This regards the soon-to-begin expansion of Columbia University into West Harlem. I am a Columbia student from the school of general studies, and a resident of West Harlem. The following is an editorial I wrote for the Columbia University Spectator, the main rag on campus. I post it here because I know there are some Kossacs from Manhattan that might know the restaurant and want to come to our event there next Saturday at 12:30. The Cuban Diner in question, Floridita (located on 125th and Broadway in West Harlem), is a well known and loved community institution, a family business since 1965 that has grown and thrived, employing all local residents.
Additionally, however, I post it here because I think there are some interesting issues of broader urban politics to discuss herein, beyond the simple fact that this is just another major example of white urban gentrification in New York city and it's accompanying uneven development in the spirit of the likes of Bernie Madoff.
Please follow me past the jump for a synopsis of the Columbia case, and I beg you to spread this around if you know anyone in the city who might be interested. If not, please feel free to at least discuss your impressions of the situation in the comments.
In the debate over the Manhattanville expansion, Columbia has clearly gotten the political powers that guide economic development on its side. One after another, all the relevant bodies reviewing the expansion—the City Planning Commission, the Empire State Development Corporation—gave it their enthusiastic support. The University’s long, successful march through these institutions has obscured one thing, however—the continued lack of support for the expansion within the community, and the domineering and undemocratic attitude the University has taken toward local business owners and residents throughout the entire process.
We at the Student Coalition on Expansion and Gentrification are told that this is how development happens in New York—that any developer would behave in the same manner. We agree, and assert a radical hypothesis: A university should be different from a private corporate developer that seeks to maximize its profit margin at all costs. A university should serve, not fight, its neighbors. We should not develop according to the same assumptions by which the Wall Street brokers of this world operate—we all clearly see where those assumptions can lead.
Although Columbia may try to conceal history beneath a triumphalist narrative, and say that everyone is happily moving toward the future in lockstep, there are facts that the University can’t erase. It can’t make Harlem residents forget that their representatives on Community Board 9 voted down the plan 32-2 in the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (even if their elected politicians later decided to betray them). It can’t erase the fact that it has used the looming threat of eminent domain to bully and intimidate small-business owners in Manhattanville until only the largest business owners remained standing. And it can’t erase the fact that a well developed, community-generated alternative plan, the 197-a Plan, was killed in the pursuit of Columbia’s institutional interest.
"But wait," say the expansion supporters—"what about the Community Benefits Agreement that is supposed to remedy all of these problems?" The West Harlem Local Development Corporation, the body that has been negotiating these issues with the University, has deep structural flaws.
According to past members, the WHLDC has interesting features that include a powerful group of political representatives that consistently vote in a pro-Columbia bloc and a practice of not notifying all its members—much less the general public—of meetings. It was marred by the resignation of its representatives for tenant organizations, tenants in the expansion zone, and religious organizations after it became clear that decisions were not being made by the whole body. Furthermore, the decisions themselves have been characterized by former WHLDC members as funneling "benefits" (read: funding) to a select few organizations that have withheld criticism of the expansion, a cynical tactic known as "machine politics." And even if the Community Benefits Agreement does come from such a process, there is always the question of whether Columbia will keep its word.
With that question in mind, let’s pause for a moment to consider the latest in this unfolding saga—the recent news regarding Columbia’s conflict with Floridita Tapas Bar and Restaurant. This is a shining example of Columbia proving that it is not a trustworthy partner.
Floridita is a longstanding, beloved community institution, not only as a model of local Hispanic entrepreneurship, but also as a central space where the community has traditionally gathered and thrived. The owner, Ramon Diaz, spoke during a meeting sponsored by the Coalition to Preserve Community before a congregation of worried residents. After years of receiving promises from Columbia that he would be able to keep a space within the 17-acre expansion footprint, he said Columbia officials have informed him that there is no longer a space for him in their plans. Interestingly enough, he claimed he was offered the same place as fellow Manhattanville establishment Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, and had accepted, yet was later denied.
As Maggie Astor’s Spectator piece on Feb. 3 informs us, Floridita is located on Columbia property, but Diaz’s lease does not expire until the year 2015, he said. Normally, Columbia would be legally obligated to maintain relations with its tenant until at least that time. After the approval of the plan, however, Columbia reserves the right to ask the state to basically condemn a property, evict its lessee, and give the land back to the University, free of meddlesome Cuban diners. That has been the good old Columbia way—why negotiate when you have the political muscle to get what you want anyway?
As students, we must take a moment to consider the need for collective action to save Floridita and halt any further abuses of political power by our University in our name. Our silence is a weapon the University can utilize to divide us from our neighbors—our voice can be a tool for uniting us. It was brave of Diaz, still a tenant of Columbia, to speak publicly and frankly about what is happening with his imperiled business at the hands of a powerful, supposedly liberal, democratic landlord. It is our responsibility to make sure that he, like the rest of the residents of Harlem, does not stand alone.
This Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day, we need you to show some love. In conjunction with a walking tour for Black History Month, students are gathering together with Harlem community members and leaders at Floridita for a day of solidarity. We need as many people as possible to attend, because, c’mon, who doesn’t heart Floridita?