Columbia’s Project for the Homeless and BSO recently held a panel on poverty and displacement in New York City. Present were representatives from all sides of the issue: an economist, an urban planner, a legislator, and social workers.
One of the most tense parts of the evening occurred when an urban studies professor at Barnard attempted to explain Columbia’s status as an “anchor institution” and its effect on Manhattanville. When pressed on that position by members of BSO and PFH—who pointed out the unfulfilled payment plan in the Community Benefits Agreement, the lack of representation from community members, and the displacement of families in Manhattanville—that faculty member cited Columbia’s mission statement and argued that it should be the University’s only source of obligation. That mission never speaks to the preservation of the Harlem community.
Instead, it claims that the University “recognizes the importance of its location in New York City and seeks to link its research and teaching to the vast resources of a great metropolis” and to “advance knowledge and learning at the highest level and to convey the products of its efforts to the world.” Yet how can the administration recognize the importance of its location while simultaneously undermining the residents who made this city a “great metropolis” long before students ever arrived on this campus? And isn’t the ethical course of action “learning at the highest level”? As a school that takes so much pride in its ability to produce globally-minded activists, shouldn’t we convey social justice to the world?
We believe it is crucial to “recognize” how Columbia gained its location in New York City. We want to critically examine the Manhattanville expansion and the means through which it has been accomplished—specifically, Columbia’s use of eminent domain. Eminent domain is just one of the many direct and indirect tactics through which long-time residents of Manhattanville have been displaced since 2003, but we speak of it specifically because it is most evocative. Just like the Morningside Gymnasium fifty years ago, it stands for a larger phenomenon: Columbia is a colony in a segregated city, and West Harlem is our ever-shrinking frontier.
Eminent domain is a power invoked by the state to seize inhabited land—shops, apartment buildings, schools—by surveying the area and condemning it as "blighted." This concept of eminent domain emerged in the 1930s and was intended to “alleviate slum-like conditions.” However, the demarcation of areas and neighborhoods as “blighted” has led to the displacement of millions. In the 1960s, urban renewal projects commonly invoked eminent domain to displace black residents and entire black neighborhoods. In the first 23 years of the Urban Renewal Act, two-thirds of the people displaced were African-American.
The Manhattanville campus encroachment is no different. The condemnation of neighborhoods—of entire blocks full of people—and the complete disregard for the value of life and community that exists and has existed in Harlem for decades is a disgrace. It is morally repugnant, and as students of this institution, we disavow it.
What’s more: if your argument relies on a racist law, then your argument is weak. The arguments in favor of displacement and development that find their roots in Columbia’s mission statement while ignoring the injustice of eminent domain are feeble attempts at justification.
And yet it is to this same administration, the one that hides behind its own policy initiatives, that we appeal for change.
As students, we all chose to be here. Regardless of your opinion on the Manhattanville expansion or how solidified that opinion was when you signed your letter of intent, we are all part of that initiative. By being in this space, at this time, we give Columbia the social and monetary capital to invest in policies—and as such, we share in the blame.
But don’t be discouraged. We may be accomplices to these destructive initiatives, but we can redeem ourselves. It’s one thing to call for the University to change its ways—it’s another to be that change yourself. We must recognize the role we play in the expansion and take heed of that recognition. We cannot be complacent. We must take action.
We are a campus of activists. But activism alone is not enough. We must be committed to matching our advocacy with action, with service. The impacts of volunteerism are tangible and motivating—they contextualize our advocacy in a way that activism alone never could.
For too long, we’ve asked for change. Now, we will be that change ourselves. Project for the Homeless invites you to a discussion with Daniel McCarthy, CFO of Covenant House—an organization fighting child and teen homelessness—followed by a Sleep Out on Low. This event is both activism and volunteerism: We seek to raise awareness for those individuals displaced by Columbia’s expansion into Manhattanville and to raise enough money to keep one teenager from having to sleep on the streets. We emphasize the need to participate in every aspect of activism, not just by lending your voice, but by lending your service.
In the spirit of ’68, we can no longer ask for the ear of an administration that perpetuates injustice in this community using the very same legal mechanisms of injustice of the ’60s. Instead, we ask you for your ear, your voice, and your hands.
Columbia PFH is part of Community Outreach. The organization recently received the Innovation Award for its expansion from service to advocacy. It staffs two homeless shelters in the city—email email@example.com if interested in volunteering.
To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.