Spurred by the death of a construction worker on the site of Columbia’s Manhattanville campus last week, community activists and students discussed the consequences of the expansion for both Harlem residents and students at a forum on campus on Monday.
Layan Fuleihan, CC ’12, opened the forum—which featured a conversation with local leaders, students and Mindy Fullilove, a professor at the College of Physicians and Surgeons—by identifying Manhattanville as “not a big issue for the student body.”
“From my experience, the reasons for this are structural consequences,” Fuleihan said. “There’s the fact that as Columbia students, we have reluctance to criticize Columbia, like we have entered into a contract with it. But Columbia is not a business, it’s an institution, and just because we are involved with it does not mean we have to be silent.”
The forum attracted about 40 people, many of them students who have recently become involved in the effort to halt Columbia’s expansion into Manhattanville. Since last Thursday, a group of activists have occupied the sidewalk in front of the Tuck-It-Away storage building on 125th Street in protest of the University’s impending demolition of five properties that were acquired by the use of eminent domain.
Eminent domain—the power to take private property for public use, with the exchange of compensation—has been a long-fought battle for the Empire State Development Corporation, a New York state agency that acted on behalf of the University to seize property. But activists continue to question whether the Manhattanville campus will serve “public use”—especially in light of the problems with distributing the money allotted to Harlem in the Community Benefits Agreement.
Fullilove, a social psychiatrist and author of “Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It,” said that displacement caused by eminent domain nationwide causes people to go through “a catastrophic experience.”
“Becoming involved in Manhattanville is one of the most important things we can do. The point is that it’s going on everywhere, and by becoming involved we start to gain the skills for how we are going to stop this,” she said.
Danny Alonso, CC ’12, said that he has felt a greater sense of community at the occupation than he has since arriving at Columbia, where he says his status as the son of Mexican immigrants has made it difficult for him to fit in.
“This is about genuine community with character that’s getting eroded. I hear stories, I learn names, and I see them as part of my family,” he said. “That to me is the real beginnings of people starting to build a resistance.”
The Coalition to Preserve Community, a primary opposition group of the expansion, stages periodic protests, but the sit-down forum reignited discussions between students and local leaders.
Speakers called on attendees to foster stronger bonds between Manhattanville and the Morningside campus, which most agreed are socially divided.
“This expansion drives a wall between Columbia and the community, and as a student I benefited from living in a real community, not a sterile institutional environment,” said Tom Kappner, CC ’66, a local resident and a longtime member of CPC.