Recent events have caused many of us to leave the city we may call home for most of the year. This departure allows us to reflect upon and reevaluate the impact of our presence in New York City. Are we “bad” New Yorkers? What does it mean to be a New Yorker as a college student? How do we “fit in,” and what responsibilities do we have to the city?
Regardless of the considerable discourse around when (if ever) someone raised in the city can call themselves a “true” New Yorker, the question of Columbia students’ relationship with the wider New York City community is an important topic to discuss and problematize. As a current student who is also a member of the Facebook group for the incoming class of 2024, I have witnessed a flurry of introduction posts from incoming first-years in the past couple of weeks aspiring to “explore the city” or “live my best New York life.” Indeed, my post in my own class’s Facebook group upon being admitted likely sounded very similar.
Such desires are incredibly valid, and as someone born and raised in the suburbs, the opportunity to study in New York was and still is, an immense privilege—I’ve been able to intern downtown at a nonprofit whose mission I care about, explore the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the weekend, and pursue other activities that make me sound like a walking and talking admissions brochure. However, I am also becoming increasingly conscious of the ways in which mine and many other students’ relationship with the city is centered on questions of individual advancement, enjoyment, and consumption, instead of on questions of how we can be good community members and neighbors—and how our fun, frivolous New York Experience™ is actively predicated on the marginalization of West Harlem and other New York City residents (who, by the way, are experiencing the worst of the current pandemic) through processes such as displacement. I’ve seen some of my classmates who spend each weekend dining in Chelsea or thrifting in the East Village not even pause to think about these questions of gentrification and displacement in our local 20-block radius or drop hundreds of dollars on Broadway shows, while ignoring the folks outside of Morton Williams in a city where 20,000 children are homeless.
Moreover, I am also becoming warier of the way in which students and student groups who do recognize the resource disparities and other dynamics at play within our relationships to surrounding communities unfortunately either resort to a savior mindset or use phrases such as “gentrification” and “West Harlem” as performative rhetorical devices, or view their involvement solely as a resume-builder. These aren’t just words we can throw around to signify our progressive politics. Further, we shouldn’t be entering communities with an “I-can-fix-your-problems-with-my-big-Columbia-brain” mindset. Instead, we should back people and groups who are actually members of those communities and who are already doing meaningful work, through funding local grassroots organizations and supporting the efforts of community activists.
Most of us are not perfect in this regard, and my intention is not to simply criticize, as I think that almost all of us who weren’t raised in the city are still in the process of navigating this relationship to some extent, in one way or another. Overall, I just want to implore my classmates to think less about what New York can do for us, and more about what we can do for New York.
Brandon Shi is a sophomore in Columbia College majoring in economics-political science and concentrating in ethnicity and race studies.
To say I’m a local New Yorker would no doubt be a lie. But this doesn’t stop me from seeing myself as a “true” New Yorker. My transplant status not only is endemic to New York City, but defines its mythos. New York is a city of transplants, a place where the resourceful—or should I say, resourced—can reinvent their lives on a whim. And what’s more “true” about a city and its inhabitants than its defining mythos?
Within this mythos exists a basic fact; that the individualistic success of a transplant is only possible with the right amount of cash and an institutionally provided network of well-connected peers. This is the foundational sales-pitch Columbia makes to students.
Simultaneously, Columbia often refers to its role as a public service institution, aiming to improve the circumstances of local communities neighboring campus. As Brandon writes, there is considerable campus discourse about the incompatibility of this claim with the reality of gentrification. But how do we live out this discourse about gentrification?
The conspicuous consumption associated with gentrification is the foundation of Columbia’s sales-pitch; an Ivy League school offering its status as the key to New York City’s most extravagant consumer options—a community where my Instagram feed reads like a “Yuppie 101” manual to East Village rooftop bars and Lincoln Center ballet performances.
The yuppification of the student body reinforces Columbia’s ultimate goals of self-promotion and profit as a brand. Students flock to Columbia sometimes for its Core, but mostly for the lifestyle attached to being a New Yorker. This paradox remains unresolved in campus life. We (I) write op-eds about what Columbia owes to surrounding communities, while actually prioritizing the good life.
Firsthand experience—as an American, a white man, and Columbia student—taught me that I shouldn’t kid myself. Self-awareness isn’t enough to extricate me from patterns of domination such as gentrification. No amount of self-awareness will diminish the benefits I receive from these ostensibly superficial labels. The same applies to Columbia students writ large. We can disavow whatever Columbia represents to us—but as long as we’re the beneficiaries of its self-serving needs, we’re complicit.
Jacob Mazzarella is a political science major in the School of General Studies.
If two months ago, we had known what New York City would be facing, every student would cherish their Wu + Nussbaum coffee a little more and listen to the late-night ambulance sirens with nostalgia instead of the typical annoyance. Now, many of us sit far from our second home at Columbia, wondering if New York was ever our home in the first place.
I emphatically believe that we are New Yorkers. We have amenities not shared by the typical New York locals: for example, most of us had the option to leave campus when COVID-19 began. This doesn’t mean we should disavow ourselves of the New Yorker title. If our privileges bar us from this category, that makes only the most marginalized capable of being a New Yorker. We ought to use our advantages to better the surrounding communities.
The University has had a substantial impact on West Harlem, whether or not any student continues to attend classes physically. The question posed is not about the force of Columbia’s administration on the area, but rather the part students play in bettering New York. And so far, Columbia students have delivered. While undergraduate students have played their role by raising funds and staying safe at home, Columbia University Irving Medical Center has been on the front lines. These Columbia students aren’t looking for a resume builder; they are risking their lives to protect their community.
Even during more mundane times, students break the Columbia bubble in which many believe we have trapped ourselves. From Columbia’s Musical Mentors Collaborate to Peer Health Exchange, students are engaged with bettering their New York City communities. Community Impact is an incredible example of the meaningful work that students provide in Upper Manhattan alongside leaders of local projects.
One of the most sobering, recent events that highlighted we are not the stereotypical ivory tower was the death of Tess Majors. Her loss wasn’t felt just by Columbians, but by all of New York. Tess is a reason why continuing to promote restorative justice in our community simultaneously promotes justice on campus. The lines between Columbia and the rest of New York City are no more divisive than the streets where Columbians and locals cross paths every day. I know we are New Yorkers because after we take a fall, whether it be an event like Tess’s passing or the coronavirus pandemic, we do what New Yorkers do: pick ourselves up.
Brian Siegel is a sophomore at Columbia College studying sustainable development and computer science.
New York City has always had an affinity for seeking out those who want to call it home. The city draws its identity from the millions of people who migrate here, immerse themselves and give back to the various communities. In this, there is an exchange of identities between the New Yorker and the city.
New York presents students with vast opportunities and experiences, drawing from all those peoples and cultures who have come to her before and from those who are yet to come. And we, as new residents and Columbia students, need to give back our own experiences, talents, and ideas. As Columbia students, we tend to live in a bubble created by our neighborhood. As much as we like to portray it as an urban campus, Columbia students have the privilege of drawing back from the city when we want to.
Seemingly, graduate students at Columbia hardly get to or want to contribute to the city, and their community immersion experience stems from enjoying the attractions New York has to offer. This specific cohort, especially the international and non-social science or humanities one, falls short of experiencing the city as local and true New Yorkers do. But just because this fact has persisted in the graduate student community over the years, doesn’t mean there is a lack of options for community involvement for them. Yes, we cannot engage with long-term plans that student organizations and societies have and which undergraduate and doctoral students have four or more years to enjoy, but we can show up to events and rallies that do not always hold a commodified entertainment value. We can show our solidarity by educating ourselves about our neighboring communities, their cultures, and their issues. We must experience each side of the New York coin—the privileged, pop-culture phenomenon and the gritty, grimy arduous one.
As the debate about the effects of a Columbia gentrification in West Harlem rages on and New York’s proportion of homelessness increases, we need to step away from our role as optional New Yorkers. Just because we yearn to be a part of New York does not mean that we are New Yorkers. As we weave our stories within this complex urban structure and realize that finally, we have found a place to belong to, New York City and its culture are the ones who decide to let us in and be a part of the greater “New Yorker” fabric.
Sayali Nagwekar is a first-year master’s student at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, studying quantitative social science.
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