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Andra Mihali / Senior staff photographer

An anti-gentrification festival on a quiet street in West Harlem attracted only a small crowd Saturday afternoon. Organizers of the 24th annual Anti-Gentrification Community Awareness Festival, which was held on 124th Street between Broadway and Riverside, said that despite the low turnout, fighting rapid neighborhood change is seen as an important cause. The year's event is appropriately timed. Just north of the festival, Columbia has begun its large construction and demolition efforts in preparation for its expansion into Manhattanville. "Tired though we may be, we're still here," said Tom DeMott, CC '80 and a member of the West Harlem Coalition, which organized the festival. The coalition is a subgroup of the Coalition to Preserve Community, an activist group in the neighborhood that has vocally opposed the process of Columbia's expansion. The name of the street fair caught the attention of some passersby. "I think it's very cheery. It's a hilarious name," Karen Karbiener, a local resident, said. "Only in New York would you have an anti-gentrification festival." An unmanned table with fliers and cardboard signs protesting the University's Manhattanville expansion also received a few curious stares. Other pedestrians passed by quickly, browsing briefly through secondhand clothes and books at the rummage table. When explaining Columbia's expansion plans to a friend, Max Hunter, a first-year college student who studies in Brooklyn but lives in West Harlem, said, "They're destroying everything. They're like the white guys from the movie 'Avatar.'" DeMott sat at a sidewalk table half-concealed by cardboard signs, blasting an eclectic playlist of reggae, soul, jazz, Ethiopian, Latino, and rock 'n' roll numbers from his personal collection. At several points during the festival, the block was largely empty. Unlike those held in previous years, Saturday's festival had neither food vendors nor a live band performance scheduled. DeMott said that organizers this year had difficulty obtaining a sound permit, which severely delayed preparations—it wasn't until Friday that the committee received the go-ahead. George Gruenthal, a neighborhood resident for 37 years and an organizer of the event, said that students often feel disconnected from the surrounding area. "They tend to have less roots in the neighborhood because they're here for a few years and they go," he said. Robin Berson, a resident for 42 years, said she was concerned about the environmental impact of parts of Columbia's expansion. "What they have planned for this community is disgusting." Still, the festival was disappointing to her, she said. "I've been to others that have been real. This isn't real yet," she said. "Don't judge the whole movement by this event," she added. But James DeMott, a local resident and son of Tom DeMott, said that the event was not necessarily meant to be a loud protest. "It's a statement of the community that we still here. We're the remaining people." "I look at this fair as the time to get to know people in the community," Symone Johnson, another resident, added. Despite the small turnout this year, James DeMott was upbeat when he discussed the future of the street fair. "Next year, we gonna put in our two cents again," he said. Later, he added, "All that really means is next year we gonna have food." news@columbiaspectator.com

Gentrification Coalition to Preserve Community Manhattanville
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