The conflicting interests of Columbia University and the West Harlem community continue to spawn new polemics from both sides, as the university inches ahead with its proposed 17-acre, $7 billion expansion. As the land-use contest heats up, so has the quest to find the perfect metaphor. The high-stakes name game begins with the conflicting designations of the territory in question. While Columbia has used the term "Manhattanville" to describe the area, which lies between 125th and 133rd Streets, many community advocates resolutely refer to it as "West Harlem," emphasizing its connection to nearby residential and commercial districts. The Times recently called on Columbia to drop the archaic name and face up to the neighborhood's true character.
Individual protagonists on both sides have deployed vivid language to press their points. “Remember that man who stood in front of the tank at Tiananmen Square? That’s me,” the owner of a local storage warehouse, who is resisting the university's attempts to buy her property, recently told the Times. She and a handful of other local property owners are bracing for a possible legal battle, as debates over the community's best interests lead to the question of eminent domain. University trustees, meanwhile, believe it is they who are in danger of being steamrolled by rival Ivy League schools if they do not expand.
But Tiananmen's martial moment or Robert Moses's bulldozers are hardly the images that architect Renzo Piano intended to evoke as he described the large, open space at the center of his proposed design for the new campus: "It is a piazza," he reportedly said at a 2004 community board meeting, "The people will come, there will be discourse." What Mr. Piano views as a public piazza appeared to a local minister as a cloistered enclave. "This looks like a 12th-century Christ's Church Oxford," said the Rev. Earl Kooperkamp of St. Mary's Episcopal Church in West Harlem, "It's a quad. That's not a piazza."
Columbia President Lee Bollinger has declared in vain that "Everyone is pleased with the way Columbia has dealt with [the community]," while Harlem Tenants Council Director Nellie Bailey has labeled local African-American leaders who tacitly support gentrification in the name of economic development, such as the pro-expansion Congressman Charles Rangel, as "willing agents of the state in the brutal oppression of their own people." She estimates that Harlem could lose up to half its African-American population through economic displacement over the next 20-30 years. Columbia students and alumni have also been active in the debate over expansion.
What do you think of Columbia plans and the community reaction? Some other links: Gothamist on the school being a big meany and Gotham Gazette on the expansion and eminent domain.