The building at 3595 Broadway stands out from the neighborhood skyline. It was commissioned by Columbia—built to house over 100 neighborhood residents whose homes would be bulldozed by the University’s Manhattanville expansion.
I first learned of this building two months ago when I was working on an article about Housing Development Fund Corporations, a unique affordable housing program that tends to breathe new life into previously foreclosed buildings by giving tenants the opportunity to buy their units. In one interview, a source drew my attention to a building that didn’t fit this mold. Unlike most HDFC buildings, 3595 Broadway (confusingly also known as 600 West 148th St.) was newly constructed and intended to hold not one, not two, but three separate HDFCs.
When I learned of the intention beyond the shiny exterior of this building and decided to investigate, I expected to find a familiar story—a story of residents pushed aside by a powerful institution without much concern for what they wanted or care for where they landed. I expected the residents to be angry and my article to be hard-hitting. But instead, I found a tangle of promises, some frustrated, but many fulfilled, and the largely successful migration of a resilient and quietly powerful community.
In 2009, the building at 602 West 132nd St. had been standing for 104 years. Since its foreclosure in 1978, it had been owned by New York City’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development. The tenants started the year in a program called the Tenant Interim Lease Program, which provides tenants in city-owned buildings a pathway to purchasing and managing their own buildings as HDFCs. That year, Columbia University informed residents that they would have to relocate. Its newly approved Manhattanville expansion plan included the demolition of their building to make space for an academic research facility.
For hours, I pored over the complicated and sometimes contradictory role Columbia plays as an agent of change in the neighborhood’s housing stock. From the aggressive purchase of dozens of residences in the ’60s and ’70s in Morningside Heights to the protracted legal battle after the state used eminent domain to grant Columbia land in Manhattanville in 2010, the University has certainly exercised its institutional power to stifle community opposition to its land-use practices in the past.
In 2009, 3595 Broadway housed three vacant storefronts. Columbia officially acquired the rights to develop the land in September 2012, and construction of the building began shortly after, with the intention to finish by fall 2014. The last publicly available construction update was published in January 2016, and the residents were moved in December of that year. Each household received $7,000 to compensate for their displacement.
Chapter 25 of the Environmental Impact Statement for Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion is titled “Unavoidable Significant Adverse Impacts.” These are defined as effects for which “there are no reasonably practicable mitigation measures to eliminate the impacts.” The statement lists Socioeconomic Conditions, Parking, and Noise. It even lists the unavoidable impact of Shadows. But nowhere does it list An Implacable Longing For One’s Home. If the problem lies with the nature of the move itself, I thought, the damage had been done. No matter what Columbia does, the pain of leaving home would remain, and the residents would be bitter. While I knew the University had ticked all the legal boxes for providing a replacement for the displaced residents of 602 West 132nd St., I figured it would be just that—a replacement.
But that isn’t what I find when I actually visit 3595 Broadway.
When my friend and translator, Isabel Herberger, and I ring the buzzer outside of 3595 Broadway, a bearded young man lets us into a bright lobby lined with mailboxes. We quickly learn that the man is the building’s super, Jon Philip. He seems surprised that we’ve come, surprised that I would want to write about the building at all. He says that we’re welcome to knock on doors and see if people will speak with us, but that he wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t find any takers. But about an hour later, we find ourselves sitting in Zulema Delacruz’s kitchen, drinking coffee and looking at pictures of her grandchildren.
Isabel translates as Delacruz tells us that she and her family moved into 602 West 132nd St. the week of her daughter’s fifth birthday. They had a cake to celebrate in their new apartment. For many years, she called 602 home while she worked at the nearby Madame Alexander doll factory and raised her kids. When Columbia informed the residents that they would be displaced, she had lived there for three decades. Her daughter was 38 years old.
Over the course of a few weeks in December 2016, a moving company was hired to pack up 30, 40, 50 years of people’s lives into boxes and move the residents 15 blocks uptown to the new building. If the residents chose to move without the company, they could receive an extra $2,000 specifically to defray the costs.
Many of the residents tell me they actually looked forward to moving. 602 West 132nd St. needed some major repairs—and not having an elevator in the six-story building was becoming difficult for some of the aging residents. Raul Larancuent, the president elected by the residents to run the HDFC in 3595 Broadway, explains, “Well, if you live in an old building, and they're gonna move you to a brand new building, everybody was happy and is still happy.” Another resident I speak to tells me that “everyone agreed to move and had time to talk about it.”
When I ask Larancuent about the residents’ working relationship with Columbia, his biggest complaint is that “when Columbia is involved, everything is so slow.” Before any residents even moved in, the finished building sat vacant for nearly a year while details were being finalized. But Larancuent also says that Columbia has tried to be helpful and fair to the residents: “We had a couple of meetings already, and when we don't like [something], we talk, and they try to help us and do things the right way.”
Following my interview with Larancuent, I take the subway four stops back to campus. As the train approaches the 125th Street station, I see the building at 602 West 132nd St.—its windows covered by sheets of plywood—and turn Larancuent’s words over and over in my mind. The train rumbles to a stop at the station, its smudged windows now framing the rubble of construction that surrounds the building.
602 West 132nd St. isn’t the only building affected by the Manhattanville project. According to a statement published on October 15, 2018, 75 units of housing will eventually be eliminated by the construction in the project area, which spans from 125th Street to 135th Street and from Broadway to the Hudson River. Columbia has promised to provide replacements for those units by 2025. 3595 Broadway isn’t large enough to compensate for all 75 displaced units, and the University has not announced any specific plans for construction of the other replacements.
But floors eight and nine of 3595 Broadway will (eventually) become home to the residents of nine units in 3289 Broadway. One of these residents, Rafael Abrahante, feels like the University has brushed aside his concerns. “We’re so small, we don’t have that power that when we say something it has an effect,” he tells me. But contrary to the traditional narrative of displacement, his complaint is not that they are forced to move, but that Columbia isn’t moving them fast enough.
According to Abrahante, he and the other residents of 3289 Broadway have been given moving dates that are then rescheduled. “Everything is in boxes. ... We’re sleeping on air mattresses on the floor.” And since the building will soon be vacated, it hasn’t been maintained as well. “It feels like we’re living in a cardboard box in the middle of the rain, and it’s leaking in.”
Philip tells me that the delay in relocating the residents of 3289 is because they requested to change the arrangement of their floors in 3595 to more closely match the square footage of their old building. In 2017, their contract was amended to fit this request, and Philip says that the restructuring was just recently finished.
The building’s tenants' association appointed a lawyer named Isabel Rodriguez to represent the interests of the residents of 3595 Broadway. While I initially thought that her ties to the University might conflict with a fair representation of the tenants’ interests, they seem to be satisfied with her work on their behalf. “She’s not involved too much, but … she knows the whole history,” Larancuent tells me. “She can help us with anything we need.” According to Delacruz and other residents I speak with in the building, Columbia representatives held several meetings before the move to help the residents understand the process. These meetings were helpful, although at times there was some confusion about the logistics of the move because the vast majority of the tenants needed the information translated into Spanish.
Since the publication of the Environmental Impact Statement, Columbia has retained their intention of rental rates and homeownership opportunities that match those in displaced residents’ old buildings. For the former residents of 602 West 132nd St., that meant continuing their TIL program in the new building. According to the Office of the City Register, Exodus Housing Development Fund Corporation was established in 3595 Broadway this April, officially making its residents the owners of a share of a co-op, rather than rent-paying tenants.
Larancuent was elected president of the HDFC just a few weeks ago. Because the residents now own their units, they have more autonomy—and more responsibility—in managing the building. Columbia has planned that each of the three groups of tenants that will ultimately occupy the building will eventually be given full ownership of their units.
Since everyone was moved together, the community in 602 remains close in the new building. As Larancuent and I sit and talk in the lobby of 3595 Broadway, I’m struck by his connection with the other residents. It’s around 5 o’clock on a Friday afternoon, so people filter in from work and school, and Larancuent exchanges greetings with each person. Even more impressively, he is aware of the fine detail of each of their lives—the ages of their kids, their upcoming surgeries, their cultural backgrounds. Delacruz, who often has her neighbors over for coffee, calls the residents “a family.”
Community Board 9, the group of elected community leaders who represent the interests of residents in Morningside Heights, Manhattanville, and Hamilton Heights, is perhaps the foremost bureaucratic vehicle for preventing unfair development in the neighborhood. However, when I call Reverend Georgiette Morgan-Thomas, who was the district manager at the time of 602’s relocation, she pushes against my initial notion that this particular development should fit into that category. After meetings with Columbia representatives to understand the plan, CB9 supported the move. She said that Columbia appeared to respect suggestions the Community Board made, and the board received no complaints about the building during or after the move.
This isn’t to say that the residents don’t grapple with the emotional impact of having to move. The feeling of home is inevitably bound up in the pull we feel towards a physical space. Maria Canto, a decades-long resident of 602 West 132nd St., tells me that while she likes the new building—that her unit is larger and nicer than her old unit—she sometimes worries about what will happen to her if she goes blind in the new building. In her old building, every corner, every lightswitch, every creaky board was ingrained in her memory, the product of living there for 44 years. She worries that in this new building, she will never be able to navigate the still-foreign rooms with that familiarity.
She sometimes visits the old building, walking the 16 blocks south with her caretaker. Although the building is now boarded up and inaccessible, she goes just to see it, to be reminded of the years she spent there.
Isabel Herberger translated the interviews with residents of 3595 Broadway
Have fun leafing through our eighth issue!