Interview with Flores Forbes

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November 20, 2019

Critical Commentary

Interested in how the Expansion was connected to gentrification and the police raid, I interviewed Flores Forbes, Associate Vice President for Strategic Policy and Program Implementation in the Office of Government and Community Affairs at Columbia and a former Black Panther member. An urban planner in Harlem for 25 years, Mr. Forbes believed the Expansion would positively enhance the quality of life in Harlem. He expressed empathy for residents in the neighborhood, cognizant that those residing in the housing developments felt oppressed; however, he argued that it was not the University’s responsibility to resolve this, but rather the city’s. He affirmed every staff member was heavily invested in Manhattanville since many of them had ties to the neighborhood, and the Expansion was part of Columbia fulfilling its mission. I asked him to elaborate on the Opportunity Youth program, whose target population were deemed “disconnected youth.” He claimed that it was “helping young people in the community” and that there was “a study done several years ago that identified young people of color, mostly young men, who are out of school, have not finished school, without GED or diploma, not working, who might be formerly incarcerated.” When I asked him to define “disconnected,” he brought up my own experience as a counterexample: “You are someone who finished high school, went to college, and are now in grad school. Most of the time you were connected to opportunities and resources. A lot of young people are not connected.” I inquired his opinion of the police raid, and he claimed he did not know how anyone could substantiate that Columbia was responsible, though he heard residents blame the Expansion.

Whereas residents of Grant and Manhattanville Houses expressed the desire for a more inclusive partnership with Columbia, University staff sought a limited but engaged cooperative effort as it pertained to the University’s mission of “advanc(ing) knowledge and learning at the highest level and to convey its products to the world.” The Expansion was seen as the local, physical embodiment of Columbia’s contribution to the global knowledge economy, no matter the costs to the community. While Mr. Forbes focused on how the University could help the “disconnected” youth be more connected to the knowledge economy, President Davis encouraged investment in every aspect of young people’s lives. Both were heavily invested in the “success” of young people yet came from very different spatial imaginaries—Mr. Forbes did not express recognition of his participation in the white spatial imaginary, which appeared part of the natural environment at Columbia. As Lipsitz argued, it seemed to be a “reality that has always been and that will always be.”[1]


[1] George Lipsitz, How Racism Takes Place (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011), 112.