Knowledge Economy Incarnate: Gentrification in a New York City Neighborhood


Columbia University implemented urban renewal and order maintenance to coerce residents of the neighbourhood deemed not to fit within their vision of a “Modern Acropolis” and the knowledge economy. I argue that police raids and the use of eminent domain rendered low-income residents of colour silenced and marginalized. However, residents worked their way through the structures of dominance to assert their right to remain in the neighbourhood.

Cite as: Soifer, Isabelle. 2019. “Knowledge Economy Incarnate" In Research Program Description, a class project for “Ethnographic Methods,” Anthropology 215a University of California Irvine, Fall 2019.

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Knowledge Economy Incarnate: Gentrification in a New York City Neighborhood

I will visually examine the visions of leaders in Grant Houses and Columbia University for the future of Morningside Heights in light of Columbia’s Manhattanville Expansion, drawing my analytic framework from Stuart Hall’s theory of conjuncture.

"We won't give up our power"

Top Left: President Carlton Davis in the middle, followed by photos of Grant Houses

It was a cool October evening in Manhattan and Halloween was fast-approaching. Food was tantalizingly laid out at the front of the room: pizza, beans and rice, salad, meatloaf and soda, as approximately 70 residents sat at folding tables. Held in the Senior Center, mostly women (and some men) in their middle age and older were present, with several young boys playing nearby with superhero action figures and a couple of teenage boys seated staring at their cell phones. These monthly assemblies at Grant Houses provided a forum to express concerns that remained unaddressed via alternative outlets, including dilapidating housing, the Manhattanville Expansion by Columbia University, and their children’s needs. Principal Reginald Higgins presented on the impact of housing conditions on young people: “how are the kids supposed to go to sleep at night? If they are without heat, uncomfortable, pain is being transferred elsewhere. Kids are looking to the adults for help. It’s a partnership.” The President of the Resident's Association, Carlton Davis, asserted later on in the meeting: “There’s a plan and a purpose for what takes place here and there is always a relationship with what happens out there. They will challenge your right to your community…We’re not invisible and we won’t give up our power.” 


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.

Pushing the city towards a prosperous future

By 2003 Columbia announced its plan to expand into Manhattanville, justifying it as necessary since it is the smallest of all Ivy Leagues with 32 acres of property. Columbia asserted that research conducted in the Expansion would serve the broader public good, “directly, by researching cures for illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease, and, indirectly, by helping to usher the city into a knowledge-based economic future.” Following a review of the Manhattanville area to deem it blighted, Columbia obtained exclusive control over the land.[1] Most elected officials supported the use of eminent domain. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg claimed that the “knowledge economy” produced by this Expansion would promote urban economic growth, and that eminent domain was the proper tool to push the city towards a prosperous future.[2] The knowledge economy was imbued with greater value than the mixed-used redevelopment plan promoted by critics, which included the creation of more affordable housing. Despite opposition to the use of eminent domain, Columbia proceeded with the plan. As one resident lamented, the battle over Manhattanville was “between David and Goliath, and David lost.”[3] By asserting the Expansion was for the “greater good,” Columbia identified itself as an institution at the “center of a web of global commitments,” reformulating itself as a world-renowned institution with obligations reaching outside the neighborhood.[4] The Expansion was an articulation not only of Columbia’s contribution to the knowledge economy, but their perceived dominance and power to subject residents to its will.

2014: NYPD raid of Grant Houses

Shortly before Expansion plans were implemented, NYPD officers arrested 40 young people living at Grant and Manhattanville Houses alleged to be members of gangs in one of the largest police raids in the city’s history. Following extensive internet surveillance, many were arrested on charges of conspiracy, assault and weapons offenses in connection with violence in and around housing developments and were sent to Rikers Island to await their charges. As Hall argued, control over the “long haul” of a crisis emerges in slow stages, whereby the state wins the right to “act on suspicion” when times are exceptional and there is a “moral panic.”[1] While the right to life of the young people was preserved, their right to social life was deadened by seclusion from society. This seclusion was deepened by the photographs taken of them, the many reporters and police present, and the theatricality of the scene. Media outlets set the discourse, using terms such as “rivalries” and “feuds” that socially isolated residents. The mass arrests followed years spent by activists imploring that Columbia aid in defusing tensions among young people by using funds to provide programs and community centers. The father of one of the people arrested affirmed that when the young people had no programs to keep occupied and the residents asked for help, “they got a raid instead.”[2] A day after the arrests, District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. claimed at a conference on public health and incarceration at Columbia that the acts of violence (and violent language) enacted by the young people who were arrested were “senseless.” Residents claimed that they were not senseless if regarded from the perspective of the young people.[3]

Interview with Flores Forbes

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 George Lipsitz argued, it seemed to be a “reality that has always been and that will always be.”[1]

"Shortchanging communities in Harlem"

I phone-interviewed Dr. David Maurrasse due to his research on gentrification in Harlem and community-University relations. He claimed that Columbia saw itself as a global institution, focusing internationally and enlisting faculty to work on solutions for issues such as the environment, hunger, and disease. Yet even as many of these manifested locally, he never felt the University saw the “symbiotic nature of a University fulfilling its mission as a knowledge institution and simultaneously serving community needs.” He argued that involving more departments in such a mission would give the University a fulfilled sense of purpose tied to its core mission. From the time of the gym plan, Columbia became more reluctant to work with the community out of fear that they might provoke a protest: “Instead of going further in, they went further out, although that was a moment where they had to go deeper in.” Columbia’s mindset consisted of separating the local from the global—local as parochial and global as higher scholarly enterprise—shortchanging communities in Harlem.

"These indictments make our city and community safer"

Columbia Vice President for Public Safety, James McShane released this message to University affiliates the day following the NYPD raids: “These indictments make our city and community safer and come as a result of a long-term collaboration between local law enforcement agencies. Following these arrests, we are actively supporting an enhanced police presence in West Harlem...” This led me to wonder: which community was being made safer via these indictments? When I reached out to him to discuss relations between Columbia’s public safety and residents of Grant and Manhattanville, he affirmed that Public Safety “does not really interact with the residents of local housing developments” and he could not speak with me further. However, Deborah Secular argued that Columbia had to acknowledge what they gained at the community’s expense, claiming: “Columbia cannot both welcome the community and criminalize it at the same time.”[1] She acknowledged that which McShane ignored: the fates of residents in West Harlem and Columbia were inextricably interlinked.

Who does the "greater good" serve?

Staff members at Columbia asserted that the University’s primary goal was to fulfill its mission as a global institution and to act for the “greater good.” However, the “greater good” did not appear to include Grant residents, particularly the young people targeted by various programming seeking to mold them into the idealized citizens who might eventually enter higher education’s fold and contribute to the knowledge economy. Following the police raids, the “disconnected youth” narrative both influenced and justified the University’s actions. Yet in the aftermath of crisis, Grant residents sought to transcend from the historically determinate position of “secondariness” often propagated by the media and institutions, leveraging their own social force in Morningside Heights. In Columbia’s attempt to carve a Manhattanville out of Harlem, young residents were subjected to the University’s dual coercive mechanisms of gentrification and policing. According to residents, the utilization of eminent domain was emblematic of Columbia’s off-hands approach, while the mass raid seized a large group of young people without addressing the underlying structural issues that rendered the moment of crisis. Such was a perpetuation of 20th century urban renewal and order maintenance tactics exhibited by the University and city, the likes of which served to protect the “white ethnic imagined community” from the imaginary threat posed by that which seemed to challenge it the most: the Black spatial imaginary of residents at Grant and Manhattanville, and particularly of the young people living there, bearers of the neighborhood’s future.


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Created date

November 20, 2019