Political Minutes: Touring a Tense Manhattanville


As another school year begins, the confrontation between neighborhood members and Columbia University over the ongoing Manhattanville expansion continues unabated, seeking to bring in more fresh faces to its respective sides.

This Sunday the Coalition to Preserve Community held a walking tour up towards the site of the current Manhattanville construction. The tour was led by co-founder of the coalition and Columbia College alum Tom Kappner, who has lived in the Morningside Heights-Harlem neighborhood since the 1960s.

The walking tour featured six stops, featuring familiar places and faces of the tension between neighborhood residents and the university. The first stop was in front of Teacher’s College, where Kappner recounted Columbia’s gradual buying up of the buildings up to 125th street in the 60s.

The second stop was in front of the Grant Houses, a public housing project from 123rd to 125th streets on Broadway. Sarah Martin, president of the Grant Houses Tenants Association, spoke to the moving crowd of 25 people about gentrification displacing long time residents, saying, “We’ve seen it happen in Brooklyn and other areas … there’s going to be a drastic change and I don’t think we’re going to be here.”

Event participant Jim White, a volunteer at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, noted that he now needs to go to the Bronx to pick up church members who had deep roots in West Harlem because they have been displaced by rising rents. Members of St. Mary’s recited an anti-Columbia poem in front of the third stop, the Columbia University Employment Information Center.

The fourth stop showed another face familiar to those following the Manhattanville expansion, Floridita restaurant owner Ramon Diaz. Diaz told the story of having to move his restaurant to a nearby location, which then had to be cleared of asbestos. He called the move, “a personal battle that I’m going to win at all costs” and said that the end is in sight, as Floridita is set to open in its new location in two weeks.

Further stops included Tuck-It-Away Storage, one of the last holdouts against the Columbia expansion that was forced to move due to the use of eminent domain. Occupy Columbia and other activist groups staged an occupation of Tuck-It-Away in March.

The final stop was 3333 Broadway on 133rd street, an apartment complex designed for low and middle-income families. Luis Tejada founded The Mirabal Sisters Cultural and Community Center, a center for social justice in West Harlem, Manhattanville, and Morningside Heights, and spoke to those gathered about landlords trying to force out older, lower rent tenants in favor of high rent Columbia students.

The tour concluded with Kappner addressing the crowd, which only had a few students, and urging the students to “tear down those gates that separate you from the community.”