Jose De Los Angeles feels helpless. Shirley Smith is seething. Jimmy Cortez has hope. As Columbia continues to push for the zoning changes and property rights that will allow for a northward expansion of campus, the people on the streets of West Harlem represent different facets of a chaotic emotional spectrum.
Many local business owners are burdened by pressure to sell their stores and give way to the University's expansion plans. Some residents fear that rent-controlled apartments will be replaced by student and faculty housing. Youths speak of the need to protect the soul of their community, while some parents express hope for increased educational opportunities for the next generation.
De Los Angeles, owner of Big City Auto Parts between 130th and 131st Streets on Broadway, began working at the store at age 19, eventually taking ownership from his uncle. "This is me. This is where I've put all my efforts," he said, gesturing around his office in the back of his shop. "And it's like my dream has gone away."
Although the University has not yet directly contacted him about buying his property, De Los Angeles' business operates within the approximately 20-acre area historically known as Manhattanville, bounded by 125th and 133rd Streets, Broadway and 12th Avenue--property which Columbia is determined to own before the proposed expansion would begin.
"I don't even know what to say," De Los Angeles said with a verbal shrug. "There's nothing I can do; they're too strong. I mean, I could have a fight, but it's not gonna take me anywhere. It's like a little fly against an elephant." He smacked his fist onto his palm to demonstrate. "They wouldn't even feel me, you know?"
For many, fear and anger has yet to be replaced by such fatalism. Sonia Reyes lives at 3161 Broadway, property she worries will become a casualty of the expansion process. "They want to pull me out, too, because they want that building," she said. "I have 20 years living there, so what they gonna do with me and my four kids?"
Reyes is a receptionist at Broadway Auto Center, a family-owned business currently involved with the University in negotiations over its purchase.
"Actually, we don't really want to sell it," Francesco Rivera, manager of the auto center, said. "It's a lot of people losing their jobs if they try to take over this whole building."
Promise of New Jobs
University President Lee Bollinger has repeatedly emphasized his interest in improving the Manhattanville community and has noted the long-term benefits of expansion, such as enhanced pedestrian accessibility of the cross-streets between 129th and 132nd Streets and the creation of new jobs. Ground space around 125th Street is slated to remain available for retail shops and restaurants, creating entrepreneurial opportunities.
But Reyes is skeptical that she and her co-workers will enjoy benefits from any jobs created through the expansion process. "I don't think they're gonna produce mechanical jobs," she said. "They not thinking the mechanicals, they not thinking the people that serve foods, you know? They just thinking ... professionals."
Some are more optimistic about the potential advantages of expansion. West Harlem resident Madeline Hernandez, 19, is studying to be a medical assistant while raising a five-year-old daughter. She said she could see potential benefits to the development of the area.
"If there could be more jobs and it's beneficial to people who live here, and people around here could get jobs, then yeah," she said. "But if it's only gonna be jobs for people that go to the school, that's not fair."
A sense of alienation from the University setting, just 10 blocks south of the area, seems rampant in West Harlem. A 29-year-old West Harlem resident, who insisted upon the pseudonym "Andy LaSalle," said, "They have Columbia University right there, but yet I don't see too many people from there coming over there to the projects, to the co-ops and asking people, do they want a job?"
Rumors, misinformation, and distrust for the University seem to abound in West Harlem. Some in the area were not aware about the Manhattanville expansion, and others only knew what they had seen declared on fliers from the Coalition to Preserve Community, an organization aiming to raise concerns about Columbia's expansion.
Adam Nunez, 17, said that he thought few people in the area knew about the issue of expansion. Although the West Harlem resident said he doesn't see any benefits to the proposed development, he added, "I might be biased because of the fliers and all; they're all against it."
Concern Outside Manhattanville
The University has estimated that only two-thirds of the approximately 140 legal apartments in the manufacturing-zoned area are occupied. But residents in surrounding apartment buildings will also likely be affected by added pressure on real estate and rising property values.
Riverside Park Community stands a block above the proposed development site. Last March, the landlord of the apartment complex decided to break with a state program aimed to ensure affordable housing for its tenants. Worry over potential rent increases and frustration over the seemingly inevitable gentrification of Harlem at times seem to have led to anger directed at the University.
Shirley Smith, a worker at St. Luke's Hospital, has lived in the Riverside Park Community for 28 years. Stony-faced as she sat with fellow tenants outside her residence, she described Columbia as "a big octopus. They don't own enough?" Smith said that she doesn't know whether or not she'll move if her rent increases significantly. Taking a drag on her cigarette, she demanded, "Why do they need so much property? Where the hell we gonna go?"
Some are offended by what seems to be the University's priorities. A Riverside Park Community resident who called himself "Harry Riverside" explained, "I understand business, I understand expansion, I understand education. I'm all for it. But ... what's more important, somebody getting an education or somebody having a roof over their head?"
Others see potential in the plans for expansion. West Harlem resident Angel Revara suggested that having another college in the neighborhood might encourage more Harlem residents, such as his 15-year-old daughter, to attend the school.
"That's my dream, that she go to college," he said. "She probably go to the college we talking about now, you never know. People from the area can go to the college. It brings us a little more education in the area."
Jimmy Cortez, who lives in the Grant Houses at Broadway and 125th Street, is also enthusiastic about the influence the University could have on the quality of life in Harlem.
"I think it will get safer," he said. "You walk downtown now, you see a change. When Columbia's involved: clean, security, you feel safe. You come down this way [into Harlem], you gotta think twice."
The plans for expansion intend to avoid creating a chasm between the community and the Manhattanville campus, and some locals are responsive to the idea of integrating the school and the community.
"We don't mind if it's mixed, if we could stay and you guys could come in," said Raymond Torres, 45, a lifelong West Harlem resident. "Not just move us out and have only students here."
But the sense that Columbia has no vested interest in what's best for the community was prevalent among locals. LaSalle insisted that he respects the University's need for more space, but he added, "We understand what they need, but what about what we need?"
Harry Riverside, of Riverside Park Community, is convinced that the essence of his childhood neighborhood will be lost if Columbia expands into Manhattanville. "We couldn't have our all-night barbecues in the summer," he said. "They're taking the soul of the community away."