By Melissa Repko
PUBLISHED DECEMBER 3, 2007
Led by Sunday-school students carrying brightly-colored banners, approximately 30 people marched from St. Mary’s Church to the Manhattanville Health Center to protest it being closed for the last four years.
The protest, which urged the center to reopen, tied together what protesters perceive as Columbia’s disregard for the neighborhood with its expansion plans and the general disregard for the public health of the area. It included many community activists who oppose the way the University plans to expand into Manhattanville, but centered around the need for improved public health in Harlem.
The Manhattanville Health Center, a city-run clinic, was originally closed for renovations four years ago, but was never reopened because of decisions made by the mayor and the Department of Health. Though the portico was redone to look more modern, no one has used the building since renovations began.
The protesters were a mixture of students, neighborhood residents, and churchgoers. Several members of the Columbia group Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification—including former hunger striker Samantha Barron, BC ’10—were in attendance.
Before heading out into the cold, Jim White, mental health advocate and Sunday-school teacher, joked with people gathering in the church’s basement. “We lovingly call it St. Mary’s the Militant,” he said, noting the church’s long history of speaking out and fighting for change.
Tom DeMott, CC ’80, of the Coalition to Preserve Community, spoke of the need for clinics in the area, particularly because disease rates are much higher than in other parts of Manhattan.
The relatively small group made noise and handed out fliers about both the health center and Columbia’s 197-c plan to rezone the area to build a campus. Many in the area smiled or joined into the chants as the protesters walked by. At one point, two people cheered out of an apartment building window.
Most of the commentary focused on promoting public health for the working poor by eliminating racism. “There’s a tremendous amount of racism in the way Harlem residents’ lives are disregarded,” said Dr. Ellen Isaacs, who lives in the area.
Isaacs explained that many blame the sick poor for not taking care of themselves without considering the great expense of healthier foods and gym memberships. “There’s a lot of writing about our lifestyle, what we eat, and how much we exercise.... There is an extreme amount of social, institutionalized racism,” she said, adding that Columbia should use its medical knowledge to reach out to the nearby community rather than researching diseases like the West Nile virus.
Reverend Earl Kooperkamp of St. Mary’s church said he was frustrated by the building being closed and that it should be full of needy patients, not locked up and full of boxes. “The only thing there is a security guard to keep the door locked 24 hours a day,” he said.