SHOE LEATHER: Reported Stories

Uptown and Gown

The Columbia expansion controversy's invisible underside


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Photo credit: Momos
In many ways, Columbia University resembles most of its Ivy League peers: Greek Revival architecture, a sprawling main lawn—not a blade too short or too long, well-tended hedges, and of course, an exclusive and accomplished body of students and professors. But Columbia differs radically from its peers in one significant respect: this "academic acropolis" sits atop a small promontory in the nation's most populous city, overlooking the most famous African-American neighborhood in the country. The hill's northern slope descends toward Harlem's 125th Street, where rise the fortifications of the General Grant Houses. The neighborhood girding the hill today generally appears like a patchwork: swaths of gorgeous pre-War architecture interspersed with overgrown vacant lots, housing projects, apartment buildings, crumbling little mid-century structures, and—lately—the occasional condominium tower.

By contrast, the Morningside Heights neighborhood surrounding the university could be a chunk of the Upper West Side that broke off and drifted north. Upscale chains and boutiques line its streets, and student jazz bands play on corners. There is a farmers' market along Broadway on weekends.

In 2003, Columbia announced its intention to purchase a 17-acre tract of Manhattanville in West Harlem, to the east of Broadway between 125th and 133rd Streets, as the grounds of its future campus. Manhattanville was then a largely industrial area, home to numerous auto body shops, warehouses, paint stores, and a smattering of apartment buildings. The University's plan involves demolishing the area's older structures and replacing them with public areas, a bio-research laboratory, new retail spaces, and recreational and cultural centers—all of them shining, state-of-the-art facilities. In the process, Columbia will create new public sidewalks and street-lighting in its expansion zone, and construct a public high school in in the expansion zone. By the school's estimates, the project would involve relocating around 130 families, and could lead to the indirect displacement of about 3,300 residents in the surrounding neighborhood by the plan's completion in 2030.

In the fall of 2006, local Community Board Nine organized a local development corporation to write out a benefits agreement with the University. However, several of the corporation's charter members resigned over what they perceived as undue pressure on the organization from Columbia and local politicians.

Most local businesses in the area reached agreements with Columbia to relocate after the University became their landlord. However, the area's largest landholder, Nick Sprayregen, owner of Tuck-It-Away Storage, has refused to sell and has launched scores of lawsuits against the school to stay their expansion. Largely as a result of this ongoing legal struggle, Sprayregen has become the most visible player in the developing controversy.

But as Sprayregen and the University battled in court over Manhattanville's future, smaller groups concerned with the expansion formed and became involved. An overview of those smaller, often unheard players reveals a far broader portrait of Columbia and its neighbors, one that encompasses all of New York City.

The story of Columbia University and Harlem is a story of conflict more than 40 years old, and the tension between them parallels the conflicting aims of two New York City demographics: one wealthier, seeking space and security; the other poorer, wanting only to hold on to their homes and livelihoods. Columbia has tried to expand before, and it was the combined action of smaller players that determined the outcome of that attempt.


In 1958, Columbia administrators held a series of meetings with the New York City Parks Department to propose installing what they considered a much-needed new university gymnasium in Morningside Park, the de facto border between Columbia's Morningside Heights neighborhood and Harlem.The idea soon won the approval of then-Parks Commissioner Robert Moses. Moses himself remains a controversial figure, with some viewing him as the heroic pioneer of modern urban and suburban infrastructure, and others seeing him as the villainous architect of the Cross-Bronx Expressway, of housing developments that swept away entire neighborhoods—many of them black—and of the failed effort to construct another super-highway through Greenwich Village and SoHo.

Moses and University President Grayson Kirk reached a tentative arrangement granting the school rights to 2.1 acres of rocky Morningside Park terrain to build their gym. In exchange, Columbia would construct a facility for public use at the base of their own, maintain the entire complex, and pay $3,000 a month in rent. New York State Legislature approved the plan in 1960, and the University embarked upon a $10,000,000 fund drive to bankroll the project. The plan did not become contentious until 1965, when several Harlem organizations began to protest the privatization and development of precious public park land and the unequal allocation of space between the private and public areas of the gym—the plan gave Columbia 87.5 percent of the square footage, and the public area just 12.5 percent. Most of all, however, they complained of a lack of local input in the project. In April 1966, several neighborhood groups rallied for the first time against the plan in a Morningside Park demonstration that drew some 120 protesters.


Some forty years later, on August 15, 2007, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger appeared at Community Board Nine's public hearing on the university's plans for Manhattanville. The mostly black audience--many of its members wearing shirts from the Coalition to Preserve Community, an organization of local groups opposed to the University's plans, bookended his speech with boos and heckling. The board voted 32-2 against Columbia's re-zoning proposal, called 197-c, and instead forwarded its own set of guidelines for development in Manhattanville, entitled 197-a, which emphasized the creation of affordable housing.

In the fall of that year, eight members of the Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification, a band of Columbia students critical of the expansion, staged a hunger strike to protest the University's activities. Andrew Lyubarsky, a long-serving member of the group, insists that the coalition does not oppose the entire project, but asks only ask that the University "mitigate its impact" on the area and follow the guidelines of the 197-a plan. Its members fear that the current designs for development will transform all of West Harlem into a college town at the expense of the present residents. Lyubarsky says that campus activism tapered off considerably after the hunger strike, leaving the Student Coalition with only 20 core members.

"People don't have a very good awareness here," Lyubarsky says of his fellow students, who he believes are only conscious of the expansion in the broadest terms. He describes the Student Coalition's role on campus as "educational." In addition to distributing informational materials on campus, the Student Coalition coordinates efforts with more permanent Harlem residents, often working in concert with the Coalition to Preserve Community.

"Change has to happen, but it's how it happens"
– Christine Campbell

"We want to be representing the community," he says. He accuses Columbia of creating dummy pro-expansion organizations—using members of a drug rehabilitation program in the South Bronx—to disseminate fliers against the Coalition to Preserve Community and against Nick Sprayregen, and to create the illusion of community support for the Manhattanville project.

Lyubarsky reports that there is little human commerce between the two neighborhoods, despite the University's community service organizations, saying that the campus "isn't viewed as a community space," and that "very rarely do Harlem residents get to use Columbia University's facilities." He notes that many West Harlemites have demanded greater access to the new buildings in the expansion zone.

The New York City Council approved both the 197-a and 197-c proposals in December 2007. A year later, the Empire State Development Corporation agreed to grant Columbia's request to condemn properties in the area—which they deem "blighted"—and use eminent domain to remove the zone's last holdout property owners, Sprayregen and gas station owner Gurnan Singh.


In February 1966, the Columbia branch of the Congress on Racial Equality voiced its disapproval of the gym. One month later, the Columbia University Student Council petitioned to postpone construction until more community organizations became involved, and supported the April rally in the Park. In September, the West Harlem Morningside Park Committee—a local coalition comprising several groups from Harlem and Manhattan Valley—met with University Administration. The school's officials irked the Committee's members by presenting several pro-gym individuals whom they called "representatives of the community." The failure of these talks inspired further demonstrations in July, October, and December 1967. Mark Naison, a Columbia student at the time, reports a near-complete disconnect between the University and its neighbors, describing the school as "a white island in a brown and black sea."

As Naison remembers, "Harlem was seen as a place to be avoided," and that "Columbia was hated" widely for having bought and refurbished many nearby buildings during the post-War era of urban renewal and then having rented them out at higher prices, forcing poorer tenants to relocate. Businesses catering to students replaced earlier local enterprises as a result.

"By the time I came to Columbia, they were in the process of displacing about 10,000 low-income residents," he recalls. Despite the building resistance, the gymnasium's construction appeared inevitable—"a foregone conclusion" in Naison's view—and the groundbreaking came with little ceremony on February 19, 1968. The following day, police arrest 12 people—six of them Columbia students--for sitting in at the work site in the path of bulldozers. On either February 28 or 29, some 150 students from Students for a Democratic Society, the Citizenship Council, and the Graduate Student Council marched into Morningside Park, where they blocked access to the site to construction vehicles and ripped down part of the fence. Police took 12 of the students and a Harlem pastor into custody.


St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Manhattanville sits on a stretch of 126th Street between Old Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, which the City has designated with blue signs as 'St. Mary's Place.' The chapel is a far cry from the storefront sanctuaries found on nearly every other block of Harlem: It's a decent-sized turn-of-the-century brick structure, complete with a small belfry above its front face, a few stained glass windows, an adjoining rectory, and a small yard off to one side—much in keeping with traditional notions of how a church should look.

Columbia Spectator, April 24, 1968

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But the architecture is just about the only conventional thing about St. Mary's, which calls itself the "'I am not afraid' church." A portrait of Malcolm X hangs on the wall of the vestibule just inside the church doors. Though the nativity scene painted in a circular alcove over the altar features a European-looking Holy Family, next to the pulpit is a rendering of Christ as a black man. At the entrance to the church's main hall is a table laden with bulletins and pamphlets; besides the weekly missalette, there are usually voter registration forms, fliers advocating the re-opening of the nearby Manhattanville Health Clinic, order-donation forms for a Christmas recording from the St. Mary's Musicians, leaflets promoting various left-wing anti-poverty initiatives, and even a newspaper article or two that someone has clipped out or photocopied and brought in to share. A mass rarely passes without a speaker from some social justice cause addressing the assembly. One parishioner, Jim White, heads up a "study-action group" entitled 'Mariam, Mark, and Marx: The Spiritual Roots of Liberation."

But perhaps the most distinctive thing about St. Mary's is its unlikely leader, a 52-year-old white Southerner named Earl Kooperkamp. With his pale eyes and fair skin, his Kentucky twang-and-drawl, his quick smile and easy laugh, his hair clipped neatly in front but grown longer and wispier toward the back (though several significant layers away from being a mullet), Reverend Kooperkamp fits the prototypical image of a country parson. But the Louisville native has been living and working in minority communities in New York City for nearly 30 years, and has been pastor and rector of this congregation—which, by his own estimation is three-quarters black and one-quarter white and Latino—since 2000.

In 2003, Kooperkamp was among the group of Harlem ministers Columbia University President Lee Bollinger invited to a meeting in the school's Low Library, to discuss the school's plans to expand into the area between 125th and 133rd Streets to the west of Broadway. Kooperkamp reports initially being "excited" about the prospect of Columbia moving into Manhattanville, thinking that the University would "be a good development partner" despite the history of tension between the institution and West Harlem.

"Columbia's got good values. It's got an educational mission," Kooperkamp says. "And that area is ripe for development. It's 17 acres of Manhattan that's only supporting 1,500 jobs and 450 residents."

However, Kooperkamp became disillusioned when "eminent domain crept onto the table," and complains now that "Columbia's been playing this all-or-nothing game."

"That's not becoming part of the neighborhood, that's taking over the neighborhood."

Kooperkamp objects to the city's use of public funds to subsidize the expansion, referring to such financing as "corporate welfare." Furthermore, he doubts that many Harlemites will qualify for the jobs created in the new facilities.

"I couldn't get a lot of those laboratory jobs, and I'm a highly educated individual. My degree just happens to be in theology," Kooperkamp says, asserting that most of the jobs actually available to Harlem residents will be service sector positions, many of them only temporary. "It took me five years to get one guy from the congregation a permanent job at Columbia. And it's not for lack of trying. Given their track record, I'm not real hopeful."

Kooperkamp expresses concern over the below-ground 'bathtub' foundation Columbia plans to build in the area, and about the prospective presence of pharmaceutical laboratories handling bio-hazardous materials near a residential area. But perhaps his greatest fear is that the project will lead to the rapid and widespread gentrification of all of West Harlem, and that "families who have been long-time stakeholders here" will be unable to remain in the area.

"This will tear the soul out of the neighborhood."

In December 2007 Kooperkamp resigned from the West Harlem Community Development Corporation to protest what he viewed as a rushed and unfair process that failed to address all the neighborhood's needs.

Elizabeth Kooperkamp is more optimistic about the situation, anticipating that the project might improve the quality of public education in the community.

"And they've said they won't expand to the east of Broadway," she offers.

The Kooperkamps are close friends of Philip Van Buren, legal counsel to Nick Sprayregen.

Chorister Christine Campbell declares that she "loves" Columbia University, explaining the special part the school has played in her life. While Campbell was growing up in the Manhattanville Houses, her mother would often bring their family up to Morningside Heights to admire Columbia's facilities, in hopes of inspiring the children to one day attend college themselves. Campbell's sister ultimately went to Teacher's College; Campbell herself graduated from NYU.

Still, her views on the expansion resemble Reverend Kooperkamp's. She admits that "when any of this was built, it was expansion for somebody," but argues "Change has to happen, but it's how it happens, and if you're going to do this, there are certain things the community is going to want preserved."

Campbell criticizes Columbia's plan to use eminent domain to uproot intransigent landowners, and calls for "a complete dialogue" between the University and the community.

Pearl Harris, a St. Mary's parishioner since 1964 and former Senior Warden and current Warden Emeritus at the church, thinks Columbia has failed at this and has alienated locals. Harris has been involved in some of St. Mary's activism against the current expansion plans, but despairs at being able to stop the University, saying "it seems that it's written on the wall."


For Desmond 'Dez' Maxwell, the Columbia controversy of the 1960s unfolded against a backdrop of the Vietnam conflict and the burgeoning anti-war movement, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the student protests at the Sorbonne, the sounds of Motown, and the emerging acid rock of Jimi Hendrix and The Who.

Maxwell grew up on 111th Street and Manhattan Avenue "in the shadow of Columbia University," the son of an African-American family that had lived in Harlem since 1908. "Morningside Park was my park," Maxwell says. "My earliest memories are in Morningside Park."

A junior at Louis D. Brandeis High School on West 84th Street, Maxwell was a leader in the 'Student Coalition,' a radical black youth group composed mostly of high schoolers from Manhattan and the Bronx. "We were young, idealistic, we thought we were going to change the world," he recalls. "That was the buzzword: Revolution. I don't mean fighting in the streets, but we thought there was going to be radical change to society."

It was common practice for Maxwell and his friends at Brandeis to pull the fire alarms and give speeches in the school's courtyard. The Student Coalition's two main goals were to prevent Columbia from building its gym, and to win open enrollment at City College, where Maxwell later earned his degree. Much of the Coalition's ire against Columbia came from the absence of any sort of consultation with the community about its development plans.

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As "the epicenter of African-American culture," the danger of racial violence was ever-present in Maxwell's community at that time, always threatening to spark and blaze. A riot erupted in Harlem in '64. Ghettoes in other cities turned red with flames and bloodshed. Numerous organizations with equivocal—or unequivocal—stances on violence had branches or headquarters in the neighborhood: the Nation of Islam, the Harlem Mau Mau, the Black Panthers, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Later that year, James Earl Ray assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., igniting black neighborhoods in Baltimore, Chicago, Louisville, and D.C. According to Maxwell, only Mayor John V. Lindsay's gesture of walking down 125th Street without an armed guard prevented a similar outburst in Harlem.

Starting in 1966, Columbia students opposed to the gymnasium project entered Maxwell's neighborhood in an effort to organize and inform locals. Maxwell especially admires Columbia's chapter of the Young Lords, whose 'Minister of Information' Juan Gonzalez later became a columnist for The New York Daily News. Maxwell says the the Ivy League-educated Hispanic group "really took their movement to the streets" and worked with Manhattan Valley—then a working-class Puerto Rican community—and Harlem youth. On February 28, Maxwell was among the group of Columbia organizers and local activists who tried to "physically stop the construction."


Rob Rosello recalls first hearing rumors of Columbia's plans to expand in the spring of 2004, though he says he "didn't pay much attention to it because we didn't hear anything from the City about it" at the time. In 2003, the Department of Housing Preservation and Development accepted Rosello and his fellow residents at 3289 Broadway—a New York City-owned property between 132nd and 133rd Streets—into the Tenant Interim Lease Program, known as TIL. This initiative permits low-income tenants to purchase their apartments for $250.00 and refurbishes their building at no charge if the occupants organize a co-operative and keep their home up to code for five years. Their lease on the building is guaranteed for 99 years. Rosello is Treasurer for the 3289 Broadway Tenants Association. Rosello says that everyone in his building was eagerly anticipating the renovation of their home.

Rosello grew up in No. 3289 and has resided there for three decades. His mother also lives in building, and his father was raised next door at No. 3287, where Rosello's grandparents still reside. "We had invested so much time and effort and repairs."

As fliers from the Coalition to Preserve Community started to appear in the area and Columbia posted information about its development plans on the university's website, Rosello became concerned for 3289's future. The building, after all, sat in the upper reaches of Columbia's envisioned campus. In 2007, Columbia attempted to buy 3289 Broadway from the city. The city in turn approached the building's residents with a proposal to relocate them to 148th Street and Broadway. The tenants' attorney recommended that they refuse. Rosello, who has a young son, cites the other neighborhood's higher crime rates and greater population of sex offenders as among their reasons for turning down the offer. He vehemently declares that he and his neighbors "don't want to be uprooted and placed somewhere else."

"How much would someone have to pay you to give up your neighborhood and all of the memories and everything that goes with it?"

Rosello feels there has since been increased scrutiny of the building from city overseers, even though the co-op has changed nothing it its operations from previous years. He accuses the City of "targeting" 3289 and "looking for excuses" to suspend the TIL program and put the co-op on probation.

"I think the City is more interested in selling the building to Columbia and getting the money than in the program."

3289 Broadway contains eight apartments, seven of which have permanent occupants. Two of those tenants are elderly and living on fixed incomes; several others are working parents. The eighth apartment hosts temporary residents from other buildings in the Tenant Interim Lease Program whose own homes are in the renovation stage. "What we learned was that the last tenant who entered our building entered the TIL program after ours did, but her building was being renovated before ours was," Rosello says. "I believe that's totally correlated to this Columbia situation."

"If Columbia doesn't do this, someone else will"
– Victor Body-Lawson

At the Tenant Association's last meeting with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, Rosello says that the City failed to provide an explanation for delaying 3289 Broadway's renovation and "left us with the sense that they didn't want to give us an answer." The city is now attempting to alter the by-laws for the Tenant Interim Lease program, changing the language regarding relocation. According to Rosello, the tenants' attorney is concerned that the new regulations "would leave us without any control or say about where we would be moved." Although Columbia's planned development on the site of 3289 is part of the second phase of its expansion, slated to end in 2030, Rosello argues that he and his neighbors will feel the effects of the construction much earlier. He expressed concern over possible health and air quality problems that may result from Columbia demolition of nearby buildings, many of which likely contain asbestos. And he worries about the prospective presence of a large bio-tech laboratory in the area. He also bemoans the loss of local businesses, but most of all, he laments the lack of transparency in many of Columbia's operations in Manhattanville and what he perceives as the university's failure to engage the community in a productive dialogue.

"Nobody from Columbia University has reached out to us and told us what they want and how they want to go about it," Rosello says. "There needs to actually be a discussion between the people who will be affected and those who are developing." He adds that all he has heard from the university thus far is "P.R. B.S. and propaganda," and that he wants the school to agree to meet with the tenants with attorneys for both parties present. He calls Columbia's actions and acquisitions "a very selfish land grab."

"Lee Bollinger says that tenants would be better off after the school's expansion, but he didn't say how." This indignation is what led Rosello to become a steering member in the Coalition to Preserve Community, whose efforts in opposition to the expansion he praises. He defends the coalition against Columbia's charge that the group is under the control of Sprayregen of Tuck-It-Away. While Rosello acknowledges that Sprayregen is an active member of the Coalition, he points out that Sprayregen has a stake in the community and that Tuck-It-Away Storage has long served people living in the area, including Rosello himself.

Pointing to the Morningside Park gym controversy of 1968, Rosello argues "Columbia does not have the best history of dealing with the community," and charges he school and local politicians with bullying members of the Local Development Corporation into compliance. He further complains that students and campus security treat locals with suspicion.

"You can't walk through the Quad without somebody eyeballing you."

Shortly after the Empire State Development Corporation's approval of the use of eminent domain in Manhattanville, Rosello received documentation stating Columbia would begin using the measure to acquire residences in 2018, in spite of the University's earlier assurances that they would only employ eminent domain against hold-out local businesses. The occupants of 602 West 132nd Street, another building in the Tenant Interim Lease program housing some 30 people, recently agreed to relocate to 148th Street in spite of their Tenants Association's long-time participation in the Coalition to Preserve Community. Rosello is unsure why they suddenly chose to accept the offer, and describes their decision as "jumping ship." However, he insists that the tenants of 3289 Broadway don't plan to follow suit. "At this point, we have no intention of leaving the TIL program, and I have no intention of leaving the neighborhood. "We're just hard-working people who just want a decent place to live."


Columbia Spectator, April 25, 1968

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At noon on Tuesday, April 23, 1968, Students for a Democratic Society held a demonstration at the school's Sundial. Ads and pamphlets for the rally listed as that day's targets Columbia's association with the U.S. Institute for Defense Analyses and the University's disciplinary actions against group members involved in the previous month's demonstration against that association. However, Students for a Democratic Society and the Student Afro-American Society—who had not previously collaborated—met shortly before the protest and added the gym to the agenda.

Three days before, the Harlem Congress on Racial Equality held an anti-gymnasium rally that drew some 400 people. On April 22, headlines in the Columbia Spectator predicted the outbreak of violence over the gym issue.

As planned, a crowd of 500—which include Mark Naison and his girlfriend—gathered at the Sundial and marched on Low Library, hoping to force a conference with Associate Dean Alexander Platt. But when they reached the building, they found counter-demonstrators blocking the entrance. The protestors wavered a few moments.Then, as Naison remembers it, someone among them yelled "To the gym site!" A large contingent of the students advanced upon Morningside Park. They tore down the fence hemming the project before police arrived. Then someone—perhaps Students for a Democratic Society leader Mark Rudd, who lingered a while at the Sundial—called out "To Hamilton Hall!" where the office of the Dean of College was located.

Naison doesn't believe there was ever any plot to take Hamilton Hall, though he thinks the groups' leaders may have planned to occupy Low Library.

"This whole thing led me to become a tremendous believer in the role of accident in history."

The students massed into the main lobby of Hamilton Hall. Those who couldn't fit waited Dean Henry Coleman return outside on the stairs. Whened from lunch ten minutes later, he found himself held up in diplomatic limbo, as the students tried to decide whether they should hold him hostage. The protestors formed a ten-person steering committee of equal parts white and black. The committee in turn formulated a list of six demands, the first being the abandonment of the gym project, and the last amnesty for everyone involved in the present demonstration. They then voted to hold the Dean captive. The leaders of the Student Afro-American Society and Students for a Democratic Society issued requests for assistance outside sources.

Columbia's commission on the controversy identifies this invitation as a pivotal moment in the conflict. By six o'clock in the evening, activists from the Harlem branches of the Congress on Racial Equality and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee arrived and joined the Hamilton Hall occupation.

"Once SNCC got word of it, they wanted a cause they could get behind," Maxwell says. "It was Harlem—it wasn't Selma, Alabama, it wasn't Montgomery—it was Harlem against this venerable institution."

This moment savored of triumph for Naison.

"We had always lost," he says. "But once we had 500 people in Hamilton Hall, we knew we had Columbia by the balls. "I loved it. Here was this rich, arrogant institution that looked down upon the surrounding community and saw its students with bemused contempt, and they were totally helpless."

Rumors began swarming around campus that the occupiers were armed—rumors Desmond Maxwell insists were true, though he says the Student Afro-American Society eventually disposes of them to avoid the outbreak of violence. Meanwhile, strife fomented among the demonstrators. The divisions appeared along racial lines, as the black protestors wanted to barricade the entire building and make Coleman an official hostage, while the whites are hesitant to take such drastic action. The conflict was resolved at 2 a.m. the following day, when the blacks expelled their indecisive white peers from the premises, recommending that they take a different building. The whites had little choice but to agree, and left 75 black students in control of the building. In the course of the night, the ejected Students for a Democratic Society members invaded Low Library and established the Strike Coordinating Committee.

That evening, School of Architecture students commandeered Avery Hall. The next morning, a group of 50 students hijacked Fayerweather. These seizures appeared "spontaneous" to Naison, as they bore no apparent connection to Students for a Democratic Society. Both buildings sent delegates to the Strike Steering Committee—something the African-Americans in Hamilton Hall, though invited, declined to do.

Even as police ringed the campus, the Administration did little to respond to the most recent takeover. Officials were convinced that police would not recover one building without retaking them all, and thus wouldn't drive students out of Fayerweather without doing the same at Hamilton Hall. And Hamilton's African-American occupiers were linked to the surrounding black community at large. In short, Fayerweather was the tip of a long fuse that ended in the powder-keg of Harlem. Odds were, it wouldn't take much to touch it off.

Columbia Spectator, April 27, 1968

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At the same time, school officials came under pressure from trustees and conservative students for their perceived inaction. For these reasons, much of the Administration's planning revolves around obtaining an independent arrangement with the Hamilton Hall protesters. The Student Afro-American Society refused several peace offers, but released Dean Coleman. All this time, the Student Afro-American Society insisted upon their essential autonomy from the Strike Steering Committee and the other building occupations, although a spokesperson for the group assured the Committee that they would not accept a deal from the school unless it guaranteed amnesty for all demonstrators. The African-American students released their own list of four demands, which included ceasing all work on the gymnasium and abandoning the prosecution of previously arrested anti-gym protesters. Despite rejecting the University's proposals, the group vowed that in the event of a police raid, they would allow themselves to be arrested and would leave the building peacefully.

Meanwhile, anti-demonstration students, many of them athletes, formed a group called the Majority Coalition. Although this organization presented itself as moderate, it swiftly gained a reputation as a conservative faction. Desmond Maxwell characterizes them as "the guys with the crew cuts and the Abercrombie & Fitch or the Brooks Brothers."

A number of brawny Majority Coalition members attempted to impose a blockade around Hamilton Hall in hopes of forcing the demonstrators inside to surrender. The Students for a Democratic Society "Goon Squad," composed of the organization's own athletic members, physically opposed this group. Wherever the Majority Coalition formed a barrier to vital provisions, the Goon Squad broke it down. As a tennis and basketball player, Mark Naison—whose African-American girlfriend is inside Hamilton—was part of this second group.

By early Friday morning, protestors had seized Math Hall, while counter-demonstrators had taken control of Lewisohn Hall to prevent the interruption of normal activities there. At 3:15 a.m., University Vice-President David Truman announced the suspension of the gym's construction. That morning Maxwell and other members of the Student Coalition, most of them from Brandeis, received a phone invitation from a German woman—whom Maxwell believes to be a professional agitator—to join the rally at Columbia. Maxwell and his peers took the subway to Morningside Heights in order to bypass the police. At 116th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, they meet H. Rap Brown, a national leader in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, who had been involved in previous anti-gym demonstrations in the community. The Brown and the group of black and Latino teenagers marched on Hamilton Hall, carrying baseball bats and chains and chanting radical slogans. The Majority Coalition blockade dispersed within minutes.

They attempted to enter Hamilton Hall, but its black occupiers rebuffed them, wishing to keep Brown out of the building. The high schoolers then continued on to South Field, where Maxwell says he and several others gave speeches at the Sundial. Afterward Maxwell and several of his friends tried unsuccessfully to "bum rush" the Administration building, then managed to get into Fayerweather Hall and held a wing of that facility.

At nine o'clock Friday evening, groups of politically-active Harlemites massed at the University entrance at 116th Street and Broadway, mostly to protest the gymnasium project, with the Harlem "Mau Mau" ultimately deciding to march across Campus Walk. By that night, the amnesty for the protestors had become the central issue in the occupations. Monday arrived with no break in the standstill, though Columbia University President Kirk announced that day that the Trustees had voted to suspend work on the gym. That evening, a violent skirmish broke out between a division of the Majority Coalition that had surrounded Low Library in another blockade effort and a group of community members attempting to bring supplies to the occupiers. The fight lasted just five minutes.

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Not until February 16, 2009, did Lyubarsky and the Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification decide to take decisive action, after several months of relative inaction and what the Columbia Spectator called "limited visibility. " Meeting up with Coalition to Preserve Community members, they led a march of some 150 people through Manhattanville to the Floridita restaurant on 125th Street and Broadway, where they made a few brief speeches and ate free Cuban food.

From the outside, Floridita might look like two separate enterprises: there is the main section of the eatery, with its plain stucco façade and green awnings, which resembles a diner with a slight Latin flavor; and the somewhat slicker Tapas bar next door which, given its pink and black exterior, might pass for a nightclub.

Most days the restaurant draws a mixed crowd: local blacks and Hispanics in street clothes sit beside well-dressed whites, many of them Columbia students. The staff consists mostly of Latinos who appear to speak little English. A 'J'-shaped granite counter projects into the room from the Western wall. Cake-bearing pedestals stand at intervals along the stone's smooth, shining surface, their confections safely enclosed under plastic domes. Tables and red leather booths line the room's perimeter and the low divider between the main two-thirds of the dining floor and the slightly elevated remaining area. The yellow walls of the raised portion bear various black-and-white photographs of Cuba and several colorful Spanish-language posters. The door to Díaz's office is set into one of those walls.

Columbia Spectator, April 28, 1968

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Ramon Díaz is a tall, broad man with an easy smile. He has owned and run this Floridita—which opened in 1976—since he bought it from his Uncle Benny nearly five years ago. A Cuban immigrant who never learned English, Benny Díaz founded the charter Floridita at 138th Street and Broadway in 1969. He would go on to open six more of the restaurants, including the one on 125th Street, four of which remained open when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2004. Benny Díaz then sought to divest himself from the neighborhood, and his nephew stepped in to purchase the 125th Street franchise. Today, Ramon Díaz's restaurant is the only Floridita. Floridita rents its space, and Columbia bought the parcel from the previous land owner in the early 2000s. The lease on the main section of the restaurant expires in 2015; the tapas bar lease must be renewed annually. School officials approached Benny Díaz shortly afterward and, according to Ramon Díaz, showed him models of the planned campus that included a miniaturized Floridita. When he first learned of the University's plans, Ramon Díaz recalls thinking that "it was a good idea." "They were representing that they were going to be employing 6,000 people," Díaz says, adding that at the time, Columbia promised it would find new locations for local businesses and would cooperate with Community Board Nine.

The younger Díaz contends that when Columbia met with him, they called his restaurant an "institution" and presented him with three possible future locations in the expansion area, one of which Díaz identified as "ideal." Díaz recalls that the university once referred to him as "the poster child for good relations between small businesses in Manhattanville and Columbia University."

On May 28, 2006 a rendition by an artist for Columbia of 125th Street in 2016 appeared in New York Magazine. This portrait includes a Floridita restaurant.

Yet Díaz says when he finally agreed to take Columbia up on their proposal, they school rescinded their earlier offer. "They led me to believe whatever we were having were negotiations. They say now they were only conversations, which are not legally binding," Díaz says. "I had no reason not to believe what they were telling me, but it was naïve of me not to get it on paper."

On December 22, 2008, four days after the Empire State Development Corporation approved the use of eminent domain in the Manhattanville project, Díaz received a memorandum informing him that his lot would be taken and condemned. Díaz remarks that neither he nor his attorney had ever heard of anything like that before.

"Why would Columbia condemn their own property?"

The answer would appear to be that condemning the location would release Columbia from fulfilling the terms of their lease with Díaz, though the University has since said that the state was the party that sent Díaz the notice. Díaz says he is confused and afraid for the future of his business. Though not a Harlem resident himself, he criticizes the University for rejecting Community Board Nine's proposed expansion guidelines and for breaking its earlier promise to only develop east of 12th Avenue. He also expresses concern for the fate of his employees, many of whom are immigrants living in the area and who have never held a job in the United States other than their work at Floridita. But, in spite of his efforts to fight the school, he is ultimately despairing about their outcome.

"I think Columbia is too big of an institution, too rich of an institution, to be defeated by guys like me and the Singhs or even Sprayregen."


But Columbia is not without its defenders in Harlem.

"I've always been pro-development. If we're focusing on the Columbia expansion, I believe it will be good for Harlem." says Harlem architect Victor Body-Lawson, founder of Body-Lawson Associates. "In supporting the project, I believe it could really benefit the community at a whole other level."

"Just because people are passive one moment doesn't mean that they will be the next."
– Professor Mark Naison

Today, Body-Lawson Associates sits on Adam Clayton, Jr. Boulevard between 135th and 136th Streets, with most of the firm's architects working along a narrow aisle of desks and chairs running from the front of the office to the back. Varnished plywood shelves line the walls. Scores of nails project through the ceiling. Several exposed aluminum rafters hang overhead. Upstairs, construction workers bang about all day, yelling, swearing, and blaring an adult contemporary station over their radio, while on the first floor sheets of plastic drape down from the room's corners to catch the dust coming from above. Both knobs on the bathroom sink produce only a thin trickle of cold water from the tap. So far, the only sign in the window is a single sheet of paper taped to the glass.

Nearly a year ago, the firm's old location on Frederick Douglass Boulevard (better known as Eighth Avenue) between 125th and 126th Streets fell into the possession of Kimco Realty, which announced its intention to put up a glossy new retail building on the site. Body-Lawson Associates and its neighbors fought back and sued their new landlord, and ultimately settled out of court, agreeing to relocate in exchange for an undisclosed sum. According to owner and founder Victor Body-Lawson, the move has proved an "blessing" for his business, since they now receive "more space for less."

This resembles his view of what Columbia University's development in Manhattanville will hold for Harlem.

Columbia Spectator, April 29, 1968

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"This project will bring in about 6,000 jobs," Body-Lawson declares, adding that the expansion will create a ground-level "urban layer" of retail spaces between subterranean and upper-story University facilities. He believes local businesses will be able to lease these refurbished properties and thus create further employment opportunities for Harlem residents. He also notes that the expansion will be a 'green' project, in an area that he describes as "under-utilized" and "contaminated."

Moreover, he contends that the project will supply a variety of tools for Harlem to compete in a "globalized" New York City, as it will draw talented people to the area and provide numerous educational benefits to the community at large. "Kids in this area will be going to the high school Columbia is building on that site and going to Columbia University."

The Nigerian-born architect claims the University has long been "an anchor" and "a magnet" in the community, drawing many people—including himself—to the area. He concedes, though, that Columbia "has not always had a good relationship with the neighborhood." However, he argues that "most Universities that are in cities these days realize they need to work with their community," in order to "integrate" their operations with the needs of the surrounding area and encourage interaction between students, faculty, and local residents. He praises Columbia's efforts to bring "local players" like his firm into the expansion project.

After graduating from Columbia's architecture program in 1984, Body-Lawson worked for a time at Davis Brody Bond Aedas, a firm with which Body-Lawson Associates remains affiliated, and taught at Yale University. Body-Lawson recalls first learning about the Manhattanville expansion in 2005-2006, while working on the City's 125th Street river-to-river rezoning study. Despite that survey's title, the overview conspicuously ended at Broadway, where Columbia's properties began. When the University commissioned David Brody Bond Aedas to design parts of the first phase of its development, they invited Body-Lawson Associates to participate.

Although he does not consider himself a Harlem resident, Body-Lawson stresses that locating his business in Harlem was a "conscious decision," as he felt "there was a need here." He mentions also that he owns an apartment in Harlem and taught at City College for 10 years.

Body-Lawson criticizes what he calls the "welfare mentality" of the expansion opponents.

"There are those who say this is a low-income area, that it's always been a low-income area. The point is, do we keep it like that, or do we empower the community to benefit from change? Do we keep complaining about change, or do we get re-educated and be a part of that change?"

However, he concedes that some allowances are necessary for poorer Harlemites.

"Of course, at the end of the day, one cannot simply throw away low-income properties that are here. But one can provide jobs" to help residents avoid displacement. He suggests that the gentrification Harlem has undergone in recent years is the result of a deliberate process the now-defunct Harlem Urban Development Corporation initiated in the 1990s. "I think there was a conscious effort by HUDC and other organizations to bring better stores, services to Harlem," Body-Lawson says. In order to accomplish this, the Harlem Urban Development Corporation encouraged what Body-Lawson calls "a diverse demographic group" of people from varying racial and economic backgrounds to buy properties in the neighborhood. Homeowners, Body-Lawson argues, have a larger stake in the community than renters and can afford "a higher level of goods and services." Body-Lawson says that the benefits of this effort are visible not only the arrival of chain retailers like Staples and Starbucks, but also of grocery stores carrying fresh produce. For Body-Lawson, Columbia's expansion is yet another development that will improve the quality of life in Harlem.

Body-Lawson further points out that the expansion area is waterfront property, a precious commodity in New York's real estate market.

"If Columbia doesn't do this, someone else will," he warns. "And what are they going to put in there? Luxury apartment buildings that will be untouchable to people in the community, buildings that won't serve the public good."


"The bust" came in the earliest hours of a Tuesday morning, April 30, 1968. The Students for an African-American Society followed through on their promise, and left the Hamilton Hall without resistance. Police arrested 86 people from the building without incident.

Elsewhere it was different. The police entered the other occupied buildings through pre-existing subterranean tunnels and flushed the demonstrators out into the Quadrangle. In the end, 103 people required hospital care, of whom only 14 were police. Desmond Maxwell describes scenes of horrific police brutality, with officers beating people with clubs and picket fence posts and dragging women protestors by their hair. Maxwell, though, escapeed safely into Morningside Park.

Further violence broke out in late May, 1968, over the University's disciplinary procedures for the demonstrators. By then, however, the plans for the Morningside Park gymnasium were all but dead.


Today, Maxwell is the Director of Eastern Sales at Black Entertainment Television, with a white-walled office overlooking 46th Street. A short cropped haircut has replaced he afro he had as a teenager, and he jokes about being "co-opted" and "working for the Man."

Columbia Spectator, April 30, 1968

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Naison is now a Professor of African-American Studies at Fordham University; a heavy-set man with white hair and a white beard, tortoise shell-rimmed glasses, and a red and black Nike jogging suit. Neither man sees much chance of a repeat of the 1968 protests. Naison calls 1968 "a unique period in American history," and Maxwell agrees, arguing that the University's present-day success in its attempts to "snap up property" is partly due to the reduction in political activism and awareness in the Harlem community.

Both also think that demographic changes in the area have simplified Columbia's task. Today, Columbia has an upper-middle class white Upper West Side neighborhood to its south and a swiftly gentrifying—and rapidly paling—Harlem on its northern and western borders. Naison says "Columbia no longer has to be scared of working-class black and Hispanic people rising up and protesting." Maxwell says the school "is a lot more efficient at their takeovers now" due largely to the gentrification of Harlem.

Naison reports being unable to recognize Manhattan Valley when visiting during the official 40th anniversary of the occupations.

"It was one chic bar or cafe after another," Naison says. He notes that, although the University has become more multi-racial, it remains highly "class-exclusive." Since 1968, Naison says Columbia has cultivated relationships with Harlem ministers and elected leaders, and has been able to place student and faculty housing units in Harlem—noticeably, without creating affordable housing, something Naison also finds lacking in the University's designs for Manhattanville.

"Whenever I look at a plan like this, I ask, 'where is the affordable housing?'" he says. "If it's less than 50 percent [of the development], it's going to contribute to the process of gentrification. Twenty percent is not enough."

Columbia Spectator, May 1968

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Naison believes Columbia's growth will lead to further "demographic inversion," a process in which working-class and minority residents—long confined to the decaying cores of most urban areas—are flung to their cities' outermost margins. Demographic inversion is a relatively new phenomenon to U.S. cities, but has become common in Europe, most notably in Paris, as a side-effect of gentrification. Gentrification itself is, in Naison's view, the result of New York's conversion from a manufacturing center to a post-industrial information society. The workforce of the modern economy tends to be young and unmarried. In New York, they generally work in Manhattan and wish to hold apartments of their own. This state of elevated demand encourages landlords to increase their profits by raising rents and eliminating low-income tenants. The only thing that could possibly arrest or reverse this trend, Naison says, is the current economic crisis, which he predicts may also raise awareness and anger against Columbia University among Harlemites.

"All bets are off till we see how this plays out," Naison declares. "Just because people are passive one moment doesn't mean that they will be the next."

For his part, Maxwell relocated from his family's old apartment Harlem to a foreclosed property in the North Bronx in 2002, unable to keep up with the rising cost of living in the neighborhood where he grew up.

"I miss Harlem so much. I drive through it every day on the way to work," Maxwell wistfully relates. "Boy, has it changed."

Maxwell describes his "mixed emotions" about many of the changes Harlem has undergone in recent years. While glad to see his home recover from the heroin and crack epidemics that consumed it in the 1970s and 80s—which he blames for decimating the area's character—he mourns the loss of affordable housing stock.

"Harlem has emerged as a very stable and more affluent community at the expense of some of the lower-income population," Mazwell says. He describes the Manhattanville expansion as Columbia "exercising their dominance over the community," and provides his own explanation for the support the project enjoys from now-Congressman Rangel and Central Harlem City Councilwoman Inez Dickens.

"I love Charlie Rangel. He's a friend of my family's," Maxwell says. But he suspects that the Congressman's recent financial imbroglios may have contributed to the decision to come down on the University's side, suggesting that Rangel"might be looking for a new ally in the community.

"And, of course, whatever Charlie's going to do, Inez is going to do."

Still, Maxwell foresees that the expansion will enlarge Harlem's tax base and property values and possibly make a greater range of services available to the community.


The economic crisis seems to have checked—at least temporarily—the runaway gentrification of New York. Lee Bollinger and other University officials, however, look to benefit from the federal stimulus package and have declared their intention to apply to the government for public funding—much to the chagrin of the Coalition to Preserve Community. And so the struggle between Columbia and the local interests continues. The fact remains: there is a finite amount of real estate in New York. There may not be enough room for everyone.

Will can be contacted at

Works Cited

Astor, Maggie. 'Students, Activists Rally for Floridita.' The Columbia Spectator. 16 February 2009.

The Cox Commission 'Crisis at Columbia: Report of the Fact-Finding Commission Appointed to Investigate the Disturbances at Columbia Universty in April and May 1968." New York: Vintage Books, 1968

Durkin, Erin. "Columbia University Clears Hurdle for Huge West Harlem Expansion." The New York Daily News. 17 July 2008.

Wileden, Lydia. 'CU Seeks Federal Funding for M'Ville.' The Columbia Spectator. 2 March 2009.

Williams, Timothy. "In West Harlem Land Dispute, It's Columbia vs. Residents." The New York Times. 20 November 2006

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