A magazine for Africans and friends of Africa...Our Voices, Our Vision, Our Culture

Columbia University and the Gentrification of Harlem Meet Local Resistance
By Keisha Saul

Columbia University's plan to expand their historic Morningside campus by an additional seventeen acres has met widespread opposition. So when does the battle for education meet public resistance? When a university's goal of providing the physical space needed to continue to pursue their mission means the immediate gentrification of a historic Black neighborhood, and the displacement of residents who currently live in three properties along these seventeen acres in order to accommodate the University's demands. West Harlem has long fought a battle for community perseverance - their continuous competition for affordable housing comes three-fold as West Harlem's many attractions now become known, and desired. One of these many attractions is the easy commute to central Manhattan, a priceless amenity included with each of the many renovated apartments now for rent in the area.

In the court of West Harlem public opinion, aversion to Columbia's proposal for the university's expansion into West Harlem is menacingly untamed. Passionate about their space and the use of land in their community, the residents of this Harlem neighborhood are not the only ones involved in the opposition. In fact, at a recent Committee hearing addressing the 197A community plan, residents from all over Harlem turned out in mass multitude at the Manhattanville Community Center. Columbia's plan, on paper, is to build a new urban academic environment acculturated to welcome and further the elevation of its surrounding community. The university's plan is to expand gradually over the next quarter century, dislocating residents and entrepreneurs appropriating the blocks between 129th and 133rd streets as part of this expansion.

These local "economic opportunities" that Columbia's pretense speaks of would require further disruption to the way of life these residents have been accustomed to for decades. Their community has gone from a garage and a flute of Laundromats on each block to Japanese sushi restaurants and expensive bread marked in high class bakeries.Ã' As developers compete for their fleet of the wealth, Columbia heads on the forefront, owning the majority of properties along the border of Morningside Heights and Manhattanville, now called West Harlem - very few properties are available to the public. So how does Columbia plan on selling their pretentious expansion proposal to the public? Part of their expectation is in the assumed ignorance of the West Harlem community. Ironically, they promise to build in a process that is "woven into the fabric" of the surrounding community - when part of the plan is bulldozing already statuesque architectural symbols of West Harlem's culture.

As if the writing of the proposal itself wasn't already a back-hand slap in the face, Columbia has enlisted Bill Lynch and associates as their remedy to market support for the expansion from the public - an outrageously unlawful move in New York State.Ã' The New York State Lobbying Act describes "the term "client" shall mean every person or organization who retains, employs or designates any person or organization to carry on lobbying activities on behalf of such client."A smart move on Columbia's part, they instead refer to Bill Lynch's firm as a "consulting firm", despite their obvious lobbying efforts.Ã' Looks like the university's multi-million dollar high powered attorneys advised them right - the Act clearly states that the term "lobbying" shall not include "persons engaged in drafting, advising clients on or rendering opinions on proposed legislation, rules, regulations or rates, municipal ordinances and resolutions, executive orders, procurement contracts, or tribal-state compacts, memoranda of understanding". And there it is - Columbia's hiring of Bill Lynch and associates is now legal because Bill Lynch is there to "consult, render an opinion, and advise Columbia (the client) on how to secure a positive vote for the expansion. Way to go Columbia. To add a sweet, sweet strawberry icing to the cake, Lynch stands as one of the Vice Chairs of the Democratic National Committee. Significance - Lynch stipulates the budget for the campaigns of local Democratic politicians, some of whom will cast their vote on Columbia's expansion.

Not every community leader has weighed money against morals- Tom Kappner has stood with West Harlem in their struggle for land perseverance. As the founder of the Coalition to Preserve Community, Kappner has very direct views concerning Columbia and their expansion proposal. He speaks of the Coalition as it "promotes a development that meets the community's needs for housing, jobs, social services, and the preservation of its historical and architectural integrity, instead of the bulldozing destruction and ethnic cleansing of the community that Columbia wants to pursue."

A local resident who lives in the famous 3333 building and prefers to remain unidentified, but wishes to be called by as alias, Tony, refers to Columbia as a "money-hungry institution who [like much of America], is willing to displace true New Yorkers to accommodate college students who are only here for four years."

West Harlem is only one staple in the story.Ã' Gentrification attempts have existed all around the world - from Morocco's decree to make every building re-painted in the color white, to South Africa now resembling a country in Europe. All around the globe, there is a glorification of "sameness", although this sameness is only glorified when its subjects are White. The marginalized communities are left to suffer.

As the plan goes underway and more information is uncovered, the community remains outraged at Columbia's efforts to further gentrify West Harlem. Harlem is united in their opposition, even those who will not immediately be affected by the expansion, proving Kappner's end note to be exceptionally true - "an injury to one is an injury to all".