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Claire Easton / Staff Illustrator

Think of Upper Manhattan as an ice cube tray—the old metal kind that your grandparents used, with a lever-like grip that you can bend to release the ice.

That’s how Eric K. Washington sees it, anyway. An independent historian, Washington has spent a good deal of time thinking about the so-called lever of this part of town: West 125th Street, which cuts a clean, diagonal line from Morningside Avenue to the Hudson River, disrupting the harmonious grid that expands across the northern half of the island.

“Rather than going from river to river, straight across,” the road “looks like somebody actually bent it upwards,” Washington tells me. We’re speaking over the phone, but his passion is audible. He has a raconteur’s knack for relaying the deep meaning he finds in the mundane.

West 125th Street is often cited as the northern border of Morningside Heights, a relatively small New York neighborhood notable for its concentration of religious, medical, and educational institutions—chief among them, Columbia. But with the completion of its new Manhattanville campus, the University is now an integral part of the eponymous neighborhood north of 125th Street, too.

Cherrie Zheng

Columbia is the main actor in defining its neighborhood’s boundaries, according to Michael Henry Adams, a historian and activist based in Harlem, who tells me that Columbia’s expansion into Manhattanville centers on a notion of blurring the line between Morningside Heights and surrounding neighborhoods.

Where does Columbia’s neighborhood end, and where do the adjacent tiles in Manhattan’s mosaic begin? With the University’s expansion, the already fuzzy delineations of Morningside Heights might become even murkier. Our neighborhood’s identity hinges more than ever on the University’s capacity to define and alter it.

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Columbia’s glittering, Renzo Piano-designed appendage might shape up to be as transformative a project for Manhattanville as Columbia’s campus has been for Morningside Heights since the University moved here in 1897 from its crowded Midtown confines.

That same decade, construction began a few blocks south on the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, on the former grounds of the Leake and Watts Orphan Asylum. The neighborhood quickly emerged as a mecca for New York institutions: Barnard College, Teachers College, the Union Theological Seminary, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Riverside Church. Under Nicholas Murray Butler, who served as University president for over four decades in the twentieth century, Columbia expanded south of West 116th Street. Butler’s namesake library, a pillared behemoth abutting West 114th Street, stands today as an icon of Columbia’s unlikely urban campus.

The concentration of these institutions in a single area—at that point, unnamed—distinguished the neighborhood from others developing at the time, says Andrew Dolkart, a professor of historic preservation at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, or GSAPP. I’m speaking with Dolkart in his office in Buell Hall, a graceful red-brick remnant of the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum, the first institution established in the area in 1821. It’s no surprise that an architectural historian of Dolkart’s import presides over Columbia from a perch in the oldest building on its campus.

“No single neighborhood name was generally accepted to designate the location,” Dolkart writes in Morningside Heights: A History of Its Architecture and Development, widely regarded as the seminal text on the neighborhood’s history. Other options were floated, too: Bloomingdale Heights, Riverside Heights, Columbia Heights, University Heights. The common label ‘Heights,’ born of the neighborhood’s location atop a plateau, is readily apparent to riders of the Bronx-bound 1 train, who plunge out from underneath Broadway around West 122nd Street and traverse a bridge that spans Manhattanville’s valley.

But which Heights would it be? Officials at Saint John the Divine, unsurprisingly, pushed for Cathedral Heights. But academic institutions like Columbia wanted a less ecclesiastical title. According to Dolkart, a newspaper poked fun at the institutions’ inability to settle on a name, and concluded emphatically that ‘Morningside Heights it was and Morningside Heights it shall be.’” It caught on, and it stuck.

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Dan McSweeney has resided in Morningside Heights intermittently since 1964, when his relatives bought an apartment on West 111th Street, between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, in a building that Columbia now owns.

McSweeney chose to attend graduate school at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs solely for its location. “My fascination with the neighborhood grew,” he says. “I realized that I wanted to help share the story of the neighborhood with my fellow students, many of whom were from out of the city, out of the state, out of the country, and didn’t really understand the context in which they were studying and living.”

Employing the knowledge he developed about the neighborhood as a child, McSweeney launched a series of radio shows called Morningside Now. Morningside Heights, he found, had a different feel than the Upper West Side and other surrounding neighborhoods, a phenomenon he ascribes to its distinct institutional character.

McSweeney is wary, however, of adhering too closely to arbitrary lines. After all, he says, the city government doesn’t outline official neighborhood definitions. “That’s an interesting idea—it means that culture is just as important as zoning in this type of discussion,” he says. Later, he adds, “For people that don’t know about some of these names, they’d never know they’re entering a new neighborhood.”

Tom Kappner lives 10 blocks north of McSweeney, on West 121st Street, near Amsterdam Avenue. Unlike McSweeney, Kappner identifies first and foremost as a resident of West Harlem, and for him, that label is loaded.

A retired professor of Latin American history and policy at City College, Kappner tells me he has witnessed an erosion of the the “real, vibrant diversity” that he fell in love with when he moved to the neighborhood to attend Columbia College in 1962. I am calling him unannounced, having never met him in person, and he is eager to delve into the details of his roughly half-century-long tenure as a local activist.

Kappner sees himself as one of few proponents of traditional urban mixture—of a neighborhood’s people, places, and styles—in what is now a “sterile institutional enclave.”

Many of Kappner’s tales of the neighborhood relate back to his participation in the effort to curb Columbia’s expansion in Morningside Heights in the 1960s. But in recent years, he has oriented his activism toward Manhattanville, where he sees history repeating itself. In 2012, he founded the anti-expansion group Coalition to Preserve Community.

The University, he says, missed an opportunity to act differently toward its neighbors than in the past. “It’s a real shame, because it could have been done in a way that would create a space that was shared by the community and Columbia,” he says, echoing the outcry from community members who have criticized the University for its land acquisition and development practices at multiple stages of its expansion. The University has made its case in its repeated emphasis on a plethora of benefit programs and a community-minded approach to the design of the new campus.

In Kappner’s view, the University’s expansions have chafed against the community’s effort to coexist with the institutions with whom they share a neighborhood. While his commitment to community bonds feels invigorating, the narrative of neighborhood erosion he recounts is dispiriting. The Manhattanville expansion, he seems to suggest, was another blow to the vitality of West Harlem that he cherishes.

“The impact of the Manhattanville expansion is going to be identical, or almost identical, to the impact that the expansion in the ’60s had on Morningside,” he says. And he fears the impact will reverberate north of Manhattanville itself, on the Broadway-Amsterdam corridor that stretches to Columbia’s medical campus, in Washington Heights. Rents are rising, he says, and pressure on long-term tenants—many of them low-income residents and residents of color—is intensifying. Kappner’s is a desperate plea: History is repeating itself.

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From a municipal perspective, Kappner’s embrace of the name West Harlem is no stretch. Together with Hamilton Heights, Manhattanville and Morningside Heights compose Community District 9. Few would dispute referring to District 10 as Central Harlem, or District 11 as East Harlem. On a map, the trifecta comprises three near-even slices of Upper Manhattan that make geometric sense.

But to Adams, including Columbia under the broad Harlem umbrella is dangerous. If they are linked, he thinks, the roles could swap, opening the door for Columbia—an elite, historically white-dominated institution—to include Harlem under its umbrella. For a man who has devoted his life to celebrating and preserving the cultural heritage of one of the nation’s foremost African American neighborhoods, that’s an ominous prospect.

Adams first glimpsed that formulation of the two neighborhoods while studying at GSAPP, where he earned a degree in historic preservation in 1989. He sees the present-day expansion as the second prong in Columbia’s long-term real estate endeavors. The first, as Kappner intimated, was becoming the dominant landowner in Morningside Heights in the twentieth century.

Laura Friedman, who has lived in Morningside Heights for over 40 years, agrees. “Columbia seems to feel a need to gobble up a lot of neighborhoods,” she tells me, when I ask for her thoughts on Adams’ analysis.

Friedman, the president of both the Morningside Heights Historic District Coalition and the Morningside Heights Community Coalition, emphasizes above all the importance of preserving her longtime neighborhood, which she describes as “a little village.”

Cherrie Zheng

Institutions, Friedman recognizes, are an integral component of the neighborhood, with the capacity to strengthen and enhance it. She remembers Emily Lloyd, a Columbia administrator who facilitated conversations between the University and the community during the construction of the Broadway Hall, as a cogent negotiator “who understood how to relate to a community.” That project was completed in 2000, and Friedman still considers it a success: Students enter the dormitory on West 114th Street, and community members can access the Morningside Heights branch of the New York Public Library, which occupies the building’s ground floor, from Broadway.

But Friedman’s preservation efforts more often entail pushing back against what she sees as ill-conceived architectural endeavors—which are, she says, sometimes greenlighted without consent from community members who are not affiliated with those institutions. She labels a certain cathedral “Saint John the Developer,” and she likens the Broadway-facing exterior of Columbia’s so-called Northwest Corner Building, designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Rafael Moneo, to the back of a refrigerator.

Friedman identifies as a proud resident of Morningside Heights, but in her view, parsing the nuances of neighborhood names takes a backseat to ensuring the preservation of their character and affordability. She leaves me with a joke: “NYU owns everything up to 42nd Street, and Columbia owns everything north.”

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