When Columbia unveiled its intentions a few years ago, people like Reverend Earl Kooperkamp, of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on 126th Street and the Coalition to Preserve Community (CPC), hoped that the university would use its resources to clean up some of the neighborhood’s blight. He even thought it might be an opportunity to bring wireless Internet access to the community.
The new campus would be located between 135th and 125th Street, from 12th Avenue to Broadway. The expansion would also affect neighborhoods beyond these borders, roughly 50,000 people, said Kooperkamp.
The West Harlem Local Development Corporation, the Pratt Center for Community Development, and Community Board 9 drafted a plan (197-a) that would protect affordable housing and the jobs already there and give Columbia ample ability to create an extension. Columbia’s 197-c plan, residents claim, ignores all of this. As the website stopcolumbia.org explains, even though Columbia promises job growth, there would be a transfer of jobs from community-owned businesses to low-end service jobs controlled by one employer. This would be in addition to forcing many tenants to leave. LeVerna Fountain, a university spokesperson, responded by saying that Columbia has a more detailed plan after having listened to community concerns.
People like Kooperkamp worry about the use of eminent domain where whole blocks could be condemned. Eminent domain is the ability of the state, upheld by the Supreme Court in Kelo v. City of New London in 2005, to take private property from one owner and give it to another for the purpose of development. While most residents of West Harlem want some sort of collaborative development, said CB 9 Chair Jordi Reyes-Montblanc, “Even the fish in the river oppose eminent domain.”
Local City Councilmember Robert Jackson, as well as the CPC, have organized attempts to negotiate with Columbia for a community benefit agreement, a set of guidelines that would allow Columbia to expand while also contributing to West Harlem’s current residents. Columbia claims it already does a lot of outreach.
According to the school, Columbia owns 65 percent of the area where the proposed campus would be located. At 3251 Broadway (at 131st Street), the auto mechanics are dealing with what their lawyer, Phillip Van Buren, has called “an unending wave of inspections from municipal agencies and five police raids on trumped up charges.” This, he said, is an attempt by Columbia to get them to move out. Some residents said that people have come on Columbia’s behalf to the auto maintenance shops and have threatened to cut off utilities to get the occupants to leave, though such claims are difficult to verify. Mechanics at another shop on 125th Street said if they spoke out against Columbia they could get evicted.
Those who would have to leave their homes would rely on Section 8 to get new housing in a city where rents continue to rise. At an October public meeting on the expansion, a group of residents enumerated other concerns about expansion: noise pollution, high buildings blocking sunlight, rising rents north of the area in Washington Heights, more homelessness, and rising costs of commercial goods. Since Columbia wants to move biology labs into the new campus, residents also fear adverse environmental affects.
Groups like CPC and We Act for Environmental Justice haven’t ruled out more protests to highlight their cause. Some residents feel that organizing and pooling resources will allow them better access to lawyers and local politicians.
A group of Columbia students, called the Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification (SCEG), has hosted speakers to educate students about the plan in order to gain support for the West Harlem residents. In 2005 SCEG had a tent city on the main campus and last spring it organized a demonstration near the campus. It has also hosted dinners where students and residents meet and discuss the issue in an informal setting. This year SCEG plans to have a gallery on campus to display the history and culture of West Harlem.
The main problem, said Bryan Mercer, an anthropology undergrad and activist with SCEG, is that the university treats the proposal as all or nothing, so the discourse on campus has become one of “develop or don’t develop.” SCEG wants to promote alternatives and compromises.
Reyes-Montblanc fears that if the two sides can’t come to a compromise, “things will get ugly.”
Kooperkamp hasn’t given up hope for West Harlem, despite a lack of money and influence, two things Columbia has plenty of. He references 1 Samuel 17:49, the biblical moment when David defeats Goliath. “I’ve seen it done,” he said. “But David had a stone. We need a damn stone.”
Ari Paul is a freelance writer. His articles have appeared in Z, American Prospect, and In These Times.