News | West Harlem

In Harlem, controversy meets vibrant community

Just north of campus is West Harlem, home to soul food, charter schools, and Columbia’s biggest controversy.

The neighborhood is bordered to the south by 123rd Street, to the north by 155th Street, to the west by the Hudson River, and to the east by Morningside and St. Nicholas avenues. It includes the smaller neighborhood of Manhattanville, which begins roughly where Columbia ends and where—you might have heard?—Columbia is planning a few new buildings.

Really, the campus expansion into Manhattanville is the most controversial and important issue facing the area, and understanding it is key to understanding the neighborhood as a whole. (Check out our in-depth introduction to all things M’ville in this issue.) For now, know that some demolition is already underway along Broadway just a few blocks away.

You’re now a student at Columbia University in the City of New York, and that means it’s important to know what’s going on outside the campus gates.

Take a walk north and you’ll find a diverse pocket of Manhattan. West Harlem residents have a wide range of economic backgrounds, but with a large low-income population and a high concentration of public housing, affordable housing is always a hot-button issue.

A number of local housing projects, including the General Grant Houses on Broadway and 123rd Street, have made the news recently, as budget problems are forcing the city to reduce the vouchers that allow families to live there.

Other buildings, such as 3333 Broadway, an enormous complex between 133rd and 135th streets, are constantly fighting with landlords and management companies over rent prices and basic maintenance services—or lack thereof.

In the middle of it all is Community Board 9, a group that makes advisory decisions about West Harlem and Morningside Heights. Historically, the residents and activists that make up the board have often clashed with Columbia.

Maintaining affordable housing is not the only struggle for some of our Harlem neighbors. Recently, public schools have become another contentious topic for parents north of campus.

Harlem is now at the center of a huge, national debate about education. At the heart of this heated discussion is the question of whether increasing the number of charter schools—public schools that have their own boards and can essentially make their own rules—is the best way to improve the educational system.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has bet yes, and recent numbers show that for many families, charters are an attractive alternative to traditional public schools. One in five kids in Harlem now attends a charter school, and thousands more are turned away by the often-dramatic lotteries that decide which kids get in.

Of course, big changes don’t happen without backlash. Charter schools are often placed in existing school buildings, and it’s not unusual for one building to house three completely separate schools. Parents have complained that charter school students get the best classroom space and even prime lunch hours, and the city has gone so far as to convene “war rooms” to come to space agreements.

Meanwhile, tensions will continue to grow as new laws allow more charters to open next fall—at least eight are already in the works for Manhattan.

But there’s more to Harlem than debates over educational policy. Turn east on 125th Street and you’ll quickly hit the heart of Harlem. This is northern Manhattan’s retail hub and main strip, home to mom-and-pop stores and authentic African restaurants, as well as new chain arrivals such as Starbucks, H&M, and Old Navy. Go one block north on Malcolm X Boulevard and you’ll find Sylvia’s Restaurant, a famous soul food joint that sometimes plays host to important political meetings.

125th Street hasn’t escaped controversial zoning changes, but landmarks like the Apollo Theater, Bill Clinton’s offices, and the contemporary Studio Museum are here to stay—at least for now.

Regardless, this neighborhood is changing quickly. Be sure you don’t miss it.

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