Revising (whitening) history

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February 17, 2020 - 1:49pm

Critical Commentary

The map at the front of the image indicates the remaining SRO's (single resident occupany) that were target by Columbia University for "urban renewal," whereas the image behind conveys Manhattanville's history as represented by Columbia. This is informed by Columbia's toxic, public reminiscing of an industrialist, whitened past in Manhattanville of factories (such as the Sheffield milk factories) while ignoring the histories of “urban renewal,” displacement, and the weaponization of “blight” throughout West Harlem that displaced majority of the Black and Puerto Rican population (I find it interesting to take note of Sheffield's campaign targeting the "rising generation" of white babies).

By the 1950s, Columbia and other institutions of the neighborhood decided to remove low-income residents from the surrounding neighborhood through a campaign against SRO’s, the displacement of thousands of residents, and the rapid acquisition of buildings. Tenants were forcibly removed by various means: sealing dumbwaiters so that garbage had to be carried out in person, allowing elevators to break down, physically removing “undesirables” from buildings, plugging keyholes with wax hoping residents would be blocked out of their apartments, and at times using police officers to harass tenants and search their apartments for something illegal (Chronopolous 2012: 46). Residents resisted their forced removals, typically only delaying MHI’s plans while at other times derailing them, the great majority of people taken to court being African Americans.

The manners in which these processes have been largely raced and classed is not included in general discussion of the history of the neighborhood, and thus supposedly permits Columbia to pursue its aims. This in turn justifies privatization of land via the use of eminent domain, the likes of which propagates knowledge as a public good. This in turn elides the racist, classist, and sexist undertones of their plans by perpetuating a liberal narrative of allegedly incorporating the “community” into the academic fold while simultaneously displacing and/or disenfranchising those deemed not to fit within that fold. 

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  • - Private group -

Cite as

Anonymous, "Revising (whitening) history", contributed by Isabelle Soifer, Center for Ethnography, Platform for Experimental Collaborative Ethnography, last modified 25 March 2020, accessed 5 October 2022. https://centerforethnography.org/content/revising-whitening-history