Protesters gathered at Columbia University’s Low Plaza last Thursday evening to denounce the school’s gentrification of nearby Harlem. Hosted by grassroots organization United Front Against Displacement (UFAD) along with campus organizations Student Worker Solidarity and Columbia Housing Equity Project, students and outside activists demanded hands off of the majority Black and brown Upper Manhattan neighborhood.
“The basic thing people have seen in Harlem or across New York City is that a lot of neighborhoods are changing quickly,” said UFAD member Ryan Costello. “I don’t think I’m so alone in saying this, changing for the worse not for the better: skyrocketing rents, destruction and displacement of pillars of the community in terms of individuals, groups, establishments, restaurants, cultural spaces, etc. A real fraying of the basic, social fabric.
“And when people are displaced in this way, there’s no plan for the city for where they go. People are forced out, some people double up with family, many of them become homeless or semi-homeless, some move down south, upstate, etc. And the city is remade to be largely in a space increasingly, exclusively for the wealthy.”
Mentioned throughout the protest was Columbia’s Manhattanville satellite campus, which the university fought up to the New York State Court of Appeals a decade ago to expand into the West Harlem section through the pressure of eminent domain. Additionally, the speakers highlighted the scheduled 2023 closure of Red Balloon Early Childhood Learning Center, a popular, low-cost Harlem preschool. The space was provided by Columbia University back in 1972, free of charge.
“This is our 50th year, ironically—we are 60% people of color whose children attend this preschool,” said parent board president Annapurna Potluri Schreiber. “We’re the only Columbia-affiliated preschool that takes vouchers from the Administration for Children’s Services, which are vouchers that they give to low income families who need childcare. It doesn’t feel random. Let me just say it that way.”
She says the students are a mix of local Harlem youngsters and children of university staff.
“This was a decision based on our expectations for Columbia affiliated early learning centers and came after years of working with the center,” said a university spokesperson. “To give plenty of time for families to find alternate care for next academic year, we informed Red Balloon this summer that we are extending their lease and affiliation through August 2023. We will be offering information resources to all families engaging in a search for a new program, regardless of their affiliation with Columbia.”
Recently, a viral social media thread by Twitter user @AchmatX accused Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs course of offering curriculum on “designing a better Harlem” alongside city agencies like the Mayor’s Office, which could not be reached after multiple attempts. However, the Amsterdam News is able to confirm other city offices were invited to speak in the class. According to the university, the said course is named “Co-Designing Smart Cities.”
“Being adaptive and responsive to community needs is an important part of public policy, and students work alongside the Harlem community as partners and collaborators,” said the university spokesperson. “We think this direct engagement is mutually beneficial to both our students and the Harlem community.
“Part of this engagement includes a course, Co-Designing Smart Cities, in which students work with the 125th Street Business Improvement District to research challenges identified by community members, identify potential strategies to help address these challenges, and suggest recommendations to stakeholders as part of the educational process.”
In an online statement, the UFAD demanded the university immediately cancel the class and apologize to the people of Harlem, saying the curriculum furthers policies that “expand surveillance, police brutality and mass incarceration.”
The organization typically focuses on tenants’ rights, with chapters across the country. In New York City, UFAD fights against the privatization of NYCHA, but initially came into contact with Columbia campus organizers during graduate student worker protests and unionization efforts last year.
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w