Harlem is disappearing. The Harlem I learned about in my seventh-grade history class evoked images of black boisterous saxophone players, soulful singers, and trailblazing authors. Now, Harlem is associated with the dirty G word: gentrification. Communities that were once rich with cultural influence from the Harlem Renaissance are being disrupted by large glass Columbia buildings. As these buildings are being erected, families who are native to Harlem are going to be displaced by gentrifiers from the Columbia community. Columbia urban planning professor Stacey Sutton predicted: "I think it’s going to be less than 50 percent black by 2020.”

My first physical interaction with Harlem took place a couple of days into NSOP 2017, when I headed to Yankee Stadium with a group of first-years. As we walked through Harlem to get to a subway station, we passed a table where a black man was selling some paintings. Looking to my right, I saw a white classmate from my incoming class decked out in Columbia gear clutch her Coach purse. The black man saw this gesture and yelled, “Fuck Columbia.”

While I continued to walk down the street, I could not help but feel implicated in her actions. My role in that situation was analogous to how I feel about attending this university. Whether I like it or not, when I accepted my offer of admission, I inadvertently contributed to the gentrification of West Harlem and the displacement of many West Harlem residents.

It is not difficult to recognize the stark contrast between the pristine Manhattanville campus and the struggling neighborhood which surrounds it. Even the gates and fences which enclose our main campus here in Morningside Heights exemplify Columbia’s attempt to isolate itself from the community it leeches off of. Although I am only a first-year, I have only met two Columbia students who are from Harlem and I have yet to meet a professor from the greater Harlem community. When these residents are represented on this campus, they will be able to advocate for themselves and open a direct dialogue between Harlem and Columbia. This is not to say they are not here, but their voices are not centered in dialogues about Columbia’s expansion. Columbia has not done enough to make this campus accessible to West Harlem residents. This can take form in the recruiting of students and teaching staff from West Harlem.

I am uncomfortable answering the question, “what should Columbia’s relationship be with Harlem?” because I am speaking from a position of privilege. As a non-Harlem resident, the story of gentrification is not mine to tell. Even though I am a black woman and my liberation is inherently tied with the black residents of Harlem, at the end of the day I do not have to deal with the negative effects of gentrification. I unintentionally benefit from Columbia’s expansion.

There is nothing that the University can do to remedy its relationship with Harlem that Harlem residents have not already asked for. Columbia’s relationship with Harlem is so deeply rooted in racism. In 1968, the administration was about to expand into the community to build a large gymnasium with a backdoor entrance for Harlem residents. Now, Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion will continue to displace many black and brown people. We would need to dismantle the moral fabric of this university and nation as a whole to truly remedy the harm Columbia has done to Harlem.

Our duty, as students, is to amplify the voices of Harlem residents. We can start by reaching out to local activists to find out how we can aid their community. With their guidance, we can hold the University accountable for its commitments from the 2009 West Harlem Community Benefits Agreement with the West Harlem Local Development Corporation.

We can also ensure that students in the Harlem community are afforded the same opportunities we are. We can tutor at local schools and serve as mentors to ensure this. However, we must acknowledge how our presence as Columbia students can play into the paternalistic approach that the University has taken with this community. So, don’t treat community service opportunities in Harlem as photo opportunities for your Instagram because this further otherizes Harlem residents.

Also, if you are white, you need to recognize how your presence in Harlem can disrupt the cultural fabric of the community. You do not need to benefit from the cultural commodities of Harlem to have a stake in giving back to the community. Sometimes, you just need to step back and allow a community to thrive and rebuild on its own. Just ask what is needed from you and address the needs of Harlem residents. We all have a stake in the liberation of Harlem residents.

We cannot allow that disappearance of Harlem to become a norm. Doing nothing is not an option, because, by our very existence at this university, we are implicated in Columbia’s horrendous actions.

Harlem is disappearing. The Harlem I learned about in my seventh-grade history class evoked images of black boisterous saxophone players, soulful singers, and trailblazing authors. Now, Harlem is associated with the dirty G word: gentrification. Communities that were once rich with cultural influence from the Harlem Renaissance are being disrupted by large glass Columbia buildings. As these buildings are being erected, families who are native to Harlem are going to be displaced by gentrifiers from the Columbia community. Columbia urban planning professor Stacey Sutton predicted: "I think it’s going to be less than 50 percent black by 2020.”

My first physical interaction with Harlem took place a couple of days into NSOP 2017, when I headed to Yankee Stadium with a group of first-years. As we walked through Harlem to get to a subway station, we passed a table where a black man was selling some paintings. Looking to my right, I saw a white classmate from my incoming class decked out in Columbia gear clutch her Coach purse. The black man saw this gesture and yelled, “Fuck Columbia.”

While I continued to walk down the street, I could not help but feel implicated in her actions. My role in that situation was analogous to how I feel about attending this university. Whether I like it or not, when I accepted my offer of admission, I inadvertently contributed to the gentrification of West Harlem and the displacement of many West Harlem residents.

Heven Haile is a first-year in Columbia College studying political science and African-American studies. She will be CCSC’s Race and Ethnicity representative. Receiving messages from people who connected with her articles has revitalized her will to live. She will miss the rejuvenating effects of reading hate comments from bitter conservatives and complacent liberals. She recommends the implementation of conservative tears in one’s skin care routine. As always, her Facebook DMs are open for conversation.

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By HEVEN HAILE
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Discourse & Debate: What do we owe West Harlem?

Columbia University has resided in the neighborhood of Morningside Heights since 1897. What obligations, if any, does the university have to the community surrounding it? What obligations might students have?

My first volunteer experience at Columbia happened two months ago at Broadway Presbyterian Church on 114th Street. It was a string of coincidences that led me to spend my Friday morning at the program, also known as Community Lunch. Earlier that week, the CCSC 2019 newsletter alerted me to the “junior class volunteer opportunity.” The time slot was for Friday morning, a time when I had no scheduled classes. The commute from my dorm would take three minutes by foot. Furthermore, I thought it might be a good chance for me to befriend other juniors—a surprisingly difficult task for a transfer student.

Imagine my surprise, on the day of the event, when only one other junior showed up. There are over 2,000 students in the Class of 2019.

My fellow volunteer, whom I chatted with as we chopped vegetables, was a charismatic philosophy major. I knew he must have devoted his life to Big Ideas, because he did not understand that the top part of a carrot was inedible. While I watched him put the brown ends in the bowl, I asked him why he was participating in the event. He said he was hoping to put volunteer work on his résumé.

My reason was no more noble than his. Although I had no intention of spinning the experience into an opportunity for a LinkedIn endorsement, I was hoping that three hours of fairly easy labor would chip away at the growing guilt inside me. Here I was, a student receiving the privilege of a world-class education—both inside the classroom and around the city—yet I felt that I had never made the Columbia community better with my presence.

Regarding the University’s obligations to its surrounding community, I believe they are numerous and, as of the current moment, not being fulfilled in good faith. However, I’ll leave it to my fellow debaters, whose understanding of this contentious relationship far outstrips mine, to take the administration to task. I will focus on the obligations students have to Morningside Heights, and how the University can help facilitate their participation.

Whether or not you plan to stay in Morningside Heights after you graduate, you should have a vested interest in the community’s future prosperity. The college experience is not one big Bacchanal concert. You can’t just tear up the town and expect the residents to clean up after you. Even if the only thing you care about is the prestige a Columbia degree carries, you should be aware that a harmonious relationship between Columbia and its community is conducive to higher university rankings.

Unfortunately, I am not optimistic that a rebuke from a random peer, or the promise of higher U.S. News & World Report rankings, is enough to convince students that volunteering is worth their time. I only ended up participating in Community Lunch three times, before academic commitments and overall apathy led me to stop attending. The only effective way to encourage students to participate in community service is to make it mandatory. Every student should be required to volunteer for three hours every week, for at least four semesters in their undergraduate career. It should be a graduation requirement, like the swim test.

Hear me out. Yes, truly altruistic volunteering is voluntary. But empathy can be learned. Part of Columbia College’s mission is to encourage students to “[develop an] essential ability for engagement in an increasingly diverse and rapidly changing world.” Does engagement get any more palpable than serving soup to the homeless people who share our streets or going to Morningside Park and picking up litter? We should develop a charitable mindset in our formative years, just like academic intelligence. Let’s stop philosophizing about what it means to be a good person and start trying something tangible.

There’s been a recent influx of graffiti around the 116th Street station, just a block away from Broadway Presbyterian. It reads: “Are you hurting? Are you helping?” These are deceptively simple questions, but they’re worth answering—with action.

My first volunteer experience at Columbia happened two months ago at Broadway Presbyterian Church on 114th Street. It was a string of coincidences that led me to spend my Friday morning at the program, also known as Community Lunch. Earlier that week, the CCSC 2019 newsletter alerted me to the “junior class volunteer opportunity.” The time slot was for Friday morning, a time when I had no scheduled classes. The commute from my dorm would take three minutes by foot. Furthermore, I thought it might be a good chance for me to befriend other juniors—a surprisingly difficult task for a transfer student.

Imagine my surprise, on the day of the event, when only one other junior showed up. There are over 2,000 students in the Class of 2019.

My fellow volunteer, whom I chatted with as we chopped vegetables, was a charismatic philosophy major. I knew he must have devoted his life to Big Ideas, because he did not understand that the top part of a carrot was inedible. While I watched him put the brown ends in the bowl, I asked him why he was participating in the event. He said he was hoping to put volunteer work on his résumé.

Mimi is a junior in Columbia College studying creative writing. She thinks you should be a D&D contributor next semester.

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By MIMI EVANS
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I believe that both Columbia University and its students have binding, positive obligations to the greater Harlem community, given both the history and current state of affairs of Columbia’s relationship to Harlem. We have historically benefited from our location in Morningside Heights, too often at the expense of its other residents.

Eminent domain practices and fears of Columbia’s expansion ushering in community displacement have fueled tension and dispute with the residents of Manhattanville and greater West Harlem. As Columbia expands, opposing interests and concerns will inevitably clash. Columbia should work with government representatives, affected tenants, and charities and non-profits to ensure that its presence is a net positive to the community, providing economic, educational, and medical opportunities and services for the residents of Harlem.

As part of a joint agreement with Harlem, the University has committed to significant financial contributions, pledging approximately $170 million to various causes that support the local West Harlem community. As of 2016, less than half of the lump sum had been paid. It goes without saying that Columbia should fulfill these commitments on schedule and pursue further opportunities to better its relationship with the community.

Columbia has an ignominious history of discriminating against the residents of Harlem. This month is the 50th anniversary of the Columbia University protests, which were in part motivated by the University’s plan to build a gymnasium complex in Morningside Park with segregated entrances for Columbia students and residents of Harlem.

A basic obligation that we as Columbia students have is to treat the residents of Harlem with respect and friendliness. Our individual actions have the potential to either improve or worsen our relationship with the citizens of Morningside Heights and greater Harlem. Our actions should not perpetuate the stereotype of privileged Ivy League kids with superiority complexes and a massive sense of entitlement. Every instance of negligent, irresponsible behavior or property damage exacerbates our already tense relationship with Harlem.

This policy is especially relevant with regards to the many Harlemites who work at Columbia. Take a moment to strike up a conversation with a security guard. Don’t leave an egregious mess in the bathroom. Don’t use the excuse, “Well they’re getting paid, so I have no obligation to make their work easier.” This advice may seem overly didactic; it may go without saying that we should be humble and compassionate to our cohabitants of Harlem and the greater New York City community for that matter. If the obligation to treat these people well goes without saying, why do we often fail to do so? This is an easy and basic way to respect this community which we should always keep in mind.

A simple way to support and interact with the Harlem community is to patronize its businesses. Harlem is an incredibly diverse and culturally rich community with historically significant attractions just minutes away, such as the Apollo Theater and the Studio Museum in Harlem. We should resist the tendency to stay sequestered on campus, harboring irrational fears of venturing above 125th Street, and never experiencing what Harlem has to offer.

Other ideas such as a mandatory community service requirement, specifically targeting charities, non-profits, and institutions that serve the people of Harlem are intriguing, but they run the risk of coming off as paternalistic, exhibiting a “savior” mentality. But even if such service is not mandated by the University, exploring how we as students can get involved in some of these organizations and make a concerted effort to work with the people of Harlem to better the community should be something to consider. The West Harlem Development Corporation helps implement the programs funded through the aforementioned Community Benefits Agreement between the University and Harlem.

Even if direct participation is not something that interests you, simply donating money can directly benefit the Harlem community. Community Impact is a Columbia-led initiative to deliver educational and social service programs in Upper Manhattan. Donating to this and other reputable charities not affiliated with Columbia that serve the people of Harlem is an effective way to give back to the Harlem community.

I believe that both Columbia University and its students have binding, positive obligations to the greater Harlem community, given both the history and current state of affairs of Columbia’s relationship to Harlem. We have historically benefited from our location in Morningside Heights, too often at the expense of its other residents.

Eminent domain practices and fears of Columbia’s expansion ushering in community displacement have fueled tension and dispute with the residents of Manhattanville and greater West Harlem. As Columbia expands, opposing interests and concerns will inevitably clash. Columbia should work with government representatives, affected tenants, and charities and non-profits to ensure that its presence is a net positive to the community, providing economic, educational, and medical opportunities and services for the residents of Harlem.

Ethan is a sophomore in Columbia College studying economics and philosophy. His hobbies include watching reruns of the animated educational television series Arthur on PBS, as well as playing 15 games of Fortnite straight against his conscious will. He has thoroughly enjoyed contributing to Discourse & Debate this semester; you can email him at ehh2133@columbia.edu to evaluate his writing.

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By ETHAN HASTINGS

To address an issue of policy is often to confront a situation that is informed by warring prejudices, unseen variables, and destructive attitudes of obstinate self-interest. Further complicating the matter is the unpredictable hand of contingency, looming always over good intentions and frequently ensuring the worst result. To speak with accuracy and concurrent confidence about such issues is therefore difficult, a fact which partly explains both the untruth that typifies Capitol Hill and the ideological crutches that creakily prop up so many intellectuals. Columbia’s policy with regard to the neighborhoods that surround it is no exception to the difficulties outlined above.

One should first question whether Columbia’s policy of expansion is morally permissible. In this case, the notion of moral permissibility hinges on the consequences of expansion; if the University’s presence in West Harlem serves as a public benefit, then it should be regarded as permissible. From this instrumental perspective on morality, it follows that the expansion cannot be considered inherently bad unless it necessarily results in a detriment to the public. But given the salutary potential of an affluent university, there is no reason to think that the expansion will inevitably produce harm overall for the communities that host it. From this foundation, it is clear that our efforts should be centered on directing Columbia’s presence in a manner that benefits West Harlem. Such efforts are in fact already underway, and will continue as long as public support and the means to sustain them remain.

But the University’s seeming largesse has been occasioned by hardship for residents and businesses in West Harlem. Standard critiques of Columbia’s expansionism, if they recognize the right to expand, might address the degree to which Columbia mitigates such hardships. Insofar as those criticisms target the level of funding provided by Columbia, I would be inclined to second them; obviously the University has many financial obligations, and would have many more if all student activists had their way, but the improvement of surrounding neighborhoods represents a uniquely commendable initiative and is well-deserving of a greater share of the endowment. To follow an imperative of acquisition that leads to displacement, financial straitening, and the loss of community is morally dubious given the suffering it causes; to follow that imperative without sufficiently alleviating that suffering is morally reprehensible.

Of the many aspects intricately striating Columbia’s policy of expansion, thoughtful consideration leads to a definite conclusion: By seizing property in the manner it has, our university has obliged itself to aid residents who are threatened by such policies. Further, its considerable wealth means that it can provide services exceeding those that would merely edulcorate its presence, and it should do so to avoid a state of moral negligence.

The role of students, I think, should be less pronounced. Some may assert that the Columbia student body, being generally quite affluent, ought to donate a share of its wealth to benefit Harlem. This would surely be a better use of those funds than that which currently prevails, but it would not represent the best possible expenditure. There exist sites of such condensed misery around the world in which the riches of our students would be better served than in New York. Volunteering, however, may be comparatively more effective in Harlem than elsewhere, given students’ proximity during the academic year. Students are physically well-positioned for such activities as tutoring or helping to feed the homeless.

The challenges in this case lie in accepting actions that may diverge from our principles and in determining the proper course for our own actions in a world of vast contingency. Harlem residents who protest Columbia’s expansion sincerely believe they are protecting their community, and students on all sides of the debate espouse their conclusions with a spirit of charity toward Harlem. But in order to effect the good, those charitable impulses must be translated into the most consequential practices possible. This requires an openness measured to address complexity, a readiness to act joined with a willingness to forbear. Such an approach is not one of concession, but one of benevolent realism.

To address an issue of policy is often to confront a situation that is informed by warring prejudices, unseen variables, and destructive attitudes of obstinate self-interest. Further complicating the matter is the unpredictable hand of contingency, looming always over good intentions and frequently ensuring the worst result. To speak with accuracy and concurrent confidence about such issues is therefore difficult, a fact which partly explains both the untruth that typifies Capitol Hill and the ideological crutches that creakily prop up so many intellectuals. Columbia’s policy with regard to the neighborhoods that surround it is no exception to the difficulties outlined above.

One should first question whether Columbia’s policy of expansion is morally permissible. In this case, the notion of moral permissibility hinges on the consequences of expansion; if the University’s presence in West Harlem serves as a public benefit, then it should be regarded as permissible. From this instrumental perspective on morality, it follows that the expansion cannot be considered inherently bad unless it necessarily results in a detriment to the public. But given the salutary potential of an affluent university, there is no reason to think that the expansion will inevitably produce harm overall for the communities that host it. From this foundation, it is clear that our efforts should be centered on directing Columbia’s presence in a manner that benefits West Harlem. Such efforts are in fact already underway, and will continue as long as public support and the means to sustain them remain.

Shane Brasil-Wadsworth is a junior in Columbia College studying philosophy and history. Please email him at sb4056@columbia.edu to discuss his writing.

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By SHANE BRASIL-WADSWORTH

From its ever-expanding land ownership to its questionable allocation of reparative funds, Columbia University’s presence in the Harlem community could be described as pseudo-colonial. The campus, which once resided solely within the bounds of Morningside Heights (the most northern area of the Upper West Side), has since laid claim over parts of Washington Heights and, more recently, Manhattanville. As a result, the University’s presence in the West Harlem community has had tangible, detrimental effects on local residents—the majority of whom are black and Latinx.

In 2009, the Columbia administration and the President of the West Harlem Local Development Corporation signed a Community Benefits Agreement that not only promises financial support to the West Harlem community but to also “develop a more substantial relationship between the community and the academic resources of the University.” With Columbia’s presence further exacerbating existing tension and historically marginalizing the locals, I am wary that this is nothing more than a well-meaning PR boost—no matter how admirable the feat may seem. And by virtue of attending this university, Columbia students inadvertently perpetuate this marginalization as well. Although we do benefit from the campus’s expansion, I am unsure whether direct intervention by Columbia students into West Harlem would serve to benefit the community or just further contribute to the problem.

Certain members of the Columbia community have always sought to advocate for the conditions of West Harlem, either by volunteering through on-campus organizations or by protesting unfair treatment of the residents. In fact, a facet of the protests of 1968 was focused on boycotting the segregated gym Columbia planned to build in Morningside Park. Columbia had already displaced West Harlem residents as a result of expansion and sought to cross a definitive barrier (Morningside Park), encroaching on more of the real estate. Students—led predominantly by those of color—occupied Hamilton in direct response to Columbia’s intended invasive and discriminatory construction. This example of students actively participating in community politics—in conjunction with the protests at large (and their strain on the University)—deterred the construction of the gym. Since then, Columbia has attempted to be more conscientious of its role in Harlem; furthermore, the CBA seeks to ameliorate the damage done, past and present.

Columbia still maintains a hegemonic hold on West Harlem, especially with the recent Manhattanville expansion, but, today, the path to resistance may not be as direct. In the politically charged late 1960s, protesting amounted to palpable preventative action in defense of the Harlem community. However, this type of action may not translate effectively into present day. Any “charity” or volunteerism in which students may seek to participate runs the risk of augmenting Columbia’s paternalistic hold over the community. I would recommend upholding existing Harlem-based organizations and community leaders such as the West Harlem Development Corporation, which serves to support education and housing initiatives as well as “monitor the provisions of the CBA.” There are also on-campus organizations that work directly with Harlem, like the Columbia-sponsored Boys & Girls Club of Harlem and student-run Project for the Homeless, in which students can participate.

Although enrolling at Columbia makes us complicit in all the University does to maintain the quality of our experiences, it does not technically obligate us to act against it. Many of us exist on this campus with the primary goal of obtaining an education that will propel us into the next stages of our lives. I reckon that very few of us regularly operate with the consideration of how our education—and, by the way, our very presence—perpetuates the marginalization of West Harlem. I know I don’t. But when the very people whose lives we are impacting are fewer than 10 blocks north of us, it should not be so easy to ignore. So while we may not be obligated to make ourselves aware of the ways in which we impact the communities around us, we should all be ethically compelled to do so.

We may take for granted the community that has shouldered much of the burden of an institution from which we benefit. But, we should not insulate ourselves from those whose lives continue to be threatened by this University’s proximity and presence. We should not avoid going above 125th Street out of misguided fear. We should not seek to volunteer out of pity for the residents or for moral superiority. We should not continue to “other,” and therefore disparage, a community into which we have placed ourselves. We should hold ourselves and the University accountable for the ways in which we view and place ourselves in relation to those around us, and, by doing so, change perceptions and galvanize sincere action.

From its ever-expanding land ownership to its questionable allocation of reparative funds, Columbia University’s presence in the Harlem community could be described as pseudo-colonial. The campus, which once resided solely within the bounds of Morningside Heights (the most northern area of the Upper West Side), has since laid claim over parts of Washington Heights and, more recently, Manhattanville. As a result, the University’s presence in the West Harlem community has had tangible, detrimental effects on local residents—the majority of whom are black and Latinx.

In 2009, the Columbia administration and the President of the West Harlem Local Development Corporation signed a Community Benefits Agreement that not only promises financial support to the West Harlem community but to also “develop a more substantial relationship between the community and the academic resources of the University.” With Columbia’s presence further exacerbating existing tension and historically marginalizing the locals, I am wary that this is nothing more than a well-meaning PR boost—no matter how admirable the feat may seem. And by virtue of attending this university, Columbia students inadvertently perpetuate this marginalization as well. Although we do benefit from the campus’s expansion, I am unsure whether direct intervention by Columbia students into West Harlem would serve to benefit the community or just further contribute to the problem.

Avah Toomer is a sophomore in Columbia College majoring in medicine, literature, and society and concentrating in Francophone studies. She has enjoyed the spicy discourse shared with her fellow debaters this semester, and hopes you all did too.

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By AVAH TOOMER

To respond to this installment of Discourse & Debate, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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