBANTH-L]NEWS: Harlem Fights Back Over Columbia University
jancius at ohio.edu
Mon Nov 26 13:11:06 EST 2007
Harlem takes on university in battle of town versus gown
Residents object to plans to turn black neighbourhood into 'Manhattanville'
Ed Pilkington in New York
Tuesday November 20, 2007
It looked like a battle of the slogans. On either side of the campus square
stood imposing library buildings bearing the names of Homer, Herodotus,
Sophocles, Plato and the boast "By royal charter in the reign of George II".
Gathered in the middle was a group of 200 protesters carrying their own
competing signs: "Stop Columbia!", "Harlem not for sale!", "Say no to
The protesters had huddled on a rainy Saturday around a 10ft statue of Alma
Mater - the mother of learning - confronted by the mother of all
They had marched from America's most famous black neighbourhood, Harlem, to
the centre of one of the world's pre-eminent universities, Columbia, in what
amounts to the ultimate clash of town versus gown.
That clash comes to a head this week: by next Monday the city's planning
authority must decide whether or not to allow the redevelopment of 17 acres
in west Harlem and let Columbia go ahead with a massive expansion of its
campus that would cost it $7bn (£3.4bn) over the next 25 years.
The proposal, fiercely resisted by many local residents who say it will
encroach upon the black American nature of Harlem, would mark the third
dramatic expansion in Columbia's history since it was founded with just
eight students in 1754 in what is now downtown Manhattan.
In the 1840s the university moved in search of extra space to mid-town
Manhattan to where the Rockefeller Centre now stands; then it moved again in
1896 to its present location in uptown Morningside Heights.
Now Columbia University, which its president Lee Bollinger calls the
"quintessential great urban university", says it needs to expand again so
that it can remain globally competitive. Bollinger points out that Columbia
students, of whom there are now more than 20,000, enjoy less than half the
space per head than their equivalents at rivals Harvard, Yale or Princeton.
The university has earmarked a largely manufacturing area in west Harlem
which it plans to develop into "Manhattanville", complete with a new
business centre, research laboratories, and improved facilities for students
Renzo Piano, co-designer of the Paris Pompidou centre and architect of the
recently completed New York Times building in Manhattan, has produced the
plans in sparkling glass and metal.
"This is vital to the future of the university," said Warren Whitlock, one
of the directors of the Columbia project. "Space is at a premium in this
university. The way things are now we are asking Nobel laureates to work in
The university insists that Piano's designs will provide local people with
new open space and improved access across the island to the Hudson river and
generate 6,000 jobs.
But many Harlemites remain sceptical.
A community board of local groups and businesses has already voted against
Manhattanville by 32 to two votes. Residents have been angered by the
threatened use of "eminent domain" to compulsorily purchase the homes of
around 400 people living in the Manhattanville zone.
The hostility rests upon decades of mutual suspicions.
Columbia, with its mainly white and affluent student body, stands on top of
a hill, rather like a medieval Italian town, overlooking the largely black
and until recently overwhelmingly poor neighbourhood of central Harlem.
Tom Kappner, one of the protesters who marched to Columbia, has lived in
Harlem since 1966 when he graduated from the university.
"I have seen the university systematically erode diversity by driving out
people of colour and the poor, and replace it with a sterile conformity of
white upper middle-class students and faculty," he said.
Kappner bore witness to the events of 1968, the memory of which still
rankles with Harlemites. The university decided to build a gymnasium for its
students on land that had been open to the neighbourhood.
In what became known as the case of Gym Crow - a pun on the Jim Crow
discriminatory laws in the south - the university tried to assuage angry
residents by allowing them to use the facilities via a discreet side
entrance. The plan backfired after black activists joined hands with
students in bloody demonstrations that temporarily closed the campus.
That gym was never built. This time Columbia says it has learned from past
mistakes and is offering local people full access to its proposed sports
hall in Manhattanville - via the front door.
But such acts have proved insufficient to win over many Harlemites, who fear
that a massive expansion of Columbia will merely increase the pace of
gentrification that is already transforming the area. Harlem's townhouses,
the focal point of black migration to the neighbourhood since the first
world war, rose 300% in value during the 1990s to up to $3m - well beyond
the purses of most black families who have been forced into state-owned
housing projects or out of Harlem altogether.
In their place affluent white homeowners have arrived. Bill Clinton set up
his post-presidential offices in 125th street, close to the Manhattanville
zone, and although he is respected by many African Americans as the
country's "first black president" the move was symbolic of the sea-change in
To some extent Harlem has been a victim of its own success. Michael Adams,
another protester and author of Harlem Lost and Found, moved to the area 25
years ago after he completed a post-graduate course at Columbia.
"People like me came here because we saw Harlem as the spiritual centre of
African America, but also because we had a vision of the vibrant area it
could become. "Now we've realised that vision, but the nightmare is that now
we are not rich enough to enjoy it."
Gentrification is not unique to Harlem; it is being played out furiously
across Manhattan, from the Lower East Side to the garment district.
"What is happening to Harlem is part of the resurgence of Manhattan as a
whole," said Kenneth Jackson, a Columbia professor and editor of the
Encyclopaedia of New York City. "What we are talking about is change.
Manhattan is changing and when that happens somebody loses out."
America's black capital moves with the times
The name Harlem is Dutch and was coined in the days when New York was known
as New Amsterdam. But for more than 100 years it has been what Columbia's
Kenneth Jackson calls "a worldwide symbol of black urbanisation".
Black migration to the neighbourhood took off during the first world war,
when large numbers of African Americans travelled north to escape Southern
discrimination and to seek work in war industries.
The 1920s saw a cultural blooming in the so-called Harlem Renaissance,
associated with such names as Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington and Fats Waller
in music; Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison in literature; and Orson Welles,
who staged his famous black Macbeth in Harlem in 1936, in theatre
By 1930 the area had been dubbed the capital of black America. The National
Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, a leading human rights
group, was founded in Harlem in 1910 and Marcus Garvey based his
back-to-Africa movement here in the 1920s. Malcolm X was assassinated in the
Audubon Ballroom in 1965 (Columbia knocked the building down in 1994,
causing further antagonism). Harlem also gave rise to the first black mayor
of New York city, David Dinkins, and today plays host to the preacher and
agitator Al Sharpton.
· This article was amended on Thursday November 22 2007. In the article
above we said that Columbia University has more than 2,000 students; we
meant to say more than 20,000 students. The latest published figures for
student enrolment at Columbia suggest that the number of students at the
university exceeds 24,000. This error has been corrected accordingly.
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