Columbia is a landlord. Since moving into Harlem in 1897, Columbia has been taking hold of more and more property in the neighborhood, and its aggression seems to know no bounds. From lobbying for the closure of single-room occupancies (or SROs), to the use of eminent domain to acquire project housing, to the lack of enforcement of the concessionary Community Benefits Agreement, Columbia has continually acted with its own moneyed interests in mind, with no regard for the community in which it resides. The administration’s relationship to community members is like that of an antagonistic proprietor: It makes continued efforts to take land that is not its own, minimize dissent, and enforce its own sense of order. Public Safety, which patrols the surrounding neighborhood, seems to prioritize a sense of security for students above all else, including a sense of safety for community members. In light of all this, we should wonder: What are we as students doing to endorse this relationship between the administration and the community? What sort of culture are we as students fostering on campus?
It is surely one of neglect, enacted against the people we pass on a daily basis, who ask for a few dollars, or a handshake, or a smile, to whom many students respond with an upturned nose and chin without bothering to take out their AirPods. Columbia’s sustained effort to displace Harlem residents is matched by its campus culture of disregard for the basic humanity of our neighbors. Students, can you really claim to be against gentrification if you spend hundreds of dollars on drinks for yourself (not to mention thousands and thousands on tuition) but can’t spare a dollar or two for a friend in need of a meal?
We as the Housing Equity Project, a volunteer organization within Columbia’s Community Impact, believe that this administration will continue to displace residents of the Harlem community unless we transform our campus culture. This can only be accomplished if we as students take on a sense of responsibility and accountability. Each and every one of us has an obligation to this community, which has been here long before we arrived and will stand long after our time here is complete—that is, unless Columbia gets its way.
For three decades, students in the Housing Equity Project have been serving the ever-growing and ever more visible population of New Yorkers who experience housing inequity through volunteering in the shelter system. However, it has become more and more obvious to us that our role on campus needs to change. A profile of the class of 2021, conducted by Spectrum, allowed incoming students to report which sort of extracurriculars they would be interested in being involved with while at Columbia. Out of 530 total responses, nearly 300 reported that they would participate in social justice activism, the largest of any option. Six students reported that they were interested in volunteering while at Columbia. While social justice activism is surely an important and necessary pursuit, it is not complete without volunteerism and service.
Housing Equity Project was concerned by these statistics, and the culture they represent. Many students on campus are willing to lend their voices to a cause, or to speak with their friends about an issue they are passionate about. But it seems those same students are less willing to give up an hour or two on Twitter per week in order to volunteer their time. When considering the immense amounts of wealth concentrated on this campus, and the amount of privilege we all acquire by graduating with a Columbia degree, it is even more appalling that such a small ratio of students (reminder: six out of 530) would be interested in volunteerism that complements their activist agenda.
This is where Housing Equity Project, and all the other Community Impact organizations, come in. We are committed to providing sustained service opportunities to Barnard and Columbia students. In addition to our shelter volunteerism, we have increased our programming to include a direct outreach initiative (which provides food, hygiene supplies, and conversation to individuals in the neighborhood directly affected by housing inequity), a food recovery network (which recycles food from local businesses by bringing it to churches and food pantries in the area), an advocacy committee, and a historian’s office. Moreover, we feel this work provides us with experiences that are valuable with regard to informing the campus community on issues of gentrification in West Harlem and the significant role Columbia has played in it.
As such, Housing Equity Project will be hosting a number of campus education events this year, including an upcoming town hall featuring campus activists, politicians, and political commentators. We’ve brought together a powerful panel of mobilized undergraduates who are studying and organizing against displacement, gentrification, and Columbia’s role in it all. We at Housing Equity Project know that these are large and complex issues, and that we as students often feel paralyzed when confronted with their enormity. But the only way to change our campus culture of neglect is to educate yourself on these issues and join forces with other students to hold this administration accountable. Housing Equity Project hopes it can be a vehicle for this type of dialogue.
Housing Equity Project’s town hall, the first in a series of campus education events, will be held this coming Tuesday, Oct. 29 at 8 p.m. in 602 Hamilton.
The authors are members of the Housing Equity Project, a group of students seeking to take responsibility for Columbia’s role as a gentrifier in West Harlem, and establish themselves as resources for members of the community affected by housing inequity.
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