Article Image
Illustration by Laura Hand for Spectator

On a crisp winter afternoon on January 29, 1984, three Columbia College first-years were walking down a sidewalk on 114th Street when they spotted a rolled-up old rug in a nearby dumpster. Hoping it would make a nice, budget-friendly addition to their dorm room, the three unsuspecting students towed the rug back with them to Carman Hall, despite feeling as if they were carrying about 150 pounds of deadweight.

When they reached the eighth floor, a pair of boots fell out from the bottom of the rug and the alarmed trio unrolled the rug to reveal blood stains and a dead man with a bullet hole through his forehead.

Columbia's image is still daunted by its reality from three decades ago. My parents, even now, react with horror when I tell them I go to Westside Market for groceries at night. Friends of my family share in the misconception that Columbia is in Harlem, and, therefore, is unsafe. The rampant crime in Morningside Heights in the 1970s and 1980s may no longer be a problem today, but its memory has remained. The history of Morningside Heights demonstrates the degree to which Columbia's identity is bound to that of the city in which it is situated.

Finding that body in the rug in 1984 was not an isolated case, but instead spoke to a larger trend of widespread crime in Morningside Heights. In fact, the very same Spectator article that reported on the rug incident included an offhand reference to a separate discovery the night before of a dismembered body in a car parked at 122nd Street and Riverside Drive. Less than six months later, a building superintendent came across another bullet-ridden corpse in a trash bag outside 90 Morningside Drive.

Robert McCaughey, who joined Barnard's history department in 1969, remembers the 1972 murder of professor Wolfgang G. Friedmann as a definitive event that shook both students and faculty. Friedmann had been walking on Amsterdam Avenue between 122nd and 123rd streets, when three 15-year-old kids attempted to rob him. When the professor resisted, one of the youths fatally stabbed him.

McCaughey blames the tragedy for exacerbating existing concerns among faculty members about the safety of Morningside Heights, precisely because the "circumstances were such that it would be very easy for a lot of people to say: 'That could've been me.'"

It wasn't only violent murders that scared students and faculty—more frequently, petty crime was a serious concern for students and faculty members who lived in Morningside Heights in the 1970s. Imagine McCaughey's surprise when he arrived on Broadway in 1969 from Harvard to find that all the stores lining the avenue were blocked off with steel curtains at nightfall to prevent window-breaking.

McCaughey remembers that the first apartment building that he lived in was constructed "as if it were in enemy territory." A protective ring of no man's land, not unlike a moat, encircled the faculty residence and defended it from unwelcome loiterers and intruders.

"I'd never thought of Harvard as particularly manicured," McCaughey admits. But in comparison to the suburban college town of Cambridge, Massachusetts, coming to the city was "a bit of a surprise."

Coming from a middle-class family from suburban Long Island, Columbia College graduate of 1985 Thomas Vinciguerra found the neighborhood "fairly depressing," though not necessarily dangerous. In Vinciguerra's junior year, one of his suitemates in East Campus left for Christmas break without locking his room door within the suite. After Christmas, the suitemate returned to find his room door mysteriously locked. He left immediately to call security. When he returned, the door was wide open and it was obvious that someone had lived in his room over break. "For some reason, there was either a plate or a pot of baked beans under the bed," Vinciguerra recalls. "I think [the suitemate] was robbed to the tune of $60."

Not that Vinciguerra and fellow classmates were overly concerned. "Things had calmed down considerably by the time I got there," Vinciguerra assures me, perhaps sensing my concern from the other end of the phone. His father, on the other hand, had been working on a doctorate at Teachers College during the 1968 protests and the 1972 shooting of Columbia College Dean Henry S. Coleman. Even so, in Vinciguerra's time, Morningside Heights "was not the sort of environment that you could take wholly for granted."

The first rule taught to incoming students and faculty members at that time was simple: Don't go into Morningside Park. Both Vinciguerra and McCaughey recall getting off the express train on the wrong side of Morningside Park and being told to go around the park's perimeters and cross at 110th Street, even in broad daylight.

In an essay of recollections published by the New York Magazine, Columbia College graduate of 1986 David Rakoff described Morningside Park as the "here be dragons" of Morningside Heights: "Not since the age of medieval maps—wherein the world simply ends, beyond which all is monster-filled roil—has a region been so terrifyingly uncharted and freighted with peril as Morningside Park in the early eighties. To venture in was to die, plain and simple."

Vinciguerra calls Teachers College the "northern frontier" as far as most students were concerned. "I'll be frank: We were told through veiled language that those were the black areas. That's what we grew up with; that's what we were told. Quite apart from that, there was just not too much to offer culturally there," he explains. He pauses for a moment to reconsider the statement. "In retrospective, there probably was. But it was understood these were the messages that were sent to us, whether it was from concern or sheer prejudice."

The perception of Morningside Heights might have been different for some of Vinciguerra's classmates who were born and raised in New York City, especially when local commuters constituted a much higher percentage of the student body than now. Jerry Strauss, who graduated Columbia College in 1977 and grew up in Washington Heights, took the bus or subway to campus everyday in his first year at Columbia. When asked whether the commute felt safe, Strauss laughs, saying, "Not really, no." The problem was not Morningside Heights, but the walk to his family's apartment from the bus stop or the subway station. "Until I got into my parents' apartment, in those days, I didn't really feel 100 percent safe."

Strauss says students felt relatively safe on campus in comparison to how they felt in  Washington Heights. But Morningside Heights wasn't much of an ideal college town, either.

"It was much, much more limited than you guys have now," Strauss recalls. Beside a few  neighborhood classics like Tom's Restaurant, V&T Pizzeria, Symposium, and the Hungarian Pastry Shop, the only other student hangout in Morningside Heights was the legendary West End Bar, which was converted to a Cuban restaurant in 2006 and then into Bernheim and Schwartz in 2014. For any sort of off-campus cultural outing, students had to venture far downtown to Greenwich Village.

The lack of options reflected a citywide trend, a New York different from the one we know today. Many of New York's modern-day trendy neighborhoods were avoided during that period for crime-related reasons. Strauss gives me an impromptu breakdown of each neighborhood: "Chelsea wasn't great. Tribeca wasn't even a neighborhood—it wasn't even named. Soho was still a light industrial district. … Alphabet City was dangerous."

Aside from the crime and the rampant muggings, the lack of reliable transportation impeded access to certain areas of the city. "The subways were underfunded," Strauss says. "They weren't maintained, they broke down a lot, they were full of graffiti, they were dangerous."

Vinciguerra summarizes his impression of the Big Apple in the 1980s with one word: "grit." In some cases, "grit" meant literal dirt. In others, "characters like hustlers and prostitutes and zanies," he tells me.

“These were the people who you saw midtown, downtown, uptown, everywhere. I’m not saying that we were overgrown with them, but they were very, very much part of the landscape,” Vinciguerra elaborates. “I still remember the peep shows and the dirty movies. It was a terrible, terrible place. I think that there’s a lot of misguided romanticism for that grittier period.”

When he was in high school, Vinciguerra was susceptible to some of that romanticism—for him, the grittiness was part of his vision of the ideal college experience. Vinciguerra, who grew up across the East River in suburban Long Island, wanted "an Ivy League experience that wasn't too rarefied," and Morningside Heights provided just exactly that. But for many other prospective students and professors, Columbia's location in New York City might have been a minus instead of a plus.

A friend of Vinciguerra's from high school, for example, was forbidden to apply to Barnard by her parents and instead attended the University of Virginia. A native New Yorker himself, Strauss reports that "white flight" remained a troublesome issue for years in a New York that was bankrupt and struggling to maintain appearances: "Third grade through high school, every year another friend of mine left for the suburbs. People did not want to live in cities. People were moving away from the cities. At that time, I would say being in New York was somewhat of a detriment to the University."

McCaughey describes this as a "continued exodus" in which "people would come with their spouse and, once they had children, would move across the river and across the G. W. Bridge into New Jersey or into Westchester."

Some of McCaughey's colleagues also fled New York City for the suburbs, contributing to the existing problem of academic decline, which had already been brought to light in a 1980 presidential commission led by English professor Steven Marcus.

"On balance, New York City is a magnet for faculty, but probably the early '70s was a period when the magnet had its least attraction. Some people would say: 'It's dirty and it's still expensive and it's unsafe. I'm better off in Middlebury,'" McCaughey says. "Faculty left Columbia and Barnard for places that you don't see happening today."

The University was aware of these issues. However, much like the city it resided in, Columbia was stretched thin with financial problems and could not afford a large public safety force. With what limited funds they did have, the University purchased buildings surrounding campus in a desperate, defensive bid to stop the flight of the middle class.

Ultimately, the fate of Columbia was irrevocably bound to the fate of New York. "There were only so many things that [the University] could do when the city's future was questionable. You know, this could've been Detroit or Cleveland or Syracuse. There are a lot of sizable cities that became really, if not permanently unattractive, sort of lost their standing. New York avoided that, but for a while, it might've been a classic case of the ungovernable city, a city that spent too much of its money on public services that really weren't effective," McCaughey concludes.

McCaughey speculates that for years the University must have been conflicted on how to brand itself: "Did it market itself as one of the Ivies or as an urban experience?"

When New York City began to recover and thrive in the 1990s, it was only natural that the University's fortunes turned with it. In the early 1990s, the advantages of an urban campus move clear enough that admissions officers began to refer to the University as "Columbia University in the City of New York" rather than simply "Columbia." This decision presents quite the contrast to the University's ambivalent attitude toward New York City in 1969, when spatial constraints prompted administrators to think about moving Columbia College upstate to West Point.

McCaughey is glad that the University chose to stay committed to the city in a crucial moment, especially now that New York City is as magnetic as ever.

"What Columbia doesn't have to do is to say we're just as good as Yale, but to come to Columbia you'd have the benefits of the city and, oh, by the way, this is a serious university that could compete with Dartmouth and Princeton and Brown. If you wanted a collegiate experience in a real setting, this is the place to do it."

It seems that grit may have always been Columbia's hallmark, after all. Although today's shining Big Apple is wildly different from the crumbling New York of the '70s and '80s, Vinciguerra emphasizes that the University's proximity to the so-called real world remains a main draw.

"There are people who, for a certain time in their lives, just want to get away from reality. They want to go to an ivory tower," he tells me.

"If they get a great education, that's great. I do think that in my case and in the case of many other people, it is an advantage to get true exposure to the adult world. I know of no better campus that affords that opportunity than Columbia."

Have fun leafing through our seventh issue, and subscribe to our new weekly newsletter, As We See It!

Previous Issue | More In This Issue

columbia Morningside Heights history