Creative Commons Licence


Contributed date

November 20, 2019 - 3:59pm

Critical Commentary

Top Left: Morningside Park Gym Plan, Below: Morningside Park, Right: West Side News article clipping

Columbia University sought to halt the perceived expansion of black Harlem into Morningside Heights, aligning with city policies aimed at managing low-income communities. These policies sought to integrate young people into the perceived mainstream: the white, middle-class, well-educated, idealized citizens of the city and state. Iron-fisted policing strategies such as broken windows became additional forms of coercion. From the early 20th century onward, Columbia sought to establish an “Acropolis on a Hill,” a site of social formation catered to the white upper-class. Columbia’s localized “Acropolis on a Hill” turned into a “globally”-oriented emphasis on knowledge economy, albeit with the same goal: simultaneously integrate and isolate West Harlem residents from the “white ethnic imagined community,” meanwhile implementing violence to legitimate white supremacist social and geographic claims.

Such social and geographic claims were exemplified in Columbia’s attempt to build a gymnasium on the hill of Morningside Park, consisting of an eight-floor space resting atop a two-story structure built for children of the community. The entrance for Columbia affiliates was at the top of the park while the entrance for other Harlem residents was on the other side of the building, resulting in a Jim-Crow era-esque segregation. The cliff slanted such that only 12 percent of the space was for unaffiliated residents. Neighborhood residents, Columbia affiliates, politicians, and organizations opposed the gym. Columbia commenced construction, only to face more protests. The gym plan was eventually discarded, along with the preliminary vision for the Manhattanville Expansion, which required eminent domain and would arouse more conflict. Through residents’ interference, Columbia was pushed to somewhat reshape its approach to social relations.