Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Strained Relationship With Community Over Manhattanville Expansion Reminds Some of 1968 Controversies

Strained Relationship With Community Over Manhattanville Expansion Reminds Some of 1968 Controversies
By Betsy Morais

In 1968, a famed year in Columbia lore, Mister Rogers first welcomed viewers to his home, changed his cardigan, and asked, “Won’t you be my neighbor?”
Meanwhile, the University struggled to maintain good relations with its neighbors as it planned a gymnasium in Morningside Park. The gym would have admitted community residents and University affiliates through two separate entrances–a move that led to the coining of the phrase “Gym Crow” at the height of the civil rights movement.

Armed student and local activists stormed and occupied campus buildings while administrators learned that it wasn’t such a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

As Columbia’s application to rezone the Manhattanville section of West Harlem wound its way through the city’s review process over the past few months, the project’s opponents hearkened back to 1968 and derided Columbia as an insensitive neighbor.

Today’s Columbia officials say the University has made progress in balancing the interests of affiliates and locals. They express their commitment to cooperating with the neighborhood, and note the hundreds of public meetings they held with local residents to open up dialogue about the Manhattanville campus design. They point to the support they have garnered in recent years from local elected leaders, Harlem business owners, and former mayor David Dinkins —who is on the University’s payroll as a professor at the School of International and Public Affairs .

Senior Executive Vice President Robert Kasdin said that current University-neighborhood relations cannot be compared with those of 1968. “I don’t think the analogy is appropriate at all,” he said. “There is real community support.”
But area residents have expressed ambivalence about the neighborhood transformations that have taken place since the 1960s, as Columbia’s academic growth has necessitated physical growth. Many of the most suspicious—and vocal—neighborhood activists view Manhattanville expansion as an addition to a long list of abuses of power.


The finale of the Morningside Park gymnasium saga did not conclude Columbia’s story of strained community relations.

In the ’70s, the University sought to tear down six of its properties on 122nd Street between Amsterdam Avenue and Morningside Drive in order to construct a research center. Tenants protested, but, over time, residents in five of the six buildings forfeited to Columbia. Due to a lack of funds, the academic center was never built and the space instead became a parking lot.

In 1975, student and faculty protesters began to take action against University investments in apartheid-era South Africa . Over the next decade, the protest movement established a bond with members of the Harlem community, according to Barnard political theory professor Dennis Dalton , who arrived at the University in 1969 and who has participated in various local activist movements. In 1985, after 500 students chained themselves to Hamilton Hall for three weeks, Columbia ultimately divested holdings in South Africa. Dalton explained that, to the community, it seemed as though there were two different Columbias—one which seemed to stem from University-focused interests, and one which challenged those interests for the good of the neighborhood as a whole.

During the ’80s tensions heated further amid protests and arrests as Columbia engaged in new development projects that required the eviction of tenants in University-owned properties. And in 1984, City Hall declared that Columbia failed to provide adequate patient care and physician training to affiliated Harlem Hospital. Locals accused the University of investing greater resources and attention into New York-Presbyterian Hospital, also related to Columbia.

In the wake of neighborhood agitation with the University, Uptown Chamber of Commerce President Lloyd Williams told the New York Times in 1987, “Overall, the commitment of Columbia University in working with and improving the life of this community leaves a lot to be desired. It’s an institution with great resources, technical, managerial and educational skills, and precious little of it trickles down to the community.”

But Manhattanville business owner Ramon Diaz, whose tapas bar Floridita has been in the area for 30 years, said that he believes Columbia has positively influenced the neighborhood. “This was a war-zone 20 years ago,” Diaz recalled, describing hoodlums jumping his counter, customers breaking out in fistfights, and drug dealers conducting business in and around his restaurant.

According to Diaz, who was one of the first commercial property owners in the footprint of the University expansion to enter into negotiations, Columbia’s real-estate force and community initiatives have gentrified the area—but in a good way. As the University attracts more upper-middle class residents to the neighborhood, it gets safer, Diaz said.

At the start of the new millennium, Columbia appeared to be making attempts to establish a new reputation for itself as a neighbor. In 2003, The School at Columbia opened on 110th Street, serving 200 children from both University and local families in kindergarten through fourth grade.

Moreover, last year, when controversy arose in response to Columbia’s plan to move Health Services to McVickar Hall at 113th Street, the University surrendered to the wishes of the community. Residents ardently opposed transformation of McVickar, formerly home to the School of Social Work , into a $20-million project including physical therapy facilities, a pharmacy, and a radiology suite, believing it would violate previously established agreements regarding property use. Instead, Columbia decided to turn McVickar into a center for University Development and Alumni Relations.

All of these experiences led the way to the latest neighborhood dispute over Columbia’s expansion into Manhattanville.

“The relations between Columbia and the Harlem community have been, since I joined the faculty [in 1969], if I were to rate them, a C-minus,” Dalton said, adding that, “We need to emphasize a positive spirit between Columbia and the community. That positive spirit isn’t going to be encouraged by expansion.”

But Columbia officials and local expansion said that the University has taken pains to incorporate ardent anti-expansion activists, such as the Coalition to Preserve Community, into the development process. Signs of good faith, they argue, include taking the possibility of eminent domain off the table and an $150 Community Benefits Agreement.

Councilmember Robert Jackson , Democrat of Morningside Heights, who was active in working with Columbia and his district on the project, explained in a statement that,“As Columbia looked to expand further into the neighborhood, we needed to be sure that we preserved the heart and soul of the community.” Jackson was vocal in asserting that the University-neighborhood collaboration was a success.
But the anti-expansion activists counter that, among other charges, the CBA was rushed to a speedy conclusion at Columbia’s behest, the perpetuation of a decades-long pattern.

Illustrating the divide, at the City Council vote on the Manhattanville project, local activists jeered from the City Hall balcony as both Jackson and Morningside’sCouncilmember Inez Dickens lauded the University’s cooperation with the community.Forty years after Columbia began to grapple with its role as a neighbor, passions still run high.



No comments: