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Yasmine Akki / Senior Staff Photographer

Sundae Sermon must have been a spectacle before it got shut down: Renowned DJ Stormin’ Norman would gather thousands for his dance party in Morningside Park, and they would arrive with blankets, wine, and good cheer. “It brought out all the cool people of Harlem,” resident Mojisola Alawode-El, who attended many times, remembers. On Sundays, the upper part of the park would be crowded with people dancing to the soulful rhythms of Stormin’ Norman and his guest DJs. Then, in 2012, Sundae Sermon got shut down.

The truth is, Morningside Park has undoubtedly changed since the 1990s, when Columbia students and other neighboring residents were wary of venturing inside. What I realized over the course of my research for this article was that Morningside Park has been changing in lockstep with gentrification, which has been impacting Harlem for over a decade. The challenges that this raises in Morningside Park are complex, and they should matter to us, too. Whether you are shooting hoops or having a dance party in the park, we must ask ourselves: What does it mean to be a good neighbor?

Affluent newcomers have been gentrifying Harlem for the past two decades, pushing lower-income, often black, residents out of their neighborhood. Many of these long-time residents mourn the change in Harlem, historically a locus of black history and culture. “This neighborhood is now absolutely gentrified,” Aissatou Bey-Grecia, who first moved to the area in 1967, when it was over 95 percent black, tells me. “If you're black, you have a hard time staying here.”

Morningside Park, that steep, ragged space between Harlem and Columbia, has inspired mistrust in the community for decades, and to many, it still demarcates the eastern boundary of the Columbia bubble. But safety isn’t really what the conversation is about anymore—after all, the park has gotten safer. Instead, as Morningside Park gentrifies along with its neighborhood, it must serve its community in a way that honors traditions but accepts change. We, as neighboring Columbians, who walk down the steps, around the pond, and find respite under a canopy of tree branches, remain mostly unaware of our role as neighbors. 

Courtesy of Harper’s Weekly, Scientific American

Morningside Park is short on cash, and always has been. The 30-acre park, with its steep staircases, hilly walkways, playgrounds, and fields, needs renovations that it has only haltingly received due to tight city park budgets.Where hedge fund managers in wealthy areas might lavish $100 million on the parks they love, like Central Park, smaller parks in less affluent neighborhoods—such as our own Morningside Park—struggle to raise money.

A group called Friends of Morningside Park, with which Bey-Grecia is involved, has tried to make up the shortfall with fundraising and volunteering for decades. As money flows into and gentrifies Central Harlem, the job of advocates like Bey-Grecia becomes easier. Median family income in the area has risen 48 percent over the past decade (compared with three percent for the city as a whole), which generates money and interest. The Department of Parks and Recreation has begun redirecting its much-needed millions toward renovations in the park, as it did in the mid-2000s, for example. When Friends of Morningside Park needed seed money to kickstart a farmer’s market in 2005, a local developer was happy to help out. The city at large, too, has begun to take notice: The City Gardens Club, an environmental organization, is raising money in conjunction with the Department of Parks and Recreation to repair an area of the park.

Spending money to beautify one of our city’s original Olmstead and Vaux parks is certainly worth it. The park has begun to see more traffic from both sides. Bey-Grecia, who would not even walk past Morningside Park in the late ’60s (let alone enter it), now loves taking her grandchildren to the park’s popular playgrounds. Gilberte Vansintejan, a Teachers College alumna who has been living on Morningside Drive since 1979 on the Columbia side of the park, tells me that “nobody dared walking in the park” in the ’80s. But I meet her in the park, and we pant on the landing of the stairs up to Morningside Heights. She raves about how now, “they keep it so nice, so beautiful.” Many residents like her, old and new, feel good about the park.

So far, so good?

Courtesy of Spectator Archives
Columbia Daily Spectator, 26 January 1983

In the spring of 1976, a Harlem resident expressed frustration about Morningside Park to Spectator. “Morningside Park is a black park,” the resident says. “And I can hear them hemming and hawing, ‘Oh, we don't have any money.’ If Morningside Heights utilized the park, they'd be over here cleaning up in a second.”

The resident had reason for suspicion. Although more affluent residents have entered the neighborhood and helped improve the park, the changes can seem like a mixed blessing.

In the summer of 2011, several shots were fired in and around the park, some close to a playground. Some community members began calling their representatives, demanding safer conditions. A local human rights lawyer with a one-year-old son drafted a “solidarity letter” that garnered hundreds of signatures on the mailing list of the community organization Harlem4Kids. Spectator also published an editorial “in support of Morningside.” And these efforts worked, at least in the short-term: Government officials and the New York Police Department responded.

When I spoke to Lisa Jones Brown, a founder of Harlem4Kids, she was proud that the organization’s mailing list served as a powerful platform for “a range of people, different viewpoints.” But she also says that certain changes, like better lighting, took too long to arrive. “Where was that before?” Brown, who has lived near the park since 2001, asks me. “Because people needed that.”

The answer to Brown’s question is difficult to unravel, but many feel that assertive new residents are part of the answer, and this breeds suspicion. Bey-Grecia, like everyone else, assures me that she was happy that the 2011 outrage resulted in better safety conditions. But not everybody can draft angry emails. Some elder residents, especially, might miss out on activism that’s happening online. “People who don't have a voice don't get a chance to weigh in,” she tells me, “and people who are used to using their voice weigh in for everybody, or for a large portion.” As she put it to the New York Times at the time, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”

Courtesy of Spectator Archives

If there is one thing all of my sources could agree on, it’s that the playgrounds are wonderful. Over the last two decades, Over the last two decades, Friends of Morningside Park has helped construct and renovate several playgrounds—the play spaces have received millions in funding over the last two decades. Go to the park at more or less any time of the day, even after sunset, and there will be children in the playgrounds.

Joel Mentor is the chair of the Landmarks Preservation and Parks Committee on Community Board 9, the district that includes Columbia and Morningside Park, along with Manhattanville and Hamilton Heights. He told me that he is “all aboard” if any kind of money is flowing into his constituency. But he also tells me that the playgrounds closest to new developments always receive the most money and care. He pointed to a field right outside the park, adjacent to a public housing development. Funding for much-needed repairs in areas like this, he says, is low. Where this funding might come from, however, is another story.

Jonathon Kahn has a seven-year-old and a nine-year-old, and the kids love the playgrounds. But Kahn—a former Columbia instructor who now teaches at Vassar College—also loves playing basketball at the courts, where, he assures me, “lots of the city’s legends” have played.

As part of the North Star Neighborhood Association, Kahn is fighting for the renovation of these “historic” courts, which are in much worse shape than the playgrounds, but progress has been slow. “Parents with young children are very vocal about what their children need,” he says. “I think the kids who are 12 and older have fewer advocates.” 

Yasmine Akki
Deteriorating basketball courts in Morningside Park. Residents say that Barack Obama, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Earl Manigault, Joakim Noah, and others played here over the years.

People have always quarreled over what’s off-limits and what’s in good fun in the park. At least since 1902, the New York Times has been receiving cranky letters to the editor about “wicked urchins” (that is, young boys) and their mischief in the park. But to many, Sundae Sermon, the dance party, seems like a victim of this war on fun. (Yes, this probably sounds familiar.)

I never exactly found out why Sundae Sermon was canceled. It was last held in Morningside Park in 2012, and in the years since was either held in St. Nicholas Park (a Harlem park further north) or not at all. Neither DJ Stormin’ Norman nor the Parks Department were willing to confirm what had happened, and the Parks Department did not respond to a request for comment. Nikoa Evans-Hendricks of Harlem Park to Park, which has hosted Sundae Sermon for its Earth Day celebration, told me that “the Parks Department decided that the size of the event had outgrown the park.”

That might well be. But it’s also likely that complaints about noise and trash from nearby residents shut down the event. Brad Taylor, the president of Friends of Morningside Park, confirmed this. Some residents I spoke with also allege that the wealthy Cathedral of Saint John the Divine helped shut down Sundae Sermon. But essentially, many long-term Harlem residents feel that it is the new, less tolerant residents who make complaints. Alawode-El, who is the daughter of Bey-Grecia, was unhappy with the impact of new voices in the community. “You move to someone else's neighborhood, and then you decide what the standard is for normal—but you're the new person,” she says.

As such, the battle lines inevitably get drawn between Old Harlem and New Harlem, with New Harlemites seeming unwilling to compromise over things like noise, cleanliness, and barbecuing parties. “There were loud parties when I moved here,” Alawode-El, who now has an infant, told me. “And the trade-off is, I look out my window, and I see a beautiful park.”

Whose beautiful park? The question keeps evolving. But it seems like those who raise their voices are staking out an ever-greater claim. As Brown did tell me, frankly, “Now, it feels like an Upper West Side park.”

Yasmine Akki
In the 1960s Columbia tried to build a gym in Morningside Park, but the project was stopped by student and community activists. The excavation site was converted into a pond and artificial waterfall.

Given such contention, is there room for Columbia in Morningside Park? The school has often seemed to do more harm than good when it comes to being a neighbor, such as during its abortive attempt in the 1960s to build a segregated gym in Morningside Park. Since then, Columbia has also made space for its expansion in Manhattanville and elsewhere by displacing residents from their homes, at times forcibly.

Kahn observed that, even if more residents are affiliated with Columbia, Columbia as an institution still lacks a presence on the other side of the park. “That is not entirely healthy,” he says. “This is a place where people live only because they can't afford the other side.”

There is room for small-scale contributions Columbia could make to have a tangible impact on the area. When Friends of Morningside Park was lobbying for the park to be designated a scenic landmark, for example, Columbia sent a letter of support, according to Taylor. “This was kind of a way to say, ‘We certainly don't have any designs on the park anymore,’” he says. “Designs,” of course, being intrusions like the infamous gym. They group was successful: Morningside Park was granted the scenic landmark designation in 2008.

Another simple contribution would be to further help fund maintenance in the park. Unlike better funded parks, large, rugged Morningside Park lacks a designated Parks Enforcement Patrol officer, Taylor told me. Instead, a roving team of PEP officers attends to all of northern Manhattan. It was Columbia, in fact, which paid for the designated PEP officer until only a few years ago.

When the 2011 shootings were making waves, Spectator’s editorial board urged that “students should care just as much about the crimes committed beyond our gates as they do about those committed on campus.” That is a high standard to set, and in actuality, the student body’s attention flagged quickly, predictably.

Some students do play an active role in this park—they have been volunteering in Morningside Park for decades. It’s an activity that “may be challenging psychologically,” Alissa Mayers, who works at Community Impact, says. Encountering communities that are very different from their own, students sometimes “seem afraid that they're going to do more harm than good,” and that often makes them uncomfortable, according to Mayers.

But she assures me that students’ fears are often unfounded. At the same time, it’s important to remain sensitive to the community’s needs while volunteering. Friends of Morningside Park, for example, has been doing important work in the park since its founding by Columbia undergraduates in 1981, when students proudly ventured into the “dark and overgrown jungle,” as a booklet described it, to perform necessary cleanup. But the group also did not significantly involve the community in its efforts, and the Parks Commissioner faulted them for being “insensitive to the neighbors' feelings about the park and its troubled history.” The enterprising group was certainly well-meaning, but their lack of awareness hindered their efforts. 

Courtesy of Spectator Archives
Columbia students and community members gather for “A Day in the Park.” Columbia Daily Spectator, 13 April 1983.

The City Gardens Club, the organization that is currently helping renovate the pond and waterfall in the park, has planned one new frontier for engagement. It is looking to create a community organization “that would be an ongoing source of funds and volunteers and care,” President Catherine Crane told me. “So that the park will be well taken care of in perpetuity.” If successful, such an organization could finally provide Morningside Park the volunteer and donor base it needs.

Bey-Grecia, who works both in Friends of Morningside Park and the North Star Alliance, is used to facilitating relationships between communities. “What I always have to remind everyone,” she says, “is that everyone wants safety. Everyone wants cleanliness.”

We, as the Columbia community, theoretically know this about our neighbors on both sides of Morningside Park.

And yet, miscommunication and injustice continues to happen.

“A lot of the problem has to do with people not being able to step out of their comfort zone,” Bey-Grecia says. A student who passes the pond, or the playgrounds, or the barbecue pits, might not know the competing demands that shaped, and are shaping, these shared outdoor spaces.

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