"That girl's shoes are totally hideous."
"I know, I mean, they would go with maybe light-washed skinny jeans and a polo, but that SoHo Boho skirt completely clashes with the red stitching."
We've all heard it. It's annoying and silly, but the natural byproduct of an educational approach which emphasizes analytical skills as a top priority. They try to fight it, but Columbians can't stop critiquing when they leave the classroom. Combined with our generational hipsterdom and affinity for cynicism, the prevailing political philosophy on campus is "Can't Do." Even in the year of the "Yes, We Can" campaign, progressive activists are still fighting the pervasive feeling among our peers that our voices are meaningless against the corrupt political establishment. Perhaps it's true that as individual students we lack the political capital to dramatically impact bills in Congress, but if we look at our local Columbia environment, our University's imminent reorganization of Manhattanville is an issue where our voices can and should be heard. These are not distant Washington politicians at play, but administrators and bureaucrats at this institution which our tuition funds, interacting with our own elected officials. As the presidential campaigns incessantly call on us as Americans, it's time we acted as Columbians.
"Without a sense of boundary or place, finally," writes Columbia history professor William Leach, "there can be no citizenship, no basis for common bonds to others, no willingness to give to the commonweal or to be taxed, even lightly, in behalf of the welfare of others." As Leach himself describes, this applies as much to big, international research universities as it does to countries. Columbia University is composed of students and faculty from all 50 states and 150 countries, and so it's no wonder that the school lacks a strong local connection with its neighboring communities, most notably Harlem. While technically an open campus, the University stands like a fortress, sheer granite and imposing facades on the outside, enclosing the "global university" within. The Columbia administration clearly visualizes our school as more a part of its "global" community than the physical community that surrounds the campus, and this has enabled administrators to blatantly disregard the needs of the surrounding community in service to its greater, more prime-time-ready agenda.
Columbia has plans to expand its facilities into an area of West Harlem known as Manhattanville, which includes the area from 125th to 133rd streets west of Broadway. The University has disregarded Community Board 9's plan which would have allowed for Columbia to expand without disrupting many longtime businesses and residents. Besides directly displacing residents, Columbia's Manhattanville construction will have a much wider impact through gentrification of the neighborhood. The Columbia plan virtually ensures that somewhere on the order of 5,000 longtime residents will be priced out of their homes—and out of Manhattan. Clearly, the new facilities have been designed for the benefit of Columbia alone. The University has acquired the public relations services of prominent Democrats, perhaps most importantly Bill Lynch, former deputy mayor of New York City, to apply pressure to local elected officials. As the result of a thorough campaign, Columbia has achieved most of the steps necessary to enable the beginning of the expansion. That the expansion will occur is no longer in doubt, but a crucial part of the process remains.
Columbia administrators are currently writing the Community Benefits Agreement. While the secret process is more complicated than can be explained in this space, it involves the University's commitments to the neighborhood regarding affordable housing and other issues of displacement and gentrification. Herein lies the opportunity to compel the administration to partner with the community and guarantee that the living standards of residents will not be destroyed by the actions of the University. As students, we have unique political capital in this situation, and it is our responsibility to our neighbors to properly leverage it.
The only organized group of students that has chosen to support and work with West Harlem residents, especially the Coalition to Preserve Community, in fighting for an ethical expansion has been the Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification. This has been a small and dedicated group since the beginning of the process, and we are sorry to say that we are relative newcomers to their work. Given that it is our tuition money that is funding the expulsion of Harlem residents from their homes, it seems reasonable that Columbia students should be expected to get involved with the process and struggle for a benefits agreement that alleviates the potentially drastic changes brought on by the expansion. It is time for students to remember that they attend a university that is not just global, but local.
Sarah Leonard is a Columbia College junior majoring in history. Kate Redburn is a Columbia College junior majoring in history and African studies. Shock and Awe runs alternate Tuesdays.