Sunday, February 25, 2007

Columbia's Lebensraum

Columbia University, hell bent to expand so that its crack neuroscientists can quickly find the cure for Alzheimer's Disease somewhere in the footprint of its new West Harlem campus, has failed miserably in reaching out and working with the folks caught in the headlights of the waiting bulldozers. This failure is captured by Doug Feiden's in-depth special report in today's NY Daily News.

As Feiden reports, "Faced with the threat of forced evictions, eminent domain and the wrecking ball minority residents and employees in the thinly populated neighborhood are fighting back." As one resident, living in the neighborhood for over thirty years told the News, "'I came from the Dominican Republic to find a place like this. Why should I be forced to leave?"

The key issue here is that the university, unlike the FCRC folks in Brooklyn, has not sought out the community and its business owners to see just how it might be possible to create a larger inclusive vision that doesn't entail the displacement of those who have a stake in the neighborhood. It has one goal and one goal only; the creation of a campus enclave that excludes the existing declasse residents and businesses.

In fact, Columbia praises its ability to negotiate with "professionalism," at least with those who signal that they have thrown in the white flag and are wiling to relocate. This, however, is not engagement, it is disengagement-or to use the more current terminology-it is the deployment of the folks that are in the footprint so that they no longer can "blight" the neighborhood.

The real crux of the problem with the Columbia plan (and why it is put to shame by the Harvard vision), as we have pointed out before, is that it not only dispossesses existing low income tenants, but it has no larger vision for an inclusive neighborhood where the university incorporates the life of the existing community instead of eliminating it entirely. Can't the Columbia planners do any better than sheer self-aggrandizement? As a 66 year-old cardboard box-maker from Ecuador told the News,"Why would Columbia threaten our well-being? Where will we go if they kick us out?"

The Columbia plan is badly in need of modification. The university has the capacity to do this and is working with Bill Lynch as a consultant, someone who knows how to craft a creative compromise. As much as Bruce Ratner was raked over the coals for his Atlantic Yards project, the end result was a huge piece of affordable housing and thousands of permanent jobs for the community. Columbia will evict tenants and build no housing in the neighborhood. As Damon Wayons once said; "Homie don't play that."