Monday, September 22, 2008

American Dream Denied

The abuse of eminent domain often has a harsh personal impact-something that is brought home in Timothy Williams' story yesterday in the NY Times: "The two gas stations sit at the western end of 125th Street in Manhattan, anonymous amid rows of vacant factories and lines of cars edging toward the highway. Even for service stations, they are modest: One has peeling green paint; the second, chipped red paint and an attached car wash. Each has only a few pumps.
But for Gurnam Singh, the businesses represent a quarter-century of hard work."

What the Singh's story represents is just how inequitable the entire ED process is, with property owners negotiating on the most unlevel of playing fields-with a government gun to their heads. In this context the comments of Columbia University are revealingly perverse: "Ms. Fountain said the university had dealt fairly with each of the businesses it had had discussions with in Manhattanville during the past several years. “Columbia University has successfully negotiated the acquisition of over three dozen properties in five years within the old Manhattanville manufacturing area,” Ms. Fountain said. “Many of those who sold their properties to Columbia have testified at public hearings about Columbia’s fairness and ongoing commitment to resolutions supportive of sellers’ continuing business and employment interests in New York. Columbia has a longstanding policy of not commenting on negotiations, though it is worth noting that the remaining two business owners are being officially represented by legal counsel in their discussions with the university.”

Of course this statement amounts to little more than "crackpot rationality," a term coined by C Wright Mills: "Crackpot rationality is reason unhinged from a larger religious and moral context..." As is the notion that Columbia treated all of its property negotiaions fairly, especially when the taking of someone's property without their consent is concerned.

Here's the more likely version: "The family said that one Columbia official in particular, Philip Silverman, the university’s vice president for real estate, had been “disrespectful” toward them. They said Mr. Silverman told them the state would simply take their property if they refused to sell. “He’s treating me like, ‘This is an Indian family — we don’t know anything,’ ” Mr. Singh said."

Now it's perfectly clear that the area in West Harlem needs gas stations-particularly because of its location right next to the highway. So why hasn't the city intervened here to accommodate both Columbia and the Singhs? The reason is that the city is merely the university's cat's paw, or perhaps partner is a better term. This goes to the core of Norman Siegal's legal arguments on behalf of Nick Sptayregen and the Singhs: a true public plan would have (or should have) sought to accommodate competing interests. Instead, the city simply adopted Columbia's vision-this is not a public plan by any manner of definition.

And in the process, an immigrant family's dream gets shattered: "These properties are the bread and butter for our family,” said Amar Kaur, 16, Ms. Kaur’s daughter. “If we lose this, it would be equivalent to losing everything we have in our lives. My parents have put blood, sweat, tears and time for the past 25-plus years to be where we are at in society today.”

The Singhs came to West Harlem when economic times were tough. as was the neighborhood: "At the time, crime in the area was high, and many drivers took their chances with an empty tank rather than stop at the Singhs’ stations, which were robbed at gunpoint with regularity, Mr. Singh said.“Everybody was scared to come here,” he said. “There were many, many holdups. What can I do? I risk my life all the time.” In the early 1990s, his brother was fatally shot during an armed robbery at the Queens gas station."

And now Columbia and the state of New York wants to simply eradicate all that the Singh family has built. We'll give Nick Sprayregen the last word on this travesty: "They are a prime example of the American dream,” said Mr. Sprayregen, who owns a storage building that abuts one of the service stations. “It would be a terrible signal to other immigrants who look at America as a golden beacon if someone could lose everything they’ve worked for because someone more powerful covets their property.”

For more on Sprayregen's position see his website-; and this article from the Spectator.