Harlem once seemed to loom above Morningside Heights like a menace, but now it appears on the verge of disintegration. It’s a tribute to gentrification, of upending the texture and rhythm of everyday life, and speaks of the way displacement has become the dominant means of progress.
For Columbia, progress is a new campus—proudly class conscious and built on the memory of Manhattanville. Buildings were torn apart and people were evicted from their homes to give us the square footage we need to compete with other global universities. But this dream of unyielding expansion, considered by many to be University President Lee Bollinger’s greatest achievement, is more architectural than visionary: It betrays the ethos of a city that was once predominantly working-class, which should be a scandal, but isn’t.
Even as attitudes have changed, Manhattanville shows just how much inequality we’re willing to tolerate. At best, it’s a harbinger of displacement; at worst, it represents Harlem’s cultural unraveling. Though Columbia places adversity high on the list of virtues it prizes, it seems to value certain kinds of struggle over others. I was struck by the disturbing way the Empire State Development Corporation labeled Harlem as blighted. Perhaps there are no liminal realms to our indecency, at least not when something’s in the way of our perceived growth. But more likely, it’s a symptom of our chronic discontent where excellence and imperfection are not allowed to coexist.
This is at odds with the reality faced by Harlem’s residents; it dismisses the years of redlining and neglect they’ve endured, and is sure to disavow the significance of the bodega owner, day laborer, and struggling worker to Harlem’s character.
More damning is the administration’s repeated commitment to preserving Harlem’s authenticity when any effort to do so would be an artistic endeavor, ensuring that students be provided with the backdrop necessary for an urban experience: one that feels gritty and historical without having to sacrifice perfect order. We’ve announced plans to restore service stations, diners, and brownstones (which will be converted to administrative buildings) that look sincere to anyone outside the neighborhood, but are essentially cosmetic.
Buildings aren’t the only stage prop in Manhattanville. As part of a legal arrangement, Columbia is going to hire a certain percentage of minorities for the new campus. But does this really represent community investment when their livelihoods exist at our say-so? The campus is sure to benefit our students, but it may not benefit the people consigned to work there. To the working-class people living in Columbia’s shadow, Manhattanville might as well be Chanel: superficially beneficial but ultimately inaccessible to Harlem residents.
I imagine it’s hard for Bollinger and his administration to achieve a balance between false authenticity and modernity. Gentrification pushes the lowest income people out first, and then restarts the cycle. We’ve seen it happen to the High Line, where upper-middle-class denizens (who displaced the working-class) were pushed out by an even wealthier cohort. That trend suggests that even if Columbia were to leave Manhattanville alone now, it would eventually consist solely of luxury apartments and high-end amenities that would destroy any semblance of the authenticity the administration seems anxious to preserve. Essentially, the University has forced itself into acting as guardians of Manhattanville to prevent even greater economic disenfranchisement, but does it really expect to be praised for it?
We shouldn’t necessarily spurn modernization, but it’s worth caring about the people who have lived in places for decades. The extraordinary shame of Manhattanville has less to do with its rendering of development than with the loss of intimate neighborhood associations: Here was the bodega, diner, or playground where now-uprooted populations of black, Hispanic, and Italian working-class families once came together. It’s almost guaranteed that Manhattanville won’t have the kind of lively intermingling of residents that West Harlem did.
And though not everyone agrees with the changes Columbia is bringing, it’s hard not to feel like the majority of students just complacently embrace its expansion. Even protesters, who called upon Bollinger so insistently and raged against the new campus so defiantly, have gone silent. For many, talking about Manhattanville never lapses into the sentimental. Part of being a student here is sharing subconscious discomfort for those who live outside our walls. The desire to differentiate ourselves from the benighted is actually so pervasive that students from working-class backgrounds often find themselves at the intersection of a paradoxical identity. And so it seems that, despite being made of glass, Manhattanville will protect us from having to look at the things we don’t like—like the people who don’t need to take the Core to live a beautiful life.
Ultimately, it’s an assertion of who we think deserves to live in this city. The true genius of Columbia lies in its ability to take a neighborhood and transform it into a place that no longer accommodates mediocrity, and to give us lurid theater and call it restoration. Manhattanville’s wounds may never heal. How soon before we realize we’re similarly afflicted?
Joel Davis is an ancient studies major in the School of General Studies, chairman of the International Campaign to Stop Rape and Gender Violence in Conflict, author of the upcoming novel “Benevolence,” and a Nobel Peace Prize nominee. Follow him on Instagram at @supercoolkid212. Spotlit runs alternate Fridays.
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