The tension between some West Harlem residents and the University is not a unified struggle, a Wednesday panel discussion showed.
Tom DeMott, CC ’80 and founder of the Coalition to Preserve Community, a local activist group that has vehemently opposed the Manhattanville expansion, and Larry English, the chair of West Harlem’s Community Board 9, disagreed about how best to push for the neighborhood’s goals.
English, who was appointed chair of CB9 last year, said he has adopted a philosophy of “dealing with the deal that I’ve got in front of me on the table” as it became clearer that the expansion would proceed.
“The project is being built. The question is now how do we as a community figure out how to allow this project to be in a way that it does not destroy the fabric of West Harlem,” English said.
That’s a much more neutral position than those held by previous heads of CB9, which played host to much of the anti-expansion sentiment when the plans were first announced. And during the panel discussion, held at Fordham Law School and attended by around 150 people, DeMott wasn’t shy about criticizing English’s willingness to negotiate.
“Larry [English] says that he wishes he were around when the fight was going on,” DeMott said. “The fact of the matter is that the fight is still very much going on right now.”
DeMott’s approach—and that of the CPC, which often protests outside Columbia’s gates—is aggressively pushing for concessions from the University.
When Fordham law professor and moderator Brian Glick asked the panelists what they would request of Columbia if the school were willing to make any changes to its plans, DeMott said he would like to see both a legal clinic to help fight displacement and a fund set aside for rent control. Both of these are points that the West Harlem Local Development Corporation had stressed in their original zoning proposal, but “which were essentially gutted by the politicians.”
He also mentioned arts and education initiatives, adding, “There were ways in which the school system in Harlem could be put at a genuine advantage—not to be a Petri dish for Teachers College,” a reference that the school Columbia committed to supporting in the Manhattanville community benefits agreement.
English put the emphasis on employment and additional housing in the area. “I’m telling Columbia that elephants will climb trees before the Community Board supports you anymore, unless local and minority companies get at least 35–40 percent of the contracts,” he said.
But after the meeting, English told Spectator that what he wants to see changed most is Columbia’s role in the neighborhood.
“I’m not talking about spending more money, or walking through with a cookie jar. I mean, are you fully integrated with the community? That’s more of a mental and an emotional adjustment than it is a financial adjustment,” he said.
English and DeMott also butted heads when discussing the difficulty of working with a large and powerful institution like Columbia.
“I know Tom thinks I’m a country boy and I just got off the turnip truck yesterday,” English said, “and I am a country boy who just got off the turnip truck yesterday.”
“Thank God!” interjected DeMott.
But English shot back, saying, “I believe on the community board we have the talent and the community in West Harlem to sit at the table with Columbia”—an approach that comes from the nature of his job.
“Tom [DeMott] is a community activist, I’m the chair of Community Board 9. I have a different role than he does,” English said. “We have to sit at the table and balance interests. When Columbia comes to us and they have a problem, we have a duty to sit and listen to them.”
Ramon Diaz, the owner of the Cuban bistro Floridita who is frequently at odds with the University, was also a panelist. To Glick’s question of what the panelists would ask of Columbia, he immediately answered, “My restaurant.”
Last year, Columbia moved Floridita from its location on 125th and Broadway one block west, but Diaz claims the building has $200,000 worth of asbestos that the university will not clean out.
When Glick asked if Diaz meant getting the restaurant back at the original site, Diaz answered, “No, it doesn’t have to be. Somewhere in the vicinity. I’ve offered this to them. But they’ve said no.”
The fourth panelist, Columbia professor emeritus of planning Peter Marcuse, said that Columbia needs to focus on reshaping its relationship to the neighborhood now that the project is moving ahead.
“What went wrong here was a failure of decent planning, and it’s too late to remedy that,” he said.