The neighborhoods surrounding Columbia—the four neighborhoods Spectator covers—are home to their own rich histories, diverse residents, and local controversies.
Welcome to Morningside Heights, the Upper Manhattan neighborhood that Columbia calls home. While its chief claim to fame is the University, "MoHi," as the area is known, has more to it than just Columbia.
Besides Columbia and Barnard, the neighborhood is also home to many other educational institutions, including Teachers College, Union Theological Seminary, Jewish Theological Seminary, and Manhattan School of Music.
Morningside Heights is sandwiched between two parks: Riverside Park to the west and Morningside Park to the east. Riverside, which runs along the Hudson, is a common destination for Columbia students and locals. Morningside, despite its Frederick Law Olmstead-designed landscaping and diverse wildlife, is less popular with students. Enjoy it during the day, but avoid walking through it at night.
Columbia owns much of the neighborhood's real estate, and is the landlord of many small business owners in the area. As mom-and-pop shops like Hungarian Pastry Shop and Book Culture—local icons—compete with chains like Chipotle and Duane Reade, some business owners think the University should do more to support the little guys. Others say it's doing enough.
It's also home to two of the most magnificent churches in the city: the Episcopalian St. John the Divine—one of the largest Christian cathedrals in the world—and the interdenominational Riverside Church. Both are known for their liberal brands of religion and quirky services: St. John holds annual blessings for bicycles, as well as an over-the-top blessing for animals, complete with camels, kangaroos, monkeys, and more.
Historic preservation is a big deal for locals. Advocates want to see the neighborhood, with its mix of architectural styles, get the protection of a historic district, which would make the city regulate changes to building exteriors. Meanwhile, a proposal to build two apartment towers on the grounds of St. John has preservationists up in arms.
Just north of Morningside Heights, Manhattanville is a former industrial neighborhood that will be home to a new Columbia campus. The campus, currently under construction, will provide the University with 17 acres of badly needed space, but has been highly controversial among locals.
The site will feature the Renzo Piano-designed Jerome L. Greene Science Center, the Lenfest School of the Arts, two buildings for the Columbia Business School, and a conference center. Lenfest and Greene are scheduled to open in 2016, with the other buildings to follow.
In its early stages, the expansion plan faced legal troubles over its use of eminent domain to clear the way for the new campus. Two owners who refused to sell their properties sued the University in January 2009, and while a lower court ruled against Columbia, the New York State Court of Appeals upheld the use of eminent domain in June 2010.
To assuage concerns surrounding the expansion, University administrators signed a Community Benefits Agreement in May 2009 promising locals $76 million in benefits and agreeing to use minority, women, and local contractors and employees for construction work. While Columbia says it is meeting the goals it set for itself, many local leaders accuse it of ducking its commitment to a diverse workforce.
The West Harlem Development Corporation, the independent organization in charge of distributing Columbia's $76 million, got off to a slow start, with locals assailing it for mismanagement and inactivity. Earlier this year, however, the group dispensed $2 million in grants to 83 local nonprofits, and is planning another round of grants in September.
Other than Columbia's massive expansion site, the neighborhood is also home to two public housing complexes, the Grant Houses and the Manhattanville Houses. Residents there complain of a lack of services—Grant Houses had the most outstanding requests for repairs of any public housing complex in the city, according to a recent study conducted by Public Advocate Bill de Blasio. Violence between youths of the two projects is also a problem: Tayshana Murphy, a national high school basketball star who lived in Grant Houses, was shot and killed by young men in Manhattanville in September 2011.
Harlem, once the heart of African-American New York, is in the midst of demographic and economic change. West Harlem, the part of the neighborhood just across Morningside Park from Columbia, is no different: More white and upper-middle-class residents are moving there, leading to gentrification.
The New Yorkers coming uptown are looking for lower rents, but they're pushing housing prices in the area up. New luxury residential developments are sprouting, including the 22-story One Morningside Park, on 110th Street and Morningside Avenue, which is currently under construction. Condos will be priced between $610,000 and $2.2 million.
Meanwhile, most private developments include only the minimum number of affordable housing units required for government subsidies, and some residents of public housing feel like they're being ignored by the city.
More upscale restaurants and shops catering to newer, wealthier residents are driving up commercial rent, creating a diverse commercial sector: fine dining next to fast-food joints, bodegas next to boutique bakeries.
Projects on 125th Street, Harlem's main thoroughfare, reflect the changing demographics of the area: A Whole Foods is opening at the corner of Lenox Avenue, the 96-year-old Victoria Theater is being renovated into a 26-story hotel and apartment building, and two new shopping centers are nearing completion on Frederick Douglass Boulevard.
The Upper West Side
With a strong tradition of community activism, there's always something to protest on the Upper West Side, whether that's unfair labor conditions in local restaurants, controversial land development projects, school overcrowding, or bike lanes.
One of the most politically active neighborhoods in the city, the Upper West Side will see two highly contested City Council democratic primaries next month, including one in District 7, which also contains Columbia's campus.
Small businesses are important to the character of the neighborhood, and many locals are dismayed by "mallification"—the growth of chain stores and banks, especially on Broadway. Last year, the City Council passed a rezoning plan in the neighborhood aimed at reducing storefront size and protecting smaller mom-and-pop businesses.
While the neighborhood has a reputation for being upscale or yuppie, it is also home to a large number of homeless shelters. Community leaders objected strongly when the city opened two more shelters on 95th Street in August 2012. Opponents say the shelters were put in without local oversight and are overburdening the area.
In the Frederick Douglass public housing complex, the city is planning to build three private apartment towers to help make up for a huge budget deficit. Frederick Douglass residents and local politicians are up in arms about the plan, saying it would waste precious open space and that officials have not been transparent. Several public meetings on the issue have turned rowdy, but the uproar has not stopped the city's housing authority from issuing a request for proposals from developers.
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