One recent evening, I made a mistake that many had made before me: I tried taking the 2 train to Columbia and got off at 116th Street—and Lenox Avenue. I stepped out into the fresh Harlem night and, squinting at Google Maps like the tourist that I was, traversed the avenues westward, past Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, past Frederick Douglass Boulevard, until I met the darkened terrain of Morningside Park.
Before me, the park’s obscured paths and stairs wound their way up to Morningside Drive, where University President Lee Bollinger’s villa and the Faculty House glimmered above the precipice. Google Maps suggested a route straight through the park. What Google Maps did not take into account, however, was the queasy fear that descended upon me as I tarried before the park’s entrance at night. As a sophomore at Columbia, I am a relative newcomer to Morningside Heights. But the fear I felt recapitulated, unbeknownst to me, over a century of unease between Columbia and Morningside Park.
When worried relatives warn incoming first-years that New York City is dangerous, they usually have the New York City of the ’70s and ’80s in mind—crime rates skyrocketed, and it was an anxious time for the city.
Morningside Park runs from 110th Street to 123rd Street between Morningside Drive and Morningside Avenue, and its cliffs separate Morningside Heights from Harlem. With its steep, winding paths, it has perennially had poor visibility and lighting. Students were told not to venture below it—in 1974, one Spectator reporter wrote that “the very mention of the recreation area spurs images of hundreds of blood-thirsty muggers standing around, waiting for an innocent college student to pass their path.”
And the Columbia community was frightened, again and again, by the highly publicized tales of those who made the same mistake I did—taking the wrong train and having to cross the park. Often, it was an embarrassment to the University—in 1974, one university administrator admitted that “at least eight, and possibly as many as 10 of the visiting professor and foreign officials” of recent years had been mugged on their way across the park. All of these incidents led to a downtick in applications to Columbia and prompted discussion about the lack of safety in Columbia’s surrounding neighborhood. Columbia forced the Transit Authority to install signs at major stations throughout Manhattan, clarifying the difference between the Broadway line and the Lenox Avenue line. Plainclothes policemen began to patrol the park in 1974. An officer was permanently stationed by the Harlem side of Morningside Park to direct confused Columbia affiliates to the safest way up.
But the case that most shook the University was a sexual assault. Fifteen years before the Central Park jogger case would thrust racialized fears about the rape of white women by black men into the city’s limelight, a Barnard student who had taken the wrong train was raped by four youths in Morningside Park in 1974. The rape victim was described in the pages of Spectator as “slight” and “pale.” The telling descriptors recall the trope that figures white women as fragile victims of black male violence; they are emblematic of how Columbia, predominantly white at the time, had felt in relation to Harlem, mostly African-American and Puerto Rican, for a long time: different and vulnerable.
I take walks in Morningside Park when I need to take a breather. I enjoy its spectacular views, its dramatic drops, and its circuitous trails, and I can see why, at its inception in the 1870s, hopes were high that the park would prove a welcome respite from the density of urban life.
But as much as I love the park, I can also see why it has caused trouble from the start. Manhattan had been developing inside a grid system since 1811, but Morningside Park proved to be an awkward place upon which to impose neatly arranged streets. Commissioner and Comptroller of Central Park Andrew Haswell Green remarked, in the 1860s, that the area consisted of “very heavy rock cut,” which would have made expanding the grid “very expensive.” He recommended that a park be established there instead. Similar problems led to the creation of Riverside Park, Fort Washington Park. As Morningside Park was being built, the construction of an elevated railroad began to transform Harlem into a middle-class neighborhood, and the park’s architects adjusted their plans to account for stragglers like me, adding the passage across the park at 116th Street. The park was completed in 1895.
This is not what Columbia had been expecting when it moved to Morningside Heights from a cramped location near Grand Central in 1897, newly “secluded by its height from the movement of business and population.”
While Morningside Heights, the area above Morningside Park, remained very white in the years before World War II, Central Harlem’s black population grew steadily, reaching 89 percent in 1940. Ethel Turner, a young organist at St. Luke’s Hospital Chapel, was descending that fateful staircase into the park in 1916 when a robber slashed her with a club and made off with her purse. It was the first of many publicized victimizations of a white woman by black perpetrators in Morningside Park.
To many at Columbia, which was then predominantly white, Harlem began to seem like a threat. This included University President Nicholas Murray Butler. Toward the end of his tenure, in September of 1945, Butler wrote a letter to the trustees encouraging the University to purchase land east and north of campus to “protect ourselves against invasion from Harlem or from the North.” But the irony of using expansionism to combat supposed invasion seems to have been lost on Butler. In this vision of the area, Morningside Park was an important bulwark: “Morningside Park is,” Butler noted, “so far as it goes, a helpful protection.”
Butler’s vision of the park as a barrier has racial undertones, but in the 1950s, Morningside Park was seen as an opportunity to serve not as a “no-man’s-land,” but as a place of collaboration. The athletic field at the southern end of the park is a prime example of this.
Columbia built the field in 1957, and, in an agreement with the city government, hosted a sports
program for the area’s youth. The program drew together over 2,500 kids on 100 teams, and Columbia administrators were proud of what they saw as interracial harmony in the park. A Spectator reporter described how “one team can send an infield composed of a white boy at first base, a Puerto Rican at second, a Negro at shortstop, and a Chinese at third—and they can make the double play.”
Columbia was arguably setting up a sustainable mode of sharing public space in Morningside Park. The success of the youth program, however, would later beovershadowed by Columbia’s involvement in and around the park in the 1960s.
Columbia planned a project that would light a ready fuse: to build a 10-floor gymnasium in Morningside Park. Announced in 1958, the undertaking initially had sunny prospects after receiving support from the state senate and powerful city planner Robert Moses. Of its 10 floors, two would be made available to the community. Had Columbia built the gym within those first few years, perhaps it would have succeeded just as intended. But the trustees stipulated that construction could not begin until the project had been funded, which Barnard history professor Robert McCaughey tells me was a “fairly unusual arrangement for a university.” But fundraising proved to be erratic, and so the project dragged its feet for years, according to McCaughey.
The venture would soon blow up in Columbia’s face. As Columbia began its aggressive “urban renewal” effort in Morningside Heights, people began to ask questions about the gym. Plans showed that there would be two entrances to the gym: one for Columbia affiliates at the top of Morningside Park and a second for the community at the bottom. For a black Harlem population, the project recalled the Jim Crow South, earning the nickname “Gym Crow.” It didn’t help when, in 1965, city officials discovered that, according to the floor plans, the community share of floor space would only constitute 12.5 percent of the total—instead of the assumed 20 percent.
“Many blacks in the community,” Stefan Bradley, an associate professor at Saint Louis University, writes in his book, Harlem vs. Columbia University, “saw that things were once more separate but hardly equal.” Over the next years, local political leaders, Columbia students, and black organizations and leaders coordinated a resistance that would defeat the project by 1968.
It was an important victory for the community and its park. It reflected a movement in 1916 against plans to build an unseemly, 40-foot-tall pumping house in the park, during which public opinion rose against the project and the park commissioner was forced to articulate a vision to protect minority interests in the park. The 1916 controversy, then, set up precedent for the kind of activism that could shoot down encroachment like Columbia’s in 1968. The victory in Morningside Park meant reclaiming a public space in Harlem from further invasion by a wealthy, historically white institution, both in the case of the pumping house and of the gym.
In a section of the park near 114th Street there is an area where families mill before a large pond to feed the ducks. On the other side of the pond, a waterfall runs down a rock face—irregular and partially hollowed out. The pond is the monument of the battle: the original excavation site of the 1960s. It remained an ugly crater for decades. The Parks Department, the University, and community leaders, all squeezed by a lack of money, debated what to do with the site. In 1983, Columbia terminated its 99-year lease on the park but left a debt of $250,000 thatwas paid for with the construction of the pond and waterfall in 1989 and 1990.
The pond’s surface was pitch-black the night I crossed the park, the ducks that usually drift on its surface nowhere to be seen. But my nerves were quickly quelled. As I walked, I heard an unexpected sound: the voices of children. To my right, by the yellowed light of a playground, little kids were swinging back and forth. Parents pushed them or stood apart and chatted.
Making my way past the playground and up the hill, I passed a couple slowly making their way down, then a lone man with his hands in his pockets. The park, unmoved by the sunset, was alive. I ascended more calmly. People might say that my nervousness was an exercise of proper New York City caution. But it was the same nervousness that had led the University and its students to regard its neighbors across the park with estranged mistrust, and to make Morningside Park a place that kept us apart.
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