Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Manhattanville in a Global Context

Manhattanville in a Global Context
By Andrew Lyubarsky

As Jonathan Hollander argued in a recent piece (“Manhattanville’s Forgotten Beneficiaries,” Jan. 24), Manhattanville should not be simplified into a cheap morality play or a parochial battle between the community and the University. Only a global perspective that examines the conditions and trends fueling this development can explain what is occurring beyond emotional appeals to fight displacement. Gentrification is a global phenomenon and deserves to be studied in such a manner.

Gentrification occurs when downtrodden urban neighborhoods, which are predominantly home to people of color and have previously been red-lined, denied investment, and starved of city services, suddenly find themselves awash with vast amounts of development. Real-estate speculators take advantage of depressed property values to reap fantastic profits as communities are redeveloped to house young professionals instead of the working class. As land values and rents rise, many of those who do not own their homes or live in rent-stabilized housing are either forced to move or find it much more difficult to make ends meet. This leads to a dynamic of rapid social change—while the neighborhood may become more “desirable” to live in, the preexisting structures of predominantly black and Latino communities are irrevocably ruptured.

I do not oppose cities becoming more racially and economically integrated, but I do object to integration happening forcibly as working-class minorities are being expelled from their homes. The growth of the increasingly-urbanized information economy has led to an intense demand for housing that expresses itself in an explosive appreciation of rents, especially in a global city like New York which houses many of the leading industries of this information economy. This demand is met by the steady erosion of affordable housing programs such as Mitchell-Lama and the deregulation of rent-controlled and rent-stabilized units. For every luxury condominium complex that goes up on Central Park North or Frederick Douglass Avenue, there is a 3333 Broadway, a formerly rent-regulated complex standing on the northern edge of the expansion zone and containing over 1,000 units of housing that recently switched over to market-rate housing. These are the facts of a free-market fundamentalism which shies away from the social project of guaranteeing lower-income individuals a place in the urban mosaic. The end result of Adam Smith’s vaunted invisible hand in the housing market will be a cruel city that has functionally exiled its working population.

It is extremely important not to view economic development as unequivocally positive. Abstracting oneself from an analysis of power relations and merely thinking of people in terms of numbers, as Hollander does, lends itself to this kind of error. If development can create, say, 10,000 units of middle-income market-rate housing, it is true that tens of thousands of people could benefit from a convenient commute to work and a reasonable rent. However, when thinking systematically, one sees that this type of development has consistently hurt working-class communities of color. Their reward for having lived in neighborhoods virtually abandoned by city governments is displacement when the quality of life in their neighborhoods begins to improve. Race and class are the unmentioned elephants in the room that make any discussion of “development” and “improvement” suspicious. It may be true that one has to break some eggs to make an omelet, but one has to consider whose eggs are constantly being broken and which people are gorging themselves at the buffet.

It is through this lens that we can come to the issue of Manhattanville. Many proponents of the plan argue that it will bring jobs and prosperity both to West Harlem and New York as a whole, and this simple assertion is no doubt what led the development-friendly City Council to approve the proposal in December. However, what is the social cost of the increase in revenue for the economy? The facts seem to indicate that Manhattanville will lead to the displacement of working-class blacks and Latinos. Columbia’s Final Environmental Impact Statement estimates that 5,035 people live in unsubsidized housing within a half-mile radius of the campus, and that 3,293 of them would be at risk of displacement by Columbia affiliates by the year 2030. There are a number of reasons why I believe these numbers to be grossly understated, but even taking them at face value creates a frightening scenario. In the context of the rapid development of the rest of Harlem for the benefit of wealthy newcomers, Columbia affiliates alone would be responsible for the flight of thousands of people. Looking at the issue from a citywide perspective, we see similar populations at risk in the Lower Est Side and Brooklyn and regrettably see our University as part of the problem when it could be part of the solution.

I want to emphasize that no argument needs to be taken to its extreme, and what critics of the expansion seek is a viable compromise. It is impossible to freeze a dynamic city like New York and prevent high-end development absolutely. But the same financial resources that empower the University to take on a project so vast in scale give it the ability to fund affordable housing, education, job training, and other forms of community support, as well. Because the University has exploited its powerful position and ignored any pretense to respecting local democracy in the area, it is our duty as students to continue to oppose the plan in the months and years ahead.

The author is a Columbia College junior majoring in Hispanic studies.
NB - Excellent article which points precisely the problem with the way the CU expansion is taking place. The community basically has never opposed the right of CU to expand into West manhattanville. The objections were and still are the way that expansion is proposed to be accomplished and the lack of respect for the community both by Unoversity and the City Government. - JRM

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