Friday, October 26, 2007

Online Article Covers Campus’ Past, May Hint at Future

Online Article Covers Campus’ Past, May Hint at Future
By Scott Levi

Displaying documents and drawings from as early as the 1880s, CC alumnus Tao Tan’s recently-posted WikiCU article on the history of the Morningside campus uncovers past movements for Columbia’s expansion that suggest a resemblance to the current debate over Manhattanville.

Originally a project for a social history course, the article chronicles the evolution of the campus from Columbia’s proposal to acquire the land in 1880 to present concerns about expansion.

The idea for the project stems from Tan’s personal interest in the campus. Upon taking a job as a first-year in 2003 at Uris Hall, Tan was struck not only by the unsightliness of the building’s exterior, but also by its “horrendous dysfunction” on the inside. He decided to explore more of the campus’ storied architectural past, consulting documents and drawings at the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library and the University Archives in Low.

“Columbia has such a long architectural history, and there are so many examples of buildings that were built,” said Tan, explaining the difficulty of choosing specific events of Columbia’s development to be his focus. A visitor to the WikiCU project can read about many buildings and courtyards that were never built, including the 1906 plan to construct a stadium in Riverside Park and the 1966 proposal to extend campus south to 111th Street and below Barnard College on Broadway and north of East Campus on 118th.

Tan’s research addresses many campus issues that still concern students today. For instance, Tan discusses the reasons that Uris, Mudd, Carman, and Jerome Greene Halls, as well as the International Affairs Building, do not blend in with the architectural themes of the campus. As he writes in the fourth chapter of his work, “The looming threat of a Soviet Empire cemented this partnership [between the U.S. government and Columbia], one that survives and thrives to this very day. During the war, aesthetics fell by the wayside as functionality determined the order of the day.”

As Columbia’s expansion attempts continue, Tan said he believes the University’s dilemma with the neighborhood is chronic. “Concerns about Columbia’s expansion are perennial,” said Tan, whose project highlights specific junctures in Columbia’s perpetual battle with space constraints. A large portion of the site is dedicated to architect I.M. Pei’s 1960s vision of two 23-story towers facing opposite each other on South Field and to the University’s struggles with the ill-fated proposal for a gym in Morningside Park.

Tom Kappner, CC ‘66, a Columbia alumnus and a founding member of the Coalition to Preserve Community, refers to events in Tan’s project as a model of what will come in Manhattanville.
“One of the reasons I decided to go to Columbia, I knew from this neighborhood, this is where I wanted to be,” he said. “The area north of the campus and to some extent south of it was a really vibrant, alive, ethnically mixed, working class neighborhood. It was the sort of thing that one imagines is the best of New York City.”

Yet, as both Kappner and Tan agree, the community has changed dramatically due to Columbia’s presence. The University currently owns about 6,300 apartments units in the area and also serves as landlord for many of the area’s retail establishments, carefully selecting shops and restaurants for the spaces is owns.

While Tan and Kappner agree that Columbia has, for better or for worse, served as the driving force in the neighborhood’s development, their views on Manhattanville from a historical perspective differ.

“In the late 1960s, concerns had to do with land zoning, affordable housing, and many other factors,” Tan said about Columbia. “Today, the attitude of the community and the city and state representatives is infinitely better than what has been the case in the past.”

But Kappner sees the current situation as just as harmful as episodes underscored in Tan’s work. He cites the University’s indirect removal of low-income minorities from the neighborhood and its failure to repair its reputation in the community, “The neighborhood has lost a good deal of what is its soul. It’s like being an unwelcome guest in your own home,” Kappner said. In Manhattanville, he said, “the administration is embarked on a process that is repeating the mistakes of the past. The University is totally ignoring the sentiments of the community. I am concerned that the Manhattanville project will replicate what happened in Morningside in the 1960s.”

Tan champions the idea that Columbia has defined Morningside Heights. “When they built the IRT subway, there’s a reason they put a stop at 116th Street,” he said.But for Kappner, this does not mean that the area has lost all culture and charm. “People still feel that it is their neighborhood,” Kapner said. “It’s still a community, just one that is living on borrowed time.”

Scott Levi can be reached at

TAGS: architecture, Expansion, Manhattanville

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