Recent reports extolling Columbia for seeing Manhattanville residents as “partners and collaborators” misportray Columbia’s plan to metastasize into 133rd Street as a consensual expansion. They embellish the truth and tokenize the recruitment of Manhattanville entrepreneurs to execute the plan.
As both a citizen of Manhattanville and an undergraduate of the University, I feel distinctly positioned to undertake a cost-benefit analysis of what I call Bollinger-Spreading. Whereas Columbia’s superb quality of education and networking connections promise plenary personal advancement, the most I ever got out of Manhattanville was a one-dollar loan from the lady selling churros on 125th Street. Still, this is a matter of equity rather than personal gain. The fact that Bollinger would have never been able to grab that much land from the wealthier and more litigious residents of the Upper West Side speaks volumes to the kind of inequities that plague our justice system.
History tells us that predatory land grabbing is only possible when poor public policy, judicial abdication, and nescience make an area ripe for exploitation. Accordingly, New York City must put conditions on all eminent domain approvals. These conditions should require that developers prove that their projects cannot be completed elsewhere, are maximally efficient, build residential units for displaced locals within three blocks, and pay a 30-50 percent gentrification tax akin to the 30-50 percent flip-tax that most shareholders of the Housing Development Fund Corporation are made to remit when they sell their shares. After all, eminent domain is as much a public program as the HDFC. These preconditions erect a baseline that protects New York neighborhoods from becoming another 21st century Seneca Village.
Sadly, most New Yorkers don’t realize that Central Park rests above the ruins of a forgotten 19th-century neighborhood called Seneca Village. Central Park was initially planned to be built in Jones’ Wood, an Upper East Side farmland owned by the wealthy estates of James Jones and Peter Schermerhorn. But the landowners clapped back with an injunction. Instead, New York razed Seneca Village in 1857, destroying the homes of 264 people, three churches, one school, and countless graves to make way for today’s Central Park.
Ironically, the University’s “Seneca Village Project” is now spearheading the effort to find out more about Seneca Village. On the one hand, Columbia faculty working on the Seneca Village Project requested excavation permits to study the dreadful effects of eminent domain on 5 acres across seven blocks. They argued that knowing “what it meant to be a member of the black middle-class” is worth the excavation.
On the other hand, hypocritically, Columbia asked New York for a permit to engulf 17 acres of land in a 0.35 square mile majority-minority low-income neighborhood. Bollinger argued that in this case, displacement serves a “larger good,” as though causing threefold the destruction of Seneca Village is somehow academically ordained.
Although the University’s expansion into Manhattanville brings $6.3 billion in investments, a more careful breakdown of that amount shows that it’s hardly as impressive as it sounds. While 9 percent ($578 million) went to recruiting local firms between 2012-2017, there’s something rancid about gentrifying a neighborhood through the hands of its locals. Also, only $160 million is invested in Manhattanville, of which only 12.5 percent ($20 million) addresses its principal concern about affordable housing. The University’s promise to renovate the pier does not seem to allay my elderly neighbor’s anxieties about eviction.
No amount of gaslighting comments such as, “lots of people said to me, why would you want to move [to Manhattanville]? It’s ugly,” can obfuscate the reality that gentrification is both a blessing and a curse. Multi-billion-dollar entities need to understand that doing business in New York is a privilege, not a right. Accordingly, developers must prove that their projects cannot take place anywhere other than the proposed land—which if granted, would be used with maximum efficiency. The University’s claim to the 17-acre eminent domain is at best finicky. While the Manhattanville campus is undoubtedly less exclusive than its gated counterpart in Morningside Heights, this openness will do little to assuage the concerns of displaced locals.
In the same vein, the University’s planned construction of these buildings is downright obnoxious. The uniqueness of real property is a well-settled maxim of American law, which should enable the courts to uphold denials of eminent domain claims that do not keep residents within a three-block radius from their original homes.
I urge our Harlem neighbors to join Manhattanville’s cause because unregulated gentrification anywhere is a threat to neighborhoods everywhere. Yesterday it was the iconic Studebaker; tomorrow it could be the Apollo Theater. I just bought my last $3 cheeseburger and fries from the McDonald’s on 125th Street as I bid its golden arches one last farewell.
Alas, the latter six words of the name of my University, “in the City of New York,” have flown right over Bollinger’s head.
The author, GS ’21, is studying political science, with a primary focus on American politics. He served as the director of a Manhattanville HDFC co-op in 2018-2019.
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