A couple of years ago, when people still talked about Manhattanville, there was lots of chatter about reconciliation and atonement for Columbia's hostile land acquisition and gentrification.
Some proposed hiring Harlem-based architects. Doing so would've given the community some agency in the forced remodeling and would've been a timely, sincere, and meaningful way to engage the community in light of Columbia's inevitable growth.
But that ship has sailed. I suppose that the next best option would be to work to absorb Harlem within Columbia—an effort that would give many access to a world-class institution (although that would still be problematic, in a white savior kind of way).
Ultimately, Columbia signed a Community Benefits Agreement that, among other things, gave 76 million dollars to be apportioned by the West Harlem Development Corporation. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that this year Columbia welcomed its first Thompson-Muñoz Scholars—beneficiaries of a scholarship stipulated by the CBA. (This is not entirely true because Columbia has had this scholarship for the past few years, but had not yet given it a name.) The scholarship was created to support accepted students who grew up or went to school around Columbia—in places like West Harlem, Morningside Heights, and Manhattanville.
The scholarship shows Columbia's commitment to engaging the surrounding community. With this scholarship, the price of a Columbia education need not serve as a barrier for students who work their asses off, but don't apply or can't attend because of the sticker price of a Columbia education.
Often, people criticize Columbia's expansion into Manhattanville without questioning why the expansion was planned in the first place. Growth is integral to academia and Columbia will lose its place as an institution at the forefront of research if it does not grow. We need more space for our genius professors to do crazy-ass shit, more space for our students to express themselves and explore academically and culturally, and more space for people to store their clothes and bedding while they study the days and nights away in libraries.
Columbia should be commended for giving back the greatest resource it has to offer—an education—in exchange for its intrusion. I'm proud that Columbia created the Thompson-Muñoz Scholarship, which supports students who add a vital component of our diversity as an academic community within an urban community.
I was riding that wave of Columbia pride for a solid hour before I came down. The "greater good" argument for this expansion is so much of an oversimplification that it's almost unrecognizable from the reality. Although the Manhattanville expansion was merely bad press for Columbia, the assault on West Harlem meant painfully higher rent for the lucky, and eviction and homelessness for the unlucky. Yes, we gained more space to do things that have the potential to "aid all of humankind"—but at what cost?
If I don't have enough money to live near Manhattanville, then what are the chances that I'll have enough money to benefit from anything that comes out of the Mind Brain Behavior Initiative? If I don't have enough money to live near Manhattanville, how can I benefit from the economic growth that Columbia is supposed to bring to the place where the people needing economic infusion were forced to vacate?
I had to re-evaluate the scholarship. Now, I can't help but see it as a manifestation of the intricate power dynamics at play here. A scholarship to support kids from the community is one thing, but the timing and suggested purpose of this one suggests that displacement through land grabs and gentrification is somehow balanced by patronage of the victims and their children. Furthermore, the nature of gentrification and the scholarship call into question how the scholarship will evolve as Columbia continues to gentrify Harlem. Columbia is required to provide a scholarship for up to 40 aid-eligible local students per year until 2033. But by then, will a scholarship for a presumably gentrified Harlem support the underprivileged, or will it further advance the new elite in Harlem?
Most importantly, we cannot let this scholarship give legitimacy to hostile gentrification. The scholarship is slightly more than nothing for Columbia, to whom money in those amounts is barely noticeable. Even with the rest of the CBA, Columbia is hardly spending a significant amount.
Sincerity, on the other hand, is always in short supply. If Columbia had sincerely approached its neighbors in West Harlem as equals, and acknowledged that its growth came at great expense to them, and then made an enormous and public effort to assist with relocation, we could have gotten somewhere. We could have acknowledged that assistance with relocation could never be enough and we could have really offered employment opportunities to the community.
We could have offered access to our resources as an educational institution and training for those who were forced to significantly change their employment. Lastly, we could have offered more financial aid to young, hardworking Harlemites and given more resources to provide education for the community as a whole. Is that too much to ask?
Maybe. But so is having to leave your home. In exchange for West Harlem's enormous sacrifice, Columbia should have at least given the community a sincere effort to atone for it.
Loxley Bennett is a Columbia College senior majoring in neuroscience. He is a former student services representative for Columbia College Student Council. Bagels and Lox usually runs alternate Fridays.
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