Thursday, July 13, 2006

Columbia Builds a Company Town: CityLimits January 1986

City Limits
January 1986
cover story, pgs 16-21)

Columbia Builds a Company Town:

Morningside Heights' biggest landlord has a history
that includes harassment, homelessness, and most
recently, evictions.


Holed up in a dilapidated apartment at 130 Morningside
Drive, the worst thing for five members of the
Morningside Tenants Federation was the hot and muggy
weather of that August 26 afternoon. They were camped
out in apartment 3C where windows were tinned over,
huge sections of the plaster walls were stripped naked
to the lattice beneath, pipes ripped out and every
porcelain fixture smashed beyond recognition. The
damage had been done by vandals sent by the landlord,
they say. In one room of the spacious and once-elegant
apartment inexplicably sat a cobweb covered
motorcycle. One of the squatters pointed at it and
smiled explaining, "It's a fine old antique. It was a
very good make." Just how or why that motorcycle got
there is hard to say but then this is Columbia's
building and territory and the bizarre, irrational,
preposterous and of times indecent have ceased to
surprise area residents.

"They're not answerable to anyone:'
Barbara Buoncristiano asserts from her post
next to the venerable two-wheeler. She and four others
took a crowbar to pry their way into 3C and stage a
"symbolic squat" in the mostly vacant building that
has come to symbolize Columbia's arrogant, and
frequently destructive real estate practices. They
were protesting their landlord's latest policy of
evictions. "I came home this summer from visiting my
father and found a 72-hour eviction notice on my
door:' Buoncristiano states.

A full time doctoral candidate who had previously
worked for 17 years as a university administrator,
Buoncristiano now finds herself on the brink of being
booted out of her home and neighborhood. She and her
fellow squatters are some of the 40 tenants of
Columbia University buildings that are in Housing
Court, many battling to stay in their apartments. Some
are employed by the university; others are no longer
affiliated either as students or employees. But all
object to their landlord's current campaign to clear
out tenants who have built homes in Morningside
Heights. "The mortal sins were committed in the 60's
and 70's:' says Jane Hammond, of the Morningside
Tenants Federation. "Now we're trying to prevent the
last stab at turning the entire area into a Columbia
dormitory:' Things are heating up again on Morningside
Heights where Columbia University is the largest
landlord, with 40 percent of all rental units. The
latest round of legal actions, protests and organizing
is focused on the affiliation clause contained in
leases signed by Columbia tenants. It has been
interpreted by the courts in several significant cases
to grant Columbia the landlord almost superlegal
status in dealing with rent controls. Many feel that
as a nonprofit institution that is also powerfully
connected, the university has been given carte blanche
to conduct tenant relations with virtual impunity.

But for people like Hammond and Buoncristiano, hurling
challenges at the ivory tower from the community below
is nothing new though the particulars may have
changed. They are students of history and know well
the 25-year story of Columbia's stormy relationship to
the community. The chapter they're presently helping
to write is just one of many compiled by SRO dwellers,
tenant organizers and lawyers, local politicians and
planners who've felt or studied the impact of the
institutional giant in their neighborhood. Separate
yet enmeshed in the Heights, a nonprofit that claims
the right to make a reasonable return on its
residential properties, dedicated to education, yet
oblivious to the rich opportunities right under its
nose—Columbia is riddled with contradictions.

The university and its administrators have acted in
ways that reflect indifference to public opinion. They
account to no one for their policies. In the three
months this article was researched, 13 requests for
interviews with William Scott, head of Real Property
Management and President Michael Sovern were rebuffed.
Even when City Limits' concern for a balanced story
was stressed, no response was provided, except some
p.r. material. Above the law, above reproach, above
the city. It seems that Columbia University would be
king of Morningside Heights.

In the City of New York

Founded in 1754, Columbia University in the City of
New York (the full legal name) was situated on what is
now Rockefeller Center. In 1897, the university moved
north to the highest point in the city, Morningside
Heights, which covers 110th to 125th Streets, from
Riverside to Morningside Drives. The area was fairly
undeveloped, even countrified and ripe for receiving
Columbia's imprint. At the turn of the century, the
Broadway subway line was constructed with a stop at
116th St. expressly for the university.

Other institutions followed suit. Barnard College,
Union Theological Seminary, Teachers College,
Riverside Church and others settled in the area.
Residential housing tended towards the spacious,
elegant variety for middle and upper middle class
people, according to a study by Professor Peter
Marcuse of Columbia's Division of Urban Planning.
Development was steady and prolific through the

The first cracks in the facade appeared during the
Depression, when families doubled up to save money and
the sprawling six-and eight-room apartments were
chopped up for single rental units. Thus was born the
single-room-occupancy hotel (SRO). The housing
shortage after WWII and the influx of large numbers of
people, among them Puerto Ricans and blacks, changed
the complexion of the Heights. As Marcuse notes, "By
1960, Morningside Heights looked very different from

Peering out from their iron-gated enclave, Columbia
officials watched with more displeasure than academic
interest in the social transformation unfolding before
them. In 1947, Columbia and other institutions in the
area formed Morningside Heights Inc. (MHI) led by
David. Rockefeller. The organization's goal was "the
task of improving the Morningside Heights community as
an attractive residential, cultural and education
area." Whether that purpose was accomplished appears
open to interpretation. Marie Runyon, a Heights
resident since the early 50's (see Runyon profile, p.
22) recalls with rancor the activities of MHI:
"They were responsible for the demolition of all these
blocks, from 125th to 123rd St; from Morningside
Avenue through Broadway in the 50's. There were some
slums, but much of it was good, solid housing."

People were promised spaces in new public housing
projects to be erected on the cleared land, Runyon
states. "They were told: 'If you have to move out
you'll be able to come back: Nonsense. Flagrant lies.
I have yet to find one person who lived here before."

Two new developments did go up in the next decade.
General Grant Houses provided 2,000 families with
low-rent public housing; Morningside Gardens was a
middle income Title I development for 1,000 families.
But the MHI had ulterior motives in its urban renewal
efforts. "Grant was to be the first line of defense
against the hoards of blacks who were going to take
over Columbia University, Morningside Heights. They
said it in almost those words. The Gardens were to be
the second line of defense," Runyon says.

Columbia's tremendous influence in retooling the
community was amplified through negotiations with the
city for an urban renewal plan. Three main principles
were laid out to the city's Housing and Redevelopment
Board in a 1963 report from the MHI: no public housing
between 110th and 123rd Streets; room must be
available for institutional expansion; and no SRO
hotels north of 110th St.

With the exception of a handful of SROs still
remaining,' Columbia had its way. From 1959 to 1968,
the university added 85 buildings to its housing
stock; the neighborhood's 34 SRO hotels were whittled
down to five by 1980 due to demolitions or conversions
to dormitory use by Columbia or Morningside Heights
Inc. Over 20 SROs were emptied by "relocation experts"
hired by Columbia in the 1970's. Morningside Heights
lost roughly 5,000 rental units from 1960-1980 and an
estimated 15,000 people were displaced. Most were
elderly, poor and minority. According to Marcuse, "At
the one end, housing available to the university and
its affiliates has sharply increased; more Columbia
.people are now housed on Morningside Heights than
ever before, and the neighborhood reflects their real
or presumed tastes in facilities, stores, restaurants,
services, more than at any time since WWII."

Columbia's expansionism met a brick wall in 1968 when
plans to build a university gym in the city-owned
Morningside Park triggered a wave of community
opposition and the infamous student rebellions. For
the first time, the university was forced to consider
its neighbors and alter its agenda. The architectural
firm of LM. Pei was hired to formulate a new plan.
Their final report states, "The competition for
housing. . . has been the root cause of most of the
conflict between the institutions and surrounding
community during the past decade." It recommends "a
process of rebuilding trust in the community:'
building new residential housing on campus and
undertaking a joint housing venture with the
community. None of those suggestions has yet been

While the shortage of housing for Columbia's faculty,
administrators, employees and students is and has been
a real concern—the university's spokespeople say it is
the only one—other factors weigh heavily in universiy
real estate policy. A 1978 faculty senate report on
academic affairs belied the university's other
interests in the neighborhood. Called the Marcus
report, it states, "outside the campus (it) is not
attractive and life on Morningside Heights is not
commodious or particularly entertaining. Shopping is
terrible, decent restaurants few; astonishingly, there
isn't a major bookstore, quality movie house or art
gallery in the neighborhood. . . Columbia and its
neighboring institutions are in a position to redesign
their own neighborhood, for they largely own its
property and can, within limits, determine its
occupancy and uses." The problem is, the university
more than once has lost sight of those limits.

The Wages of Sin

It would take a book to do justice to the saga of the
SRO at 600 West 113th Street, says tenant George
Ewing. The harassment, threats, fires, intimidation,
flooding and resident resilience in the face of it all
have made the building a legend on the Heights. Known
as The Wages of Sin for a Biblical quotation that
remains faintly visible on an exterior wall, the
285-unit building is one of the few SROs to survive
conversion or erasure by Columbia.

Survival of the building as a mixed population
residence more than six years since the university
took title is owed mostly to the grit and steely will
of Ewing, a Vietnam war veteran. In fact he makes
frequent references to Vietnam when discussing the
grisly happenings at the Wages of Sin. For him and 100
tenants, there was no question that they were locked
in mortal combat with a powerful enemy. "I wonder what
they thought of me?" Ewing ponders, "Some guy who will
just stand around with a little rag-tag army of bag
women and SRO people, throwing marshmallows at
Columbia University. Throw them at their bulldozer and
make it back up 400 blocks."

Ewing moved to the city and entered Columbia's School
of General Studies in January 1979. "I went to the
Housing Office and was told they didn't have any
vacant apartments;' he recalls. Driven by necessity,
Ewing scouted around the area and found 25 vacancies
without trying. "The supers all told me I had to go
through the Housing Office." It was the first of many
deceptions and half truths Ewing would hear from
Columbia officials at every level, from then —
President Willam McGill to Ronald Golden, director of
the Housing Division in the 70's.

Ewing got a room at 600 West 113th, an unsavory SRO
where garbage was piled up outside first floor
windows, because the manager, Harry Kay, "felt sorry
for me and probably figured I'd just stay a couple of
weeks. I was probably the last one he let in before
they started clearing it out."

State Assemblyman Ed Sullivan, whose district includes
the Heights, says that "Harry Kay told me that he was
clearing out the building because Columbia would buy
it when it was emptied to a certain level." He notes
that during the winter of 1978-79 harassment and lack
of repairs increased, the same time it turned out
during which Columbia was negotiating to buy the

Tenants led by Ewing got an attorney and a preliminary
injunction against the building's owner of record,
Jerry Wartski in May 1979. That's when the next
Columbia chicanery was revealed: since 1975, the
university had been a primary mortgage holder of the
Wages of Sin.

Larry Klein's voice still seethes with rage
remembering that Columbia "denied any involvement. It
was terribly deceptive-and-they persisted with a
hands-off posture:' The director of the Mayor's Office
on SRO Housing from 1978-80, Klein was an advocate for
tenants at 600 W. 113th. "McGill was no better than
the worst SRO slumlord. Even after confronted with
proof, he took no steps to halt harassment."

McGill announced the university's intention to take
control of 600 West 113th by fall of 1979, a plan that
was accelerated when Kay attacked one of the tenants
with a pipe in June.

Out of the fat and into the fire. Tenants saw
conditions go from bad to worse when Columbia took
title to their building in July. P & L Management was
hired to relocate residents, offering them $200, but
the tenants association took a vote and decided to

"I spent lots of time at 600 West 113th St. There were
terrible incidents:' recalls Klein. "They put elderly
women on the top floor. Then the water tower on the
roof broke and flooded their rooms. An elderly man was
pushed through a window by the manager. It was violent

"There was no building maintenance and at times the
only water available was streaming down the walls of
the 12 floors from the burst water tank. Ceilings
caved in and the plaster fell off in giant slabs.
Elevator service was cut. Doors were left wide open
and strangers roamed the halls. Heat was not turned on
until December 1979. In the first year Columbia owned
and managed the building, six elderly people died
under adverse conditions, Ewing reports. About 14
others were institutionalized. "But that's just time
catching up to people. You can't blame Columbia:' says
Ewing with mock sincerity. "The only thing you can do
is turn people's stomachs by painting the picture of
what Columbia did. Why did they force people to live
in these conditions when they already had nine toes in
the grave?"

Harassment and negligent management succeeded in
pushing half the tenants out of 600 West 113th St. by
early 1980. Klein met with McGill and Golden and asked
them to allow remaining tenants to stay and fill
vacancies with students for a mixed population. No
deal. In February 1980, the head of the state's
Department of Social Services, Barbara Blum, met with
McGill and Michael Sovern, nine months before he would
be named McGill's successor. Blum went to complain
about harassment at 600 W. 113th St. and ended up
giving Columbia half a million dollars to fund a
program to assist the homeless below 96th St. Ironic,
says Klein, since "thousands of tenants were displaced
due to (Columbia's) tactics:'

The residents of the Wages of Sin were much diminished
in numbers but hardened in their resolve to stick. A
mixture of Pakistani, African and American people,
they conducted four rent strikes from 1979-1982 and
survived an agonizingly slow three years of rehab
work. Ewing calls it "death by renovations," during
which time the city Buildings Department slapped
Columbia with a violation for not having work permits.

But by January 1982, McGill was out and a new
administration settled the rent strike of 10 residents
who dropped their harassment charges. The campaign to
remove SRO residents was finished. Things have been
fairly quiet there ever since. Yet the human toll was
great. Says Ewing, "There were a lot of casualties in
this struggle, on both sides:'

Larry Klein remarks, "I've heard from shelter outreach
workers who say they've run into former Columbia SRO
tenants who are now homeless:'

Company Town

Which is all to say that the more things change the
more they stay the same. Columbia is no longer
voraciously acquiring residential properties like in
the past. Instead the latest policy is to consolidate
control over the apartments and tenants they already
have, a move community activists fear will abet the
gentrification of Morningside Heights. The tool? An
affiliation clause in leases signed by Columbia
tenants that requires them to notify the university if
full time affiliation ceases and move in 30 days or be
subject to eviction.

"It's a legal fiction," says Ken Schaeffer, a lawyer
and aide to Assemblyman Sullivan, of the affiliation
clause. But the fact is since 1983, Columbia has begun
to strictly apply a regulation that they have
previously ignored for over a decade. Eviction notices
to long term residents who no longer are connected to
the university are sending shock waves through the
Heights.The affiliation clause was first inserted in
leases in 1962, but, "it was loosely applied;' says
Schaeffer. "In 1974, the Appellate Court created a
false exemption to rent controls in Trustees of
Columbia vs. Sperling." That decision has haunted
Columbia tenants and others housed by nonprofit
institutions ever since. It has also been interpreted
wrongly by the lower courts, Schaeffer thinks, to
allow Columbia to arbitrarily evict tenants whose
affiliation may have lapsed 10 years ago with no

"I've got 40 people in housing court who all signed
the agreement. Most have exceptions. Three or four are
women whose husbands were affiliated but they were
divorced 20 years ago and they kept the apartments;'
explains Schaeffer.

The summer of 1985 saw a lot of activity from landlord
and tenants when Columbia delivered 72-hour eviction
notices to two black women, Marie Castro and Abeba
Tesfaye, who similarly had lapsed affiliations but
long histories as Columbia employees and in the
community. Why were they singled out from all other
tenants? Is the housing shortage in the Heights that

"A disproportionate share of those receiving the
eviction notices are women and minorities;' says
Barbara Buoncristiano. The Morningside Tenants
Federation see women excluded in general from upper
echelon positions at Columbia that would get priority
in housing. Buoncristiano has filed a complaint with
the state Division of Human Rights and is in a legal
battle to keep her apartment of 18 years.

That leaves the question of Columbia's need for
housing for its employees and students. In statements
issued by the public information office, the
university claims a desperate shortage which justifies
their increased vigilance for lapses in affiliation
though they cannot state a vacancy rate. "I want to
know what kind of corporation it is that doesn't have
figures on vacancy," says Jane Hammond skeptically.
She and others in the MTF conducted their own survey
and found roughly an eight percent availability of
units. George Ewing reports at least 27 vacant units
in his building each semester and then there's.

130 Morningside Drive where 18 apartments have laid fallow
for 25 years. And certainly with the university's
abundant financial resources the possibility of new
construction, as suggested by the LM. Pei report, is
within reach.

What it boils down to, according to Sullivan, is a
matter of power. "Columbia doesn't like restrictions.
They want absolute control over the size of the
apartment, the rent, when tenants leave. They're out
of step with the community they live in:'

Sullivan sees another more far-reaching threat posed
by Columbia's special status as nonprofit landlord:
"They're part of the gang that wants to eliminate rent
control completely. Columbia even hires the same
lobbyist as the Rent Stabilization Association:'

Morningside Tenants Federation members fear that when
many of the older residents in rent controlled
apartments die, other non-Columbia residents on the
Heights will be excluded. The company town syndrome
spreads. The focus of their energies and that of
Schaeffer and Sullivan will be continued litigation of
evictions and state legislation to protect
non-affiliates. "If a person has been in the community
for at least 10 years their status outweighs
Columbia's and they should have lease renewal rights;'
says Sullivan. The legislation which he is
co-sponsoring also contains a three-year statute of
limitations on enforcing the affiliation clause.

"I've said to Columbia University innumerable times:
why not join New York City?'" says Sullivan. "Because
of their cloister mentality they're shortchanging
students. If they would only give up their power play,
the community could relate to them. But depriving old
ladies of their homes is not the way to do it:'

(a supplament to the cover story - pgs 22-23)

Marie Runyon's History of Perseverance


Strips of gaily flowered oilcloth adorn the front door
of Marie Runyon's apartment at 130 Morningside Drive.
At eye level is a homey corn cob bouquet concealing a
four-inch square sticker. "Boycott British,' says this
piece" of agitprop from the Irish Republican Army,
whose cause is only one of many that Runyon has
supported through the years.

Seventy-year-old Runyon is best known, however, for
her work on housing issues in Morningside Heights. She
has plied both good manners and a steel will in her
25-year campaign to stop her landlord, Columbia
University, from evicting her and tearing down her
building. Former Columbia President William J. McGill
once said of her, "She's a wonderful woman. I wish she
were out of my sight."

McGill has come and gone, but Runyon is very much in
residence with her two golden retrievers and
collection of protest paraphernalia. Of eight
university-owned apartment buildings slated in 1960
for demolition, Runyon's is the only one still
standing. "I will live here until I die;' she said in
a recent interview, "and I'm sure that's what they're
waiting for."

Between telephone calls at the sunny offices of the
Harlem Restoration Project, Runyon looked back at her
varied careers as psychologist, nurse's aide, printer,
door-to-door survey taker, journalist and state
assemblywoman from Harlem.

Runyon has plenty to keep her busy as executive
director of the Project, a privately-funded, nonprofit
organization that helps Harlem families acquire
apartments through the city's Tenant Interim Lease
(TIL) program and renovate them with labor provided by

But she still makes time for the Morningside Tenants
Federation's struggle against Columbia University's
campaign to turn Morningside Heights into what she
believes would be a ghetto of classrooms and student

Runyon's account of the fight to keep her apartment
begins in 1954. AB a 39-year-old divorcee, she moved
with her young daughter Louise into a rent-controlled
apartment at 130 Morningside Drive. In 1960, the
trouble started. An electrical fire' prompted many
tenants to leave. Later that year eviction notices
were posted in her building and in five others with
two buildings added later.

"We just laughed," recalled Runyon. Her smooth skin
and white designer jeans belie perhaps two-thirds of
her 70 years. "We knew damn well they couldn't evict

Angry tenants tore the signs down within an hour, but
many residents, especially recent immigrants, moved
out in fear. A whole building of Chinese people just
disappeared overnight," said Runyon. "Most of the
Hispanics moved to the Bronx."

In 1965, the College of Pharmacy sold the building to
Columbia University. Runyon and her neighbors,
prompted by deteriorating maintenance and worried that
their days as Columbia tenants were numbered,
organized to save their buildings. They formed the
Morningside Six (for the six remaining buildings),
which has evolved through the years into the
Morningside Tenants Federation.

Runyon recalled that on Ground Hog Day in 1965 they
picketed the University in 15 degree weather. In May
of that year, they marched to the College of Pharmacy
to deliver a document of protest signed in their
blood. Borrowing dramatic tactics from antiwar
protests of the day, they donned black veils and
marched up Amsterdam Avenue to muffled drum beats in a
mock funeral procession for Morningside Heights.

In 1975, Runyon and other Morningside tenants blocked
traffic on Amsterdam Ave. with a string of rocking
chairs. "We defended hearth and home like they did in
the old West," said Runyon. "With rocking chairs and
guns — minus the guns. We've always been a nonviolent
group," she said.

Runyon was born in 1915 to a pharmacist in the
mountains of Brevard, N.C. She attended high school
and college in Kentucky and pursued graduate studies
in psychology in North Carolina, Kentucky and

She became a nurse's aide and then a clinical
psychologist in Minnesota and Connecticut. In 1946 she
came to New York City, as have 50 many single young
women, to seek her fortune. She got a job as a copy
reader—the second female reader in the city for the
New York Post. "I was a damn good copy reader," she

But she fell in love with her boss, Richard Runyon
(distant cousin to author Damon Runyon), and after
they married, "the copy room was no place for me," she
said. She quit her job, gave birth to Louise in 1950,
and divorced Runyon in 1953.

After my divorce, life was very grim, indeed:' she
recalled. She and Louise moved out of the city for a
while, then returned, lighting from place to place
around New York. "My daughter once said, 'Mommy,
where's my home?' — and that undid me," said Runyon.
She took up residence at 130 Morningside, borrowed
$1,000 from her sister for furniture so she could rent
out some rooms, and determined to stay.

Staying has demanded some unconventional behavior.
During one of her many appearances before the housing
court to fend off eviction proceedings for nonpayment
of rent, Runyon whipped out two pairs of white
panties. "I explained to the judge 'that I had bought
them both at the same time:' she said, obviously
relishing the memory.

"One pair was stained red from washing them in the
rusty tap water in my apartment. The other was still
white. Nobody knew quite what to do when I flashed
those underpants."

According to Runyan, the activism of the antiwar
movement slowed the university's eviction campaign.
Runyon herself assisted in the 1968 student strike and
the occupation of Hamilton Hall and Low Library at
Columbia. She was 53 years old that year. "I had a
fake I.D. so I could come on and off campus," she
confessed with a grin behind her silver wire-rimmed

Once the student protests dissipated, the university
resumed its effort to vacate the remaining buildings.
"What we endured was terrible," said Runyon. In 1975,
she said, they sent "thugs" in to vandalize the
building, breaking up plumbing pipes and knocking
holes into walls.

"The university claimed it was vandals," Runyon said.
''Vandals, my clavicle! Nobody could have gone into
that building except the tenants and the university.
Our building is extremely well policed by the
tenants," she said.

One by one, the buildings surrounding 130 Morningside
Drive met the wrecking crane. In 1982, said Runyon,
the university paved over the place where her
neighbors used to live and put down a parking lot
"which I can't even use," she smiled ruefully.

Runyon and four other families have held out in their
17-unit apartment building, and they continue to
agitate. Last summer, the Morningside Tenants
Federation staged a symbolic "squat." For every
Columbia tenant evicted or driven out by harassment,
they have vowed to reclaim another university-owned

Meanwhile, Runyon has been busy with other things. In
1974, she was elected State Assemblywoman from the
170th District, which included Harlem, and then lost a
bid for reelection in 1976. "After my wounds healed a
little bit from my defeat, I said, 'Well hell, what am
I going to do now?' I decided to join my main
interests—ex-offenders and housing."

Runyon founded the Harlem Restoration Project in 1977,
and in 1982, she moved it into an abandoned Tastee
Donut bakery at 461 W. 125th St. HRP is co-oping one
apartment building of 15 units and is attempting to
get two additional buildings, with a combined 42
units, into the Tenant Interim Lease program.

Currently, the organization has a staff of seven. Its
annual budget has grown from a slender $15,000 to
$200,000, almost all of it donated from private
foundations. Runyon believes they must raise far more
money if they are to make a dent in the housing needs
of Harlem. "I want to raise a million dollars and do
what should have been done a long time ago—rebuild
Harlem." And if it doesn't happen in her lifetime?
"Then I'll come back to haunt them:' she averred.

No comments: