An institution the size of Columbia University is bound to unnerve a few people. New York’s Ivy is expensive, elite, enormous, and itching to grow. As it eyes a 17-acre expansion into West Harlem, opponents say they’re worried the school’s plans will leave people in that neighborhood feeling cut off from the waterfront—just as, supposedly, they feel cut off by Columbia’s central campus in Morningside Heights.
Count environmental-policy coordinator Kizzy Charles-Guzman, with WE ACT for Environmental Justice, among the wary. “How comfortable really are these campuses?” she said this spring in a talk at the New York City Greenway Summit. “When there’s a guard in every door, does that become a private space instead of a public one?”
Maybe it just becomes a guarded one. Columbia officials have promised repeatedly not to place barriers around anything the university builds in Manhattanville, in a four-block zone roughly north of 125th Street and west of Broadway. “No fences, no gates,” said spokesperson La-Verna Fountain last week. “Completely accessible.”
And already at Columbia’s main location, a six-block cluster of academic buildings centered on 116th Street and Broadway, the gates are open. All the time.
Ask people around there when the gates close, or whether they feel free to walk on through, and they’ll look at you cockeyed. “This is a 24-hour campus,” said one guard. Your chances of getting into the J-school may be iffy, but you can absolutely buy lunch at the farmers’ market and eat it under a tree. Or sit on the grass. Or stroll the grounds. Or, while you’re at it, check out the stream of humanity pouring across the inner greens, from Broadway to Amsterdam. You can’t tell who works in the cafeteria, who’s on the prestigious faculty, who’s taking classes, or who’s just passing through.
“The other day I was here, and there was a Sweet 16,” said Alexandra Dole, an African-American sophomore from Long Island. She says the city flows through so freely that homeless people sometimes hole up in the library. Asked whether you can walk across the Columbia campus, a Chinese tot clutching a dinner roll waved toward the open gate, then took his mother’s hand and skipped in.
For Charles-Guzman, the Columbia plan comes at a terrible time, with the Harlem Piers expected to open a few blocks away next year. She’s not ready to take Columbia at its word. “There’s not a lot of trust,” she says. Charles-Guzman, it’s worth noting, lives in Brooklyn.
Columbia’s promotional effort pointedly includes people who live in Manhattanville, like Victoria Benitez. Now a staffer in Columbia’s PR department, she says she has spent a lifetime negotiating the rows of warehouses and automotive shops that the school wants to replace.
“I don’t walk on Broadway—not because it’s blighted, but because there’s nothing there,” says Benitez.
It’s also worth noting that, in recent years, Columbia has bought or gained control of approximately 70 percent of the properties here—making it a mighty player in the way this neighborhood works. With its request for a rezoning now before the local community board, Columbia keeps saying the right things. Fountain understands that, even with the open gates, the traditional campus at 116th Street can be off-putting. The school isn’t looking to create another of those, she says. Instead, she promises a park and wide sidewalks, restaurants and family fun.
“We believe that people are looking for a way for university and community to be integrated in a way that is welcoming at all kinds of different levels,” she says. “What we’re looking for going forward is something much, much more inviting.”