Spaced Out

Like many urban institutions, Columbia needs new facilities for science -- but legacy of 1968 reverberates when facing its Harlem neighbors.
April 28, 2006

The year was 1968. Columbia University wanted to open a gym for students and staff in Morningside Park, in Harlem. Locals would have been able to use a separate area of the gym, and enter into the building through a separate entrance.

The proposed building was soon labeled "gym crow" by many students, and eventually a wave of student activism washed over campus, centering on civil rights, war and draft issues.

Ultimately, Columbia President Grayson Kirk called in about 1,000 police officers and 711 students were arrested. Many in Harlem became distrustful of the university and its motives. And the gym never opened.

No one at Columbia wants the mistakes of the past to be repeated. But, as the institution considers greatly expanding its borders into new areas of Harlem over the next 30 years, many can’t help remembering the historic challenges the university once faced when trying to develop within its urban context -- and the university is again facing criticism that it is taking over its neighbors' space.

Still, in order to remain a competitive and elite university, administrators feel it is important to add many more research and science facilities. To accomplish that, the university has proposed a major expansion into the Manhattanville area of Harlem where Columbia already owns considerable property. Experts have said that the university could easily afford to buy up many of the remaining buildings and warehouses in the area, while also providing affordable housing options to residents who currently live there.

But not everyone is satisfied with the plan.

At a rally Thursday afternoon, around 350 students and Harlem residents protested in front of the main gate of Columbia University at 116th and Broadway Street. Some held signs that read, "Harlem is not for sale."

“This university definitely has a history of displacement,” Nell Geiser, a senior who attended the rally, said. “I think the past ideology behind ‘gym crow’ informs Columbia’s current way of treating the surrounding community.”

She is a member of the Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification, which has teamed with the Harlem-based Coalition to Preserve Community to pressure the university to think about its actions. “We look at it like they are bulldozing an entire community,” said Geiser. “When you see Columbia present their plans, it’s all PR gloss. They don’t really know what’s going to happen to the local community.”

In response to the protest, Columbia released the following statement: “The university believes its proposed expansion will not only help ensure that this remains a center of great teaching and important academic research that benefits society, it will have significant local benefits to the community and the city as a whole. This includes adding some 14,000 new jobs, new opportunities for commercial and retail development for local merchants and local consumers, a new public science and technology high school and a human-scale urban streetscape welcoming to all community members.”

Chris Kulawik, a student majoring in political science, said Thursday that activists like Geiser are trying to frame the situation -- unfairly -- as a replay of the past. “They’re hearkening back to the morality of 1968,” he said. “They think they’re trying to save the world.

“In doing so, they’re denying complete economic benefits for the community,” he added. “Clearly, they don’t want to see the university improve.”

Kulawik also said that he’s concerned that President Lee Bollinger could be swayed by the arguments. But Bollinger has given no public statements that indicate he would consider looking at other areas of development, perhaps in New Jersey, as some students have suggested.

Arthur J. Lidsky, president of Dober, Lidsky, Craig and Associates, a campus planning firm based in Massachusetts, said that colleges and universities in urban areas all over the country are facing similar development concerns. “Much of this is due to changes in technology, rather than enrollment growth,” said Lidsky. “Many institutions want better science facilities and you need lots more space for science buildings than you did in the past

“Universities need to be sensitive of the communities around them, he added. “The best way to get what they want is through cooperation.”

Sharyn O’Halloran, who chairs Columbia’s campus planning task force, said that the university will be respectful of the Harlem community, and will work with its residents during the transitions. She says that administrators know that gentrification concerns are a real issue, and that they will work to address them.

“I think it’s inevitable that the university will and should expand,” Peter Marcuse, a professor of urban development, said Thursday. “And the community members should be concerned that they’re being respected. I think that both sides can achieve their goals.”


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