The last time I was in New York, Campo was still Campo, Uni Café was under renovation, and Liz’s Place didn’t brew Starbucks.
Returning to Columbia as a senior after having spent the last seven months in Paris, I expect to be able to strut the streets of Morningside Heights with my eyes closed, pointing out the coffee shops, supermarkets, and street carts that were the fixtures of my neighborhood for three years.
But—thanks to the online Spec coverage I could follow while abroad—I know that the landscape of my memory has been transformed over the past few months. My mental sidewalk stroll would be proven faulty in an instant by Google Maps.
Don’t be mistaken—I am all for more variety and better coffee options.
At the same time, in anticipation of my return to Morningside Heights, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Will the same sights and sounds welcome me home?”
In trying to make sense of the sweeping retail changes in Morningside Heights over the past year, the Columbia buzzword “gentrification” comes to mind. Artisan coffee shops and bakeries attract a type of customer who is willing to spend more for these products, and who is likely to be looking for other high-end retail and residences in the area. As shops of this economic stratum creep north of 116th Street, they raise the desirability and property value of the neighborhood.
There are certainly positive aspects of making a tarnished area shinier and safer. There are also problems, not the least of which are moral, such as rent rising beyond what current residents can afford. Also, with an increasing number of chain coffee shops and bakeries comes stiffer competition with local businesses. Therein lies the rub.
While studying political science at Sciences Po, I tried to describe Morningside Heights to my Parisian peers. What makes it so unique, I argued, was its location sandwiched between the Upper West Side and West Harlem. In a span of 30 blocks, I could walk from the Whole Foods in the new Columbus Village development to the legendary Apollo Theatre. I could eat organic quinoa, and I could get fried chicken on 125th Street and St. Nicholas. (Yes, that’s where Liz Lemon goes with Tracy Jordan in the pilot episode of “30 Rock”.)
Now, I fear that the smells will be blander, the signs less colorful, and the people more homogenous than they were before I left last December. In Morningside Heights, we have the Starbucks and the bagels that gain us admission to the greater Manhattan community, but we also have a local flavor that puts us on the maps as a distinct part of the Island.
Several questions ran through my head as I prepared for my re-entry into New York life: Will I still be greeted by the familiar whiffs of the Halal cart on 115th Street and the laundromat on 124th Street that were my guiding lights up and down Broadway?
And, more importantly, will the voices of the people who have lived, worked, and sent their children to school in West Harlem for years be heard above the sometimes louder voices of those more recently drawn to the area?
Taking the diversity that characterizes the tiny area delineated as “Morningside Heights” and replacing it with the same chains that dot all of Manhattan would rob the neighborhood of its distinctiveness, which right now is reflected in the range of arts offerings, religious events, and community gatherings that take place in the neighborhood, and which I looked forward to returning to from my vie parisienne.
Jessica Hills is a Barnard College senior majoring in political science and French and Francophone studies. She is a former associate news editor. Urban Dictionary runs alternate Fridays.