Between the Lion and a Dark  Place

      Being African-American at an Ivy League in Harlem

__Daniela Casalino


        A black man walks into a barber shop in the basement of the building on the corner of 114th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, where Strokos is now. James Franklyn Bourne, who graduated from Columbia College in 1937, and his friend, also a student at Columbia, are there for the 35 cent haircuts that Ralph’s Barber Shop has been advertising in Spectator since the late 1920s. That was back when the owner, Ralph Robibero, was still at his old location, next to Casa Italiana on 117th Street and Amsterdam.

        In 1936, Bourne and his friend wait for their turn at the barber’s chair. One of the store’s 10 barbers shouts out, “Next!” and the two Columbia men walk up, ready to redo their ‘dos. But then, something unexpected happens. The barber at this shop that is proud of its “first-class service” turns to Bourne and says, “You cannot be served here. Your color is too dark. It is against the policy of the barber shop.”

        Bourne’s money was not welcomed. Meanwhile, Bourne’s friend, who was white, was served without a problem. This story is a sad reminder of the climate of racial discrimination that has plagued this countrythis city, and this university throughout its existence. Unlike so many of these stories, however, this one ends somewhat happily.

        Columbia students boycotted Robibero and other barbers across the neighborhood. The Negro Problems Committee of the American Student Union’s Columbia chapter rounded up over 50 students to act as pickets against the racist barber shops. At the urging of student activists, these barber shops agreed to an anti-discrimination pledge. That May, just before the end of the semester, Bourne received a personal invitation from Ernest Kopp, another barber, for a “first-class hair cut” at his own shop, also on Amsterdam Avenue.

        However, the true significance of this story is not simply its moral of misplaced prejudice and the power of students to create meaningful change in their neighborhoods. Something more than white supremacy alone was at play. Less talked about and perhaps less obvious is the question of identity that lies at the deepest core of this story. What was sought by all actors in this social drama was more than just a reaffirmation of the place of black people in American society. Whether or not they were conscious of it, Bourne, Robibero, Kopp, and the Negro Problems Committee were really seeking the answer to the question of just who was James Franklyn Bourne.

        In the eyes of some, he was a Columbian, just as Columbia-blue-blooded as Roar-ee the Lion or Alma Mater. He was the piano accompanist for the Glee Club, and he played Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie in the 1936 Varsity Show.

        Perhaps others saw Bourne as only a black man, an identity that some saw as incompatible with Columbianness. But for Robibero, Bourne—Frank, as his friends called him—was likely neither of these things.

        As an early response to student protests, Robibero promised to make a special exception to his store’s discrimination policy. In a letter to the editor published in Spectator, Robibero recalled, “I promised to serve only the Negro students of Columbia,”—as opposed to other black customers—“provided a list of their names were given to me.”

        In this act of exceptionalism for black Columbia students, Robibero expressed that, for him, Bourne and his black classmates were neither fully black nor fully Columbian. A fully black person would simply not be served at the barber shop. Their name would not have appeared on Robibero’s list. A fully Columbian person’s name would not be on the list, either, but they would be served regardless. In 1936, a majority of Columbians were white. Black Columbians existed in a sort of a twilight zone, an uncomfortable in-between space of perpetual liminality that didn’t fit into contemporary social structures.

        Today, 42 percent of students and 28 percent of faculty identify as minorities, but the lived paradox of being a student of color and a Columbian still exists for many.

        There is “a battle within the African-American students between their Blackness and the perceived Whiteness of the university,” write the authors of the 2013 academic article “Understanding the African-American Student Experience in Higher Education Through a Relational Dialectics Perspective.” Such language may seem alarmist, but studies conducted by doctoral students and researchers at Sam Houston State UniversityRutgers University and University of California at BerkeleySeton Hall UniversityAmerican University and University of the District of Columbia, and journalists at National Public Radio have all determined that the identity clash waged within these students can negatively impact their personal, professional, and academic development.

•     •     •

        One solution for combating these developmental issues is to ensure that students of color are able to find a familiar cultural community within the gates of their heavily white campuses. The authors of the article “Self-Identity: A Key to Black Student Success” write that schools should “create an environment that is encouraging and embracing for Black students throughout the campus” and that “the opportunity to connect with others in the Black community helps to alleviate isolation.”

        What these studies do not consider, however, is what happens in the case of Columbia, a seemingly white campus in a black community. Is Harlem an environment that encourages and embraces black Columbia students? Can Harlem alleviate black isolation? If it can, how do black students take advantage of Harlem? What functions do black environments on campus serve that Harlem cannot?

        If the black student at a white university is an enigma, then understanding the black student experience at Columbia University seems almost impossible. We black Columbians move through our time here in a small, sloppily-sandwiched space between the blue lion of our white university and the dark faces of our black neighbors next door. In between the lion and the dark place, we search for cultural comfort and an area of our own, the overlap of the two opposing circles of the Venn diagram of our identities.

        Last spring, I had my own strange experience on Amsterdam Avenue. On a chilly Saturday in January, I walked out of Apple Tree Supermarket. Just as I passed the store’s threshold and stepped onto the street, I was stopped by two employees, one of whom accused me of stealing. I was patted down. They didn’t find anything, because there was nothing to be found.

        “You’re free,” I was told, and I left. Feeling that I had been wrongly racially profiled, “I walked back out onto the street and past Morningside Park into Harlem, where I could be around other black bodies for awhile.”

        To me, my experience at Apple Tree was a challenge of my identity, just as Bourne’s barber shop experience 80 years earlier had been a questioning of his. Apple Tree is designated a Columbia University Safe Haven, but I did not feel safe in that space at that moment. I felt that negative connotations had been attached to the color of my skin, which was co-opted and used against me. The owner of the store responded, but only after I wrote an article about what happened to me. And regardless, I did not feel that I would be able to find the solace of racial solidarity within my school, and so immediately after my encounter at Apple Tree, I did not return to Columbia. Instead, I turned to Harlem.

        In speaking with other students of color and Columbia alumni, veterans of this internal identity struggle, I have come to understand that my experience of a cultural homecoming in Harlem—which exists in spite of the fact that I originate from a place nearly 3,000 miles from here—is not unique among Columbians of color. Throughout time and across shades of darkness, Columbia’s neighborhood (usually north and east of campus) has become a community for some of us minority students who, while here on campus, are often confined to small spaces of color, cooped up into a lounge in Hartley Hall or the seventh floor of Brooks Hall like dysfunctional dolls on the Island of Misfit Toys.

        Tom Kappner is a tall, light-skinned man, who lived in a variety of South American countries before coming to Columbia in 1962. He tells me that “there were seven of us,” referring to Latinos at Columbia at the time, and that “the diversity was in the neighborhood.”

        During his freshman orientation, Kappner remembers being warned to not go down tthat neighborhood.

        “Even they told us not to go below 110th Street,” Kappner recalls. “That was a no-no because that was a mostly Latino neighborhood in those days.”

        But as a Latino himself, it was precisely this cultural difference between the community and Columbia that attracted Kappner to the areas off campus. In Harlem, whose boundaries have shifted over time, Kappner felt that he belonged. With the diverse local community, Kappner could speak Spanish, his first language, con la gente en la calle.

        “I left the campus as soon as I could,” says Kappner, who still lives within walking distance of Columbia. “I was much more at home in the community. That’s where I found people I could relate to. … They were my people.”

.       Even so, there are and have been efforts to help Columbia students find their people on their campus. During the fall of Kappner’s junior year, the Student Afro-American Society was founded at Columbia as a space where “Caucasoids and Mongoloids are welcome, but it is toward the Negro, specifically the ‘Ivy League’ Negro, that the organization’s goals are aimed.”

.       Multiple people on the board of the Columbia University Black Students’ Organization and the Barnard Organization of Soul Sisters, arguably the two largest and most influential spaces for the “Ivy League Negro” today at Columbia, were repeatedly contacted for this story, but neither group was able to comment in time for publication.

.       While the Student Afro-American Society, which was active in the 1960s, and the Black Students’ Organization, the Barnard Organization of Soul Sisters, and other similar groups undoubtedly were and still are sources of solidarity, community, and cultural affirmation on campus, they are not panaceas for the paradox of colored Columbians.

.       Kevin C. Matthews, who graduated from Columbia College in 1980, was a Negro in the Ivy League, but he did not necessarily feel like an “Ivy League Negro.”

.       “I wasn’t comfortable with the BSO,” Matthews admits. “When I came to Columbia and I went to my first BSO meeting or two, I thought they were a bunch of pretenders. I really did. I didn’t feel any connection to them.”

.       Coming from a rough, black area of South Jamaica, Queens, Matthews didn’t fit in with many of the prep school students in the BSO. In fact, he felt that many of the other black students looked down on him.

.       “I was a poor kid,” Matthews says. “I looked like a New York City thug, and the way [some of the other black students] looked at me and treated me, I was horrified, and I couldn’t smack ‘em in the face, so I just said, ‘Well, heck with it.’ So I just kinda stepped away.”

.       Many Columbians of color, past and present, have experienced the reverse of Matthews’ class-based alienation as they have interacted with the local neighborhood. Their Columbia identities—carried in their pretentious postures as well as in their pockets—keep many of them from la calle. Their Ivy League identity de-racializes them as ambiguous others in relation to the Harlem community.

.       In a 1967 letter to the editorErnest Holsendolph CC ’58, wrote that “young Negroes selected [to attend Columbia] in miniscule numbers in years past were more ‘white’ than Negro, which is probably why we were chosen.”

.       One black sophomore in 1972, writing under the pseudonym W.E.B. DuBois, even asserted that “being Ivy League, blacks on this campus feel isolated from the surrounding community,” a feeling entirely at odds with experiences like Kappner’s or like the 1967 Spectator article “Harlem: Puzzle for CU Negroes,” which asserts that “for an annually increasing number of Negro students, Harlem is home.”

.       I was unable to reach any local community members who would comment on the difficult-to-reconcile idea of black Columbia students, but the nature of these things is that they are much more often felt than spoken. Even without articulation, this feeling of whiteness in relation to Harlem can become just as immovable an obstacle to connecting with the community as Matthews’ class background was to connecting with other blue and white bruthas.

.       Just as the Malcolm X Lounge does not resemble Malcolm X Boulevard, so the black and brown people who occupy these places don’t always share in the same culture.

.       When Matthews stepped away from the black community at Columbia, he did not go into Harlem. He stepped instead back out into South Jamaica, Queens, an hour and a half each way, three times a week.

.       In his junior year, Matthews finally found his place at Columbia, but he did not connect through race. Matthews took a work-study job at the Columbia division of the Higher Education Opportunity Program, of which he was a part, and he became a peer counselor for other New York City native college students from low-income backgrounds. Ironically, it was Matthews’ economic background, which had segregated him from the community of Columbians of color, that led him to his eventual home in Morningside Heights. Maybe even more ironically, Matthews is now the president of the Columbia Black Alumni Council and lives in Harlem with his wife, a Latina Barnard alumna.

.       “Sometimes,” Matthews tells me from our seats in Strokos, just above where Bourne almost had his haircut, “we look to find people who look like ourselves to find strength, but it doesn’t mean that all black people only find strength from people that look like us. It’s an individual thing.”

.       In seeking the answers to these questions of community, I have overlooked its most essential part: the individuals.

.       The racial identity of each black Columbian is not only too complicated for Columbia and too hard to handle for Harlem, it also varies within the “black Columbia” community itself.

.       Perhaps we are a community without a culture. Some of us are from boarding schools. Some of us are from around the block. Some of us find refuge in our race. Some of us refuse to recognize it.

.       Perhaps it is in this way that we will be most able to connect to Harlem. Harlem, while black, is diverse. It is french fries and frijoles and fried chicken. It’s hip-hop and bachata and rock and roll. Harlem is the homeless man in front of the grocery store. It is the woman behind the counter of a coffee shop. It is the new family just now making the move uptown.

.       Harlem is diverse, and so are we, and so am I.

   WeChat’s Race Problem

      Blackface and Stereotyping in WeChat Stickers


        It wasn’t until I re-registered my account with a number beginning with +86 that I realized what WeChat has been hiding from those of us with foreign phones: blackface, Black question marks, and anti-Black racism in WeChat stickers.

        Racism in Chinese media is by no means a great discovery. From the “This is Africa” exhibit at the Hubei Provincial Museum, where photographs of African people were put alongside photographs of wild animals, to the 2016 Qiaobi laundry detergent commercial, where a Black man is shoved into a washing machine and, once “cleaned,” comes out as Chinese, there is a persistent pattern of prejudice towards African and African diaspora peoples in China. Even WeChat, last month, was found guilty of this anti-Black bigotry when an African-American woman living in Shanghai discovered that WeChat’s translation software often turned the innocuous Chinese term for Black foreigner, “黑老外”, into “nigger,” a word whose roots in US slavery make it one of the most disrespectful referents for a Black person.


        Neither is it surprising that there is un-wenming (uncivilized) media in WeChat’s sticker gallery. Although the third point in the WeChat Sticker Examination Standards Fundamental Requirements (微信表情审核标准基本要求) is “符合道德规则”, accords with moral regulations, there are, among the cats and bunnies and other cuddly creatures, images of beatings, suicides, and shit – like, literal shit – in the WeChat sticker gallery.

        What makes these racist WeChat stickers worth examining is that, while they are invisible to users with US phone numbers, they borrow from and have at times even been birthed in an US aesthetic tradition. However, these stickers are also far from a simple case of Chinese Adadas, Sqny, or Sunbucks Coffee copycatting. Rather, the longevity and limits of these US media trends have not only been reproduced but also extended into a life of their own here in China.

        If you have a Chinese phone number and some knowledge of Chinese and for whatever reason a combined interest in WeChat stickers and Black people and as a result of all of these things happen to type the word “黑人,” Black person, into the search bar of your WeChat sticker gallery, 65 results will appear. Of these 65 results, about a quarter of them employ elements of a mid-19th century, US theatrical tradition called blackface.

        Blackface originally referred to a practice of White actors putting dark make-up on to resemble Black people in a popular form of US entertainment called minstrel shows. The origin of the term minstrel describes a type of medieval, European entertainer, usually a singer whose voice would accompany a harp. Around 1830 though, the term came to refer to any show or groups of, usually White, performers imitating Black people. These imitations exaggerated racist stereotypes about Black people. Blackface was used as a way to emphasize the darkness of African-Americans’ skin and the largeness of their lips compared to White Americans.

        Although it has largely been denounced in the US as a harmful and racist form of entertainment, remnants of US minstrelsy can still be seen in many aspects of US media today through certain Black stock characters, hip-hop music, clowns, and even Mickey Mouse. These representations desensitize White audiences to systematic oppression.

        In China, WeChat stickers that borrow from blackface have achieved a similar end. According to Kaia Niambi Shivers, a New York University professor researching Black representation in media, they “relocate” blackface imagery and “normalize racism”.

  Tumblr, WeChat

        However, the creators and consumers of this media refute Shivers’ connection between blackface and biaoqingbao, sticker sets. WeChat does not allow users to contact sticker artists, and WeChat did not respond to any of TWOC’s inquiries regarding this story. Nevertheless, at least one WeChat artist, MisaChan whose only sticker gallery is a 16-sticker set called “Black Person Stickers” (黑人表情), writes in the gallery’s description ” [The character’s] name is 黑子 [the characters for “black” and “child”]. In Cantonese, 黑子 means bad luck. Also, the Black people stickers popular these days are pretty funny, so I drew some; there’s no racial discrimination.”

        Similar language is used in a WeChat article about Black WeChat stickers called “This Race is Naturally Dramatic”. The author, BiuBiu在英国, appends to the end of their story a short P.S. about prejudice: “Note: this isn’t racial discrimination; this is racial worship.”

    “Fat, African Slob” (WeChat)

      The closest things to a critical examination of these emojis are a 2016 article in The Beijinger about inappropriate WeChat stickers and a “comedic” WeChat article written in Chinese called “My White Friend Says: ‘Black People Question Question Question’ Stickers Are Racial Discrimination,” which reinterprets the author’s White friend’s reaction to Black stickers as outrage that there aren’t enough White people stickers.

    “Are you talking about me” (WeChat)

        Both the satire piece and the article by BiuBiu在英国, though, refer to stickers with more recent aesthetic referent than 19th-century theater: a 2016 meme from the US called “Confused Nick Young.” As countless WeChat articles explain, the original meme was a screenshot from a short YouTube video about NBA player Nick Young, called “Day in the Life of Nick Young.” In the video, Young, who is African-American, gives his mother a confused, questioning look when she comments that he was a “clown” when he was younger. Though the image was widely shared and parodied in the US—including within Black communities—the meme has never achieved the virality there that it did in China.


        Just as, in the US, the word used to describe a European singer in medieval times became imbibed with connotations of racism and White supremacy, in China, the “Confused Nick Young” image became known as 黑人问号, “Black person question mark”. Of the 65 results for 黑人 in WeChat’s official sticker gallery, over 80 percent have stickers called 黑人问号. As WeChat user KFM981 describes in a WeChat article, “all one needs is black skin + a slow expression + an off-line lighting engineer, and it’s hard to evade the fate of ‘becoming a sticker.’”

        In reality, it’s even simpler than that. 黑人问号 has become so embedded as an expression of confusion in Chinese internet language that many of the stickers do not even resemble Black people. The term has been removed from its original meaning and become simply a replacement for the word “confused.”

  Non-Black and non-blackface stickers identified on WeChat as 黑人问号. (WeChat)

          For example, in a WeChat article unrelated to race, there’s the sentence: “Right when the assistant saw the news, he also had a ‘Black person question mark’ expression.” In another article about cell phones, the author writes, “When faced with Chinese-made Gaorui mobile phone’s 3,000 yuan selling price, consumers used to paying 2,499 yuan, 1,999 yuan, or even 999 yuan for a flagship model should all have a ‘Black person question mark’ expression.”

          Shivers points out that, although the applications of this expression have moved beyond a racial context, “Black person question mark”, no matter where or how it is used, will always be connected back to Black people as a kind of cultural geography; the confused gesture has been internalized as a Black act.

          Furthermore, Shivers mentions that the idea of a questioning Black person is also rooted in the minstrel tradition. Minstrelsy had its own set of stock characters from Uncle Tom and Zip Coon to Buck, Pickaninny, Jezebel, Mammy, and Jim Crow. “Black person question mark” relates to the Tambo and Bones minstrel characters, whom audiences appreciated for their simple-mindedness.

A drawing of a pickaninny beside a 黑人问号 WeChat sticker. (, WeChat)

          The comparison between lighthearted WeChat stickers and racist antebellum entertainment may sound extreme; it may seem unreasonable that a sticker could subjugate a race of people, but in some sense, that is exactly what is happening. The “Black person question mark” has, for some WeChat users, become an identifier of Blackness just as characteristic as dark skin. As KFM981 writes, “Nowadays, if you just come across a Black friend, you will automatically add a question mark to their forehead.”

          Seeing Black people with question marks floating around their foreheads “removes dignity and integrity and actually humanity from people,” Shivers says. “People of African descent are caricatures in the eyes of people who do not understand the culture of the people…This is an extension of this idea about Black people not being human.”

A visual play on words that both says Black person “黑人” and black dog “黑犬.” (WeChat)

          Nick Young, for example, is hardly ever described simply as Nick Young in WeChat articles. He is called “黑人问号 boy” or something along the same lines. Even when Young’s name is used, it is only written after the phrase “Black person question mark,” as in the headline for the WeChat article “Iggy Azalea and NBA Black Person Question Mark Face Nick Young Break Up!”

          Writing about her trip to Ghana with volunteer organization AIESEC, a student from the Communication University of China admits through her chapter’s WeChat account that Black people “usually emerge in my stickers and funny jokes. Therefore, after I arrived [in Ghana] I finally realized the old me had a lot of areas of misunderstanding.”

____Despite attesting to the humanity of Black folk, the article is titled “Me and ‘Black Person Stickers’ First Meeting”. This suggests that this student still perceives what she learned about Blackness in Ghana through the culturally-embedded expectations developed from stickers on her phone.

“African Chief” (WeChat)

          Emoji racism has lately become recognized in the US. In 2016, in response to complaints that its humanoid emoji options were limited to characteristically Caucasian or cartoonish bright yellow faces, Unicode Consortium, a non-profit organization that makes emojis for Apple, Android, Windows, and other companies, released a new set of racially-inclusive emojis, which allow users to adjust the color of the emoji they send to a shade that is suitable for them. Other emoji-making companies such as EverythingAmped Inc., based out of San Francisco, and AfMob, in Cape Town, have also released their own versions of inclusive emojis such as “Black Emoticons,” “AfroMoji,” and “MusliMoji.”

          The reactions to these efforts have been varied. At the time of the Unicode emoji release in 2016, it was argued that these emojis were creating an even more discriminatory social media environment. The debate has been reported in Chinese-language WeChat articles, but the introspection hasn’t extended to the ways that racism manifests in emojis in the Chinese context.

The sticker on the left reads “Africa”, on the right “Europe.” These are the only continents represented in this sticker gallery. (WeChat)

          “[These stickers] normalize White supremacy,” Shivers says. Chinese people who create or disseminate these stickers, who themselves are not White, “are actually playing into the very system that racializes and oppresses them.

          “Because they come from a White supremacist history, [these stickers] create and continue this idea that a non-White person will never have the power, will never have the genes, will never have the language, will never have the culture that is equal to European, Anglo culture, and will forever be the White man’s slave.”


   When Quarantine Came

      The Adventure That Remade Me

  Alexander McNab

APRIL 1, 2021 | scholarship essay  

          When quarantine came, I thought that surely the adventures would have to end or wait at least as we all had been waiting – mostly motionless and largely alone. I grew fat, grew isolated, and I experienced a stagnation such as I had never felt before. I never knew that stillness could be so soul-crushing.

          My bedroom became a basement – a crypt, that particular sort of basement where dead people lie waiting for eternity, and there I was – a corpse. Lying, waiting.

          As everything skidded dangerously to a sudden, unsteady halt, only my mind was still left humming with activity. I thought back to my ancient days, 2020 B.C. (before covid), and I remembered that distant era when adventure and I were one – food adventures, biking adventures, birthday adventures.

          There was a blissful timelessness to it all. Yes, back in 2020 B.C., Mondays were still Mondays, and deadlines were still due, and stress greased the tracks of the chaotic locomotion of an active life, but even when life hurt, it was a purposeful pain like that of building muscle or sprouting teeth or giving birth. They were growing pains, life pains, but when covid came, all I could feel was death.

          A year passed, and with it came one, then two, then three vaccines shooting us up with hope, but being neither essential nor vulnerable, I remained in my morbid repose. Lying, waiting.

          Around that same time though, as the essentials and the elderlies walked with renewed vigor assured by their vaccine-induced invincibility against the virus, I experienced a resurrection of my own.

          After all of that quarantine, I had successfully protected my body from illness. Yet, my spirit was quickly decomposing under the strain of staying at home.

          I decided it was time to get up. It was time to get out.

          Jesus rose early Sunday morning. I emerged from my cave on a Saturday, eight a.m., with a mask on my face and a helmet on my head. I met my cousin out front, and we were off, pedaling away from all of our pandemic problems.

   Alexander McNab

          Before covid, it had been six years since I’d truly lived in Los Angeles. I’d left home for college and left the country for work. It was only the threat of this illness that brought me back to L.A. I arrived the very day that quarantine was announced in California. I first heard the mayor utter the now worn-out phrase “safer at home” while on the car ride from LAX back to my childhood home.

          Biking to the beach, to downtown, and then back to South-Central, where I live, I relearned my city at the same time that I became reacquainted with adventure.

          Though my cousin and I now bike every Saturday, I still quarantine six days out of the week. I use that time to reflect on what this past year has meant.

          For most of this year, I believed this all to be wasted time, a dip of death wedged into the middle of my life. Now though, I see that, in fact, there was a purpose to all of this pain because, without it, I may never have understood just how close to home adventure can be.

   Alexander McNab

          I have secured my plans for the fall. The leaves will die, and I will begin my life’s next big adventure, but this time, I will not be out of the country. I will not even be out of my city. I will be at U.S.C., a mere five miles from home, and that’s alright with me.

          Quarantine is a chrysalis. Finally, growth.


   Mickey, Meet Anansi

       Why We Need Black Folktale Films

  Alexander McNab

NOVEMBER 1, 2020 | See the source image USC application essay

          I have always been asked to explain my identity, but for most of my life, I didn’t have the answers. I did not know why I have dark skin but “good hair”. I did not know why my father looks White but identifies as Black. I did not know what it means to be both Belizean and Black, both well-educated and Black, both middle class and Black.

          Absent of answers, I looked to Black stories to learn what Blackness really is and why a part of it seemed to be missing from me. With big hair, African clothes, and Ebonics sprinkled over Standard English, I looked noticeably different but felt starkly the same. At my core, I was just as Black with my dashiki and afro as I was with my t-shirt and loose curls. Rather than generating deeper cultural connection, my path of self-discovery through Black media led me to a minstrel-ized monstrosity of myself.

                                                                    Alexander McNab

          Last December, 11 years after I turned into a caricature of my own culture, I finally understood why those books and films failed to bring me to the Blackness I had been searching for.

          On Christmas Day, I video chatted with a White friend of mine in rural Wisconsin, and we shared our holiday traditions.

          When it came to music, our cultural differences were clear. She listened to “White Christmas” while I listened to “This Christmas”. She listened to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” while I listened to “Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto”.

          Yet, when the conversation turned to television and film, we were, suddenly, on the same page. Both of us grew up watching A Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Chuck Jones’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

          Of course, there are Black holiday films, but movies like Last Holiday and A Madea Christmas are simply Black films with Christmas themes. They are not Christmas cultural canon.

          Similarly, the stories I consulted all those years ago while trying to cement my cultural identity, are stories featuring Black themes, but they aren’t Black stories. The journeys of Malcom X and Mookie and Marlon Riggs reflect various Black traumas and different Black experiences, but they are not the stories that define our culture.

          When I think of what has defined my cultural sense of self, I realize that none of my true understanding of my own Blackness comes from media. A folk is defined by their folktales, and thanks to The Walt Disney Company, I have been molded by folk and fairy tales from around the globe, from Germany’s Snow White to the Middle East’s Aladdin. Yet, the only mainstream film adaptation of Black folk folktales, 1946’s Song of the South, is one of the only films Disney won’t release.

  Song of the South (Walt Disney Productions, 1946)

          How can I know what my Blackness means when I know more about the English Alice in Wonderland than about the Akan Anansi the Spider? How do I understand my identity when I am more familiar with France’s Beauty and the Beast than with the Southern Black Br’er Rabbit?

          If I can say anything definitive about Black folk, it is that we are a disappearing people, not in terms of our numbers but in terms of our identities.

          In an episode of 1996’s Sabrina the Teenage Witch, this identity disappearance is embodied by the show’s three main characters, each of whom slowly starts to become transparent as they forget who they are.

          By the end of the episode, they regain their full physical form as they retell defining stories that contribute to each of their personal identities.

          While the blondes in Sabrina regain their sense of self, the Black cultural body continues to disappear as we too forget the stories that define us. As in Sabrina, I want to tell stories that remind my folk who we are so that we too can get our bodies back.

  Sabrina, the Teenage Witch S4E4: “Little Orphan Hilda” (ABC, 1999)

          My mission of telling Black folktales to regain Black folks’ bodies is deeply personal as I am doubly invisible. In addition to growing up without any Black stories to contextualize my cultural identity, I was also raised knowing very little about my own family.

          It was only later in life that I learned why my father immigrated to L.A. from Belize, why my mother and father never married, why my uncle rose to success only to fall back into poverty. Even now when I can tell the story of my family’s migration, my parents’ love, my uncle’s misfortune, there are still so many basic facts about my family that I don’t know.

          Where does my father live? What do my sisters look like? What does my grandfather do?

          Many of these questions have answers that I am not yet ready to hear.

          “I’ll have to prepare you before you go to Belize,” my father tells me whenever I mention travelling there in search of our stories.

          Some of these answers I will never know.

          “Do not go looking for your sisters,” my father warns.

          Given the inaccessibility of these stories, I will always be a little invisible. There will always be a transparent part of me.

   Maddie Morris

          In addition to the constant questions about my cultural identity, my uncertainty about my family is another significant motivating factor in my quest to better understand my folk. While so much about my family is unknowable, I feel empowered to access the disappeared parts of my culture if only I go to the right places, speak to the right people, and retell the right stories.

          In my view, to be “woke” requires both social consciousness and self-consciousness. My folk and I are asleep to who we are.

          Unlike Ellison’s invisible man, I am not disappeared by the blindness of those around me. I am disappeared by my blindness to myself.

          Nevertheless, in the face of the dirt that disguises us from our self-image, stories are my shovel. I wield them and uncover the roots of my people, and through them, I open our eyes to ourselves.

   president bollinger’s bathtub

       Unearthing the Myth of Manhattanville’s Underground Seven Stories

  Laura Hand


      Imagine that nine blocks away from the Broadway gates and 48 years from right now, a sinister gray sky hangs over Columbia’s Manhattanville campus. Dark clouds close in over the commotion of scurrying bodies down below.

      “Students hurry through rainfall along a tree-lined promenade overlooking the Hudson. In a biotechnology lab nearby, scientists are engineering lethal pathogens,” a journalist for The Village Voice  describes.

      “Warnings meanwhile are being steadily broadcast about an oncoming storm. … Many, but perhaps not all, have heeded warnings to leave the deep basement … The sprawling labs that contain biohazardous material may become another kind of floating threat to the city.”

      This “sci-fi disaster movie” scenario as written in The Village Voice could be the future of Columbia’s new, $6.3 billion Manhattanville campus according to the research of Klaus Jacob, an 80-year-old, “energetic,” German in “red wire-rimmed glasses” who has spent over half of his life in the seismology department at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

      Now, imagine, as the Manhattanville campus website describes, “arising in a onetime industrial area … scholars from across the University in interdisciplinary partnerships that will redefine the frontiers of neuroscience … a new West Harlem home for exhibitions, film screenings, performances, programs and creativity … a welcoming amenity not only for the University community, but for the local community and general public as well.”

      To the University, the future of Columbia’s Manhattanville campus is one of comfort and safety. The site of Jacob’s envisioned emergency is, for the Columbia administration, the birthplace of a new era of the University and of West Harlem. Where The Village Voice describes a “disaster movie,” University President Lee Bollinger sees a “most exciting opportunity.” Clearly, the administration’s image of a secure home for future Columbians contrasts distinctly with The Village Voice’s portrayal of horror on the Hudson, with Jacob’s prophecy of disaster, destruction, and even death plaguing the Manhattanville campus.

      Over a month before Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, Jacob predicted that such a storm would submerge the subway system, and it did. In that instance, Jacob preached to a choir of city officials who worked, albeit somewhat slowly, to  sort things out before the hurricane hit. But 13 years ago, when Jacob first started to deliver his words of warning about Manhattanville’s potential Sandy-like situation in letters written to various University administrators, his well-researched but disputed foretellings fell on allegedly unwilling ears.

Untitled-1.jpg    Amanda Frame

      A 70-foot basement beneath the campus is textually illustrated on the Manhattanville website under the emboldened header “Efficiency Below Ground.” It depicts a “contiguous underground space providing services for loading, energy and utilities across the new campus [that] avoids redundancy at each building and allows the accessibility and transparency of the street-level Urban Layer to be achieved.”

      In other words, the basement—also called the below-grade space, the central below-grade facility, the bathtub, and the underground factory—is a giant hole in the ground in which will be housed all of the nasty bits of the Manhattanville campus: energy plants, utility services and mechanical facilities, waste facilities, construction shops, receiving and loading areas, goods distribution facilities, parking areas, storage spaces, research support facilities, and a bus depot, things that Burden said would cause the campus’ “pedestrian environment [to] be significantly degraded” if aboveground. It would also be home to some less nasty things like a pool, libraries, classrooms, meeting spaces, laboratories, and food service areas.

      The point of putting all of the Manhattanville campus’ unattractive elements into this “bathtub,” a term used to describe the architectural design of the basement, is essential to the fact that the architects and administration continually stress: The Manhattanville campus will be nothing like the Morningside Heights campus. If anything, Manhattanville is designed to be the antithesis to Morningside. As Manhattanville architect Renzo Piano puts it, “Whereas the Morningside campus evokes history, the Manhattanville campus is all about the contemporary. … Whereas Morningside is heavy and monumental, Manhattanville is light, airy, and luminous. No gates or walls will encircle the new campus.”

      The Manhattanville campus is meant to be open, a place where all people can feel comfortable and welcomed. “The lack of the full Below-Grade Facility,” the University claims, “would … limit the ability to create a campus environment … [and] the integrity of the overall Project would be jeopardized.”

      At the outset, it would thus seem that the bathtub would be something welcomed both by Columbians and by the local community. If the bathtub helps create a beautiful campus that everyone can enjoy, then who would object?

      Surprisingly, quite a lot of people. While The Village Voice characterized Jacob as “somewhat of a lone voice” in his opposition to the bathtub plan, a number of people from a variety of backgrounds with a diversity of relationships to the campus and the University have also spoken out against the basement. Skepticism about the administration’s ideation of Manhattanville was and largely still is shared by a significant number of other experts like Pratt Institute professor and city planner Ron Shiffman, activist groups like the Student Coalition on Gentrification and Expansion, and community leaders like former city planning commissioner Karen Phillips.

      However, neither is Columbia alone in its perception of Manhattanville and its assertion of the basement’s crucial role in the new campus. The University has its own group of supporters: experts such as former New York City Planning Commission Chair Amanda Burden who headed the city’s environmental impact review of the campus, organizations including the U.S. Green Building Council, and other professors from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

      What’s at the heart of this story though is not which tale of the campus receives the most press or has the most popular support. The question is one of a distance that cannot be measured by a ruler or a rotameter, a protractor or a pH meter: that is the distance of the gaping detachment between the forecasts for the future campus. How is it that despite the fact that Columbia has a dedicated Manhattanville communications team, there exists an awesome rift, a massive schism of misunderstanding about Manhattanville between Columbia and its community? In no other aspect of the campus is this disconnect more boldly delineated than seven stories under the ground.

      What has so far been perhaps the greatest effect of the basement has not been the creation of a “light, airy, and luminous” “campus environment” but a chasm between communities created by the tectonic, below-ground force of Bollinger’s bathtub. This conflict over the safety of the bathtub mostly occurred over eight years ago. Today outside of the group of opposers, many people at Columbia and in the Manhattanville community are unaware of the bathtub or simply don’t care. Even Jacob declined to be interviewed for this story, writing that “there is no point in discussing the past if we don’t know what has been implemented.”

      But for some, this scene in the saga of the Manhattanville expansion is not yet a cold case. It is out of the belief that there is present value to be had in revisiting the past that I retell and re-examine this history.

      On Thursday, March 28, 2008 on the front page of the print edition of Spectator, large, bold letters announced “CU, City Sued Over M’Ville: Sprayregen Suit Targets Underground ‘Bathtub.’”

      Nicholas Sprayregen, who died this past summer, was the owner of Tuck-It-Away Storage, whose painted sign could until recently still be seen on the wall of one of the new campus’ buildings. He was the largest property owner in Manhattanville, so when his local dominance was challenged by the second-largest landowner in the city, he was, naturally, unhappy.

      This was Sprayregen’s second time going to court over Columbia’s campus plan. The first, which took place about a year earlier, concerned the West Harlem Business Group’s access to information regarding the possibility that the University may use eminent domain to acquire the campus land.

      But this  time, Sprayregen was suing the school over the probability of Jacob’s apocalyptic image of the campus that was explained at the beginning of this article. As Norman Siegel, Sprayregen’s lawyer, said to Spectator in 2008, “‘If there were a storm surge, you could have water coming out and going into the Harlem community—with possible toxic materials.’”

      The fears of Sprayregen, Siegel, and Jacob all stemmed from the fact that the new campus is inconveniently located both along an earthquake fault line and in an area that Jacob says in the Village Voice article “sooner or later, is going to be flooded.”

      Before anything like the Manhattanville campus can be constructed, federal law requires that an environmental assessment be conducted and an environmental impact statement written up that describes all of the definite and possible effects of construction. Section 21C of the Manhattanville campus’ final environmental impact statement asserts that the basement “would be designed to resist … temporary flood conditions” and that “sufficient studies have been conducted to confirm that design elements can address potential flooding.”

      Even so, Sprayregen still claimed that the city had “failed to carry out its duties as required by law to fully evaluate the serious environmental impacts of the construction and the on-going operation of the proposed ‘bathtub.’” Six months after Siegel and Sprayregen first brought the case to court, however,  it was dismissed.

      Nevertheless, the fears surrounding the Manhattanville bathtub were far from dispelled.

      Whereas the initial argument against the bathtub was based off of its safety concerns, stories began to circulate that the University might have been using the bathtub as a reason to acquire the Manhattanville property through the process of eminent domain.

      In addition, there were theories that the University may use the basement, which is planned to extend underneath street level, to restrict public access to the roads like it did with College Walk, which was a part of 116th Street until 1953. Some argued that the bathtub was “an excuse to throw residents, workers, and businesses out of their locations so that Columbia can control all the property.” Some supported the alternative below-grade space proposal created by Manhattan Community Board 9, the local governing body whose jurisdiction includes Manhattanville. There were rumors that the University doesn’t have enough money to build a bathtub. There were those who thought that the basement could be a target for terrorism. There were even some people who didn’t think that the bathtub would ever come into existence.

      Walter South, currently a member of CB9 and former co-chair of the Community Board’s Housing, Land Use, and Zoning Committee, said at a City Council meeting in 2007, “Of course, this bathtub is a complete fantasy. When the bill for this tub comes in, and the logistics for moving probably 100,000 trucks of this dirty dirt out of the City is clarified—it will never be built.”

      Ten years later, South’s words remain the same. “[The University is] not doing anything [underground],” South tells me over lunch at Floridita. “The only thing that’s going under the streets apparently from what I can tell are the sewer lines, drainage, and stuff like that … That’s the only thing.”

      So what’s the truth? What are the facts of the seemingly fictitious underground factory?

  Amanda Frame

      “I don’t think the issue of eminent domain is dead. I don’t think the issue of protesting and resisting Columbia is dead. I think it’s alive and well.” Tom DeMott’s words seem drastically displaced, not only because he graduated from Columbia College as part of the class of 1980 but also because his place of protest on this chilly Thursday night last March is within the very University he is accusing.

      DeMott is one member of a five-person panel, including one other Columbia College alum, speaking about the negative effects of the University’s Manhattanville expansion. The speakers are an accompaniment to an exhibit organized in part by former Spectator  City News  editor Deborah Secular, who is moderating the discussion.

      Although it is in Lerner’s fancy fifth-floor conference room, this is intended to be a community event. There are no podiums behind which the panelists can proselytize.

      Some of the panelists choose to stay seated while they speak. DeMott, however, is standing, hands raised and grasping onto the invisible form of the big idea he is about to present to us.

      “They’ve been caught with their hands in the cookie jar by lying to everybody,” DeMott charges. “And it’s plain to see. Go look. Walter, you looked. Was there a bathtub the last time you looked?”

      South shakes his head.

      “No,” DeMott says. “Tom, you looked. Was there a bathtub?”

      Tom Kappner, CC ’66, who lives in short walking distance of Teachers College, also shakes his head no.

      “There’s no bathtub,” DeMott announces, and it seems as if everyone in the audience believes him.

      However, when I speak about this a few days later with Marcelo Velez, vice president for Manhattanville development within the Columbia Facilities department, he has a very different idea of things.

      The below-grade space, Velez reiterates, exists. It is safe. It is paid for. The public streets will not become private. According to Vice President for Strategic Communications and Construction Business Initiatives at Columbia, La-Verna Fountain, eminent domain had nothing to do with the basement.

      What is interesting about DeMott’s and Velez’s arguments is that, in spite of their opposing positions, both find the truth to be clear.

      “From any sort of common sense standpoint, it’s an inactive fault,” Velez says of the earthquake fault line near the Manhattanville site.

      “This ain’t rocket science,” DeMott tells me about the existence of the bathtub. “[The University] figure[s] they can say any old bullshit to people because you’re not gonna use your common sense.”

      Both DeMott and Velez use the visual as their ultimate recourse.

      “Today, anyone can walk to the site to the second block and look in the hole and see that we’re about 50 feet deep and continuing to excavate,” Velez explains. “So it should be no mystery.”

      Similarly, DeMott encourages me to see for myself. “Go to the [Riverside] Viaduct now. Look down with your own eyes,” he says. “Take your own pictures. Take your own video. Look at the building they’re building now.”

      What would ostensibly be obvious—whether or not the bathtub exists—has sunk into the realm of belief. There is something almost religious about conversation around the basement: the divide between believer and non-believer, the strident affirmations of one’s own truth based upon alleged facts and personal visual experiences.

      It was Palm Sunday when I finally took my own trip up to Manhattanville in search of its mythical basement, and as DeMott advised, I brought a Spectator photographer along with me, who incidentally studies civil engineering at SEAS. This is what we saw.

  Jaime Danies

      There is undoubtedly a large hole in the Manhattanville campus, but it remains unclear whether or not this is, in fact, the bathtub. To the photographer, the answer was plain, right there in front of our eyes. He called my attention to pieces of the hole that looked small from where we were standing way up on the Riverside Viaduct, and he pointed these out as proof that we were staring straight down into the naked truth of the tub. I, however, remained unsure. I have seen quite a few construction sites with large holes, and most of them do not have giant bathtubs beneath them. When we tried to enter into the Jerome L. Greene Science Center to visit the completed section of the supposed basement, we were stopped at the door. Our Columbia IDs did not allow us access into the locked building. Quickly, the photographer and I had become victims of the same powerful force of uncertainty that has plagued the pages of this story.

      When I send the photo to DeMott, he writes to me that “this is a picture of a foundation being laid for a building, not a bathtub that goes many stories below ground.”

      Yet when we sent a reporter down to the site yesterday afternoon to speak with a land surveyor, we were told that what we were looking at was, in fact, the below-grade space, although some bathtub non-believers have testified to speaking with construction workers who have provided them with conflicting accounts.

      But what if the bathtub really does exist—what if Columbia really is building a two million square foot, 70-foot-deep pit whose existence is completely denied by some members of the local community?

      Earlier, I promised that, in writing about the past, we find things of value for the present. The fact that the very veracity of the University’s words about this construction site is being questioned speaks to a pervasive problem. What the heck happened? How can it be that when Columbia advertises a big, safe, below-grade space, the community hears “toxic floods,” “terrorism,” and a ton of make-believe? With University offices dedicated to communications and community affairs, where does the administration’s miscommunication with the community stem from?

      The University has received an award for its Manhattanville communications. The words the administration uses to speak about the Manhattanville campus are all carefully constructed. It is for this reason that, throughout this article, I have avoided paraphrasing the University’s speech, lest I sacrifice the integrity of their strategic communications.

      Fountain explains that Columbia has organized information sessions, weekly and monthly newsletters—online and in print, in English and in Spanish. Community members can sign up for email listservs with construction updates and information. There are diamond-shaped cut-outs in the wall surrounding the site that make it easy to peek inside to see what’s going on at all angles.

      While there are currently no metrics to measure the reach and success of Manhattanville communications efforts, Fountain does not think that the past and present disconnect between the University and some students, faculty, and community members about the bathtub is Columbia’s fault.

      “In the end, it is what it is,” Fountain says. “There are people who choose not to believe despite Columbia’s best efforts—people who may never believe. [There’s] nothing I can do about that. I’m not going to try to convince someone of what we’ve already done.”

      Ultimately, Fountain trusts that the misunderstandings over the bathtub and other aspects of the Manhattanville campus will be best resolved by time.

        “In the next few months as the community starts to get more comfortable being able to come over to Manhattanville, I think you’re going to see it will be a little bit different,” Fountain says. “We’re at this juncture where there’s probably a significant turn coming, a very significant positive turn coming.”

      If the error then lies not with Columbia, the communicator, that leaves only one other option: the people to whom Columbia communicates, the Manhattanville community itself.

      I do not believe that Jacob and South and DeMott and others are wrong to believe what they do. I believe that the ideas that some members of the community have about Columbia and its campus are the result of a long and difficult history between the University and everyone else that has fostered a disenchantment so deep-seated that it even blocks out the vision of an enormous basement, a basement that the photographer saw, that Columbia sees, and that you too may see for yourself around the streets and through the diamond cutouts of the Manhattanville site.

      When I explain to DeMott that the below-grade space visibility issues may be due in large part to the top-down construction method being used to build the Manhattanville campus, he remains insistent.

      “That is the kind of utter, enraging doublespeak that Columbia would come up with,” DeMott protests.

      For DeMott and for others who have lived for years in and around a near constant struggle against the University and its “colonial project” in the community, Bollinger is Big Brother. For them, the administration’s strategic communications are strategic contortions of the truth.

      The relationship between Columbia and the community has been decaying for over half a century. According to Spectator archives since 1950, the University has been involved in or has been held responsible for at least 39 disputes regarding land acquisition or University-owned property, not including the numerous conflicts over the Manhattanville campus. At least once a decade since 1950 and, during certain periods, once or even multiple times a year, Columbia studentsformer employees, and non-affiliated community residents have accused the University of a litany of charges from eminent domain abuse to wrongful evictions to destruction of  historic structures.

      In 1995, two Columbia Public Safety officers even “evicted” two homeless men who were sleeping on the grates outside John Jay Hall, seeking warmth in the late January snow.

      Fountain acknowledges Columbia’s troubled past.

      “You can never go backwards and undo history,” she says. “What you can do is decide how you move forward.”

      In spite of this view though, Fountain says that, in planning marketing materials for the community, the University’s historical relationship with it is not taken into consideration.

                                                                   Amanda Frame

      “I don’t know that it’s the history itself that shapes the communication program as much as it is just understanding the diverse population we’re communicating with,” Fountain says. “I don’t know that [the community’s misunderstandings are] as much of a historical thing so much as everybody busy. Everybody’s busy.”

      This is a century of instant information and a city of fast walkers who don’t like to be slowed down, but perhaps this view that the past is the past and that everyone’s too busy moving on to remember it is exactly the University’s mistake.

      People are busy, but they are not too busy to take the University to court over the bathtub. They are not too busy to publicly protest the expansion. They are not too busy to speak out about the University’s new campus within the very walls of its old one to rally support for the community from the Columbia students who were not too busy to fill up the seats in the Jed D. Satow Room on a school night at the tail end of midterm season.

      The solution to the Manhattanville communications problem may not simply be the passage of time but also a recognition of and response to times past. When the University speaks, its words have unintended echoes in the community. Columbia says “a city campus built for people,” and the community hears Susana Acosa-Jaafar, a resident of 536 West 113th Street whose Columbia eviction notice in 1987 sparked significant protest and controversy. Columbia says “honoring Manhattanville’s history,” and the community remembers when, in 1994, the University demolished the Audubon Ballroom, where the prominent civil rights leader Malcolm X was assassinated. Columbia says “growing together,” and the community can only think of 2009 when they fought to preserve three historic brownstones on West 115th Street that the University decided to destroy.

      It doesn’t help that much of the bathtub-specific rhetoric also directly harkens back to certain historical images. Fountain mentions that, in calling the below-grade space the underground factory, Piano “thinks about the old, industrial space it used to be, and he makes all the connections back to that.” The Manhattanville below-grade space is sometimes compared, including by Velez, to the bathtub at the World Trade Center, which, according to the authors of the book New York: An Illustrated History, “represented one of the largest and most destructive urban renewal projects ever undertaken.”

      In a 2006 New York Times  article “The Manhattanville Project,” which is about the University’s expansion, Harvard University urban planning and design professor Alex Krieger says that “such conflicts are as much emotional as they are rational.”

      Fountain spoke about “understanding the diverse population we’re communicating with,” but what the Manhattanville administrators are unable to understand about their audience is that, to a community charged with emotion about the expansion, it is not enough to speak in facts. Much of the community communicates in feelings.

      What the bathtub doubters are afraid of is not really another Hurricane Sandy. They are trying to protect themselves from “Hurricane Columbia,” coming in to swoop their apartments and businesses off to Oz or to New Jersey or to just anywhere out of the way.

      On the construction side of things, the bathtub may be safe against a second Sandy. As Velez explains, in building the bathtub, “We did not just go and design to the minimum requirement. The basement was built to a standard that was substantially higher.”

      But on the communications side, the University has been busily preparing for the wrong disaster. How can Columbia ensure the community of its safety from a storm that is itself? How can Columbia tell its neighbors not to worry about the rain when it is Columbia’s own dark clouds that community members feel quickly encroaching over the horizon, its own torrent of construction trucks and teachers and tenant evictions descending and dooming and drowning what once was their West Harlem?




   how to preserve a neighborhood

      Examining Columbia’s Efforts to Protect the History and Character of Harlem

  Isabel Chun


“As Columbia looked to expand further into the neighborhood, we needed to be sure that we preserved the heart and soul of the community. … We have indeed come to an agreement that preserves all of what it means to be from Harlem.”

Robert Jackson, former New York City Council member, Wednesday, December 19, 2007, New York City Council approval of Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion plan


“We’ve come up with a plan that will both preserve and improve areas of West Harlem. No one wants to infringe on the rich history of Harlem.”

Christine Quinn, former speaker of the New York City Council, Wednesday, December 19, 2007, New York City Council approval of Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion plan


        It was a Thursday 14 years, one week, and two days prior to the publication of this story—the day of the investiture of Columbia University’s 19th president. The sky was blue over Low Library, and Lee Bollinger stood in black robes on Low Steps.

      Framed by Alma Mater’s outstretched metal arms and the Ionic columns of the old University library, Bollinger took his place behind a wooden podium, behind the seal and name of Columbia, and he said: “Whether we expand on the property we already own on Morningside Heights, Manhattanville, or Washington Heights, or whether we pursue a design of multiple campuses in the city, or beyond, is one of the most important questions we will face in the years ahead.”

      It is this one sentence—in a speech of many—that contains the genesis of a long, difficult, and controversial Columbia expansion project in the Manhattanville area of West Harlem, a 17-acre campus extension stretching north from 125th Street to 133rd Street and west from Broadway to 12th Avenue.

      The results of Columbia’s dream of a Manhattanville expansion have incited the ire and excitement of Columbians from that Thursday in 2002 up to this very moment, 11 days before the campus dedication.

•     •     •

        When we talk about what has happened and is still happening in Manhattanville, we often talk about displacement and change, using the language of destruction and  irretrievable loss. We talk about the inevitable consequences of the arrival of a new kid on the block who is bigger and richer than its neighbors.

      At this point, with the dedication only days away, it might be worthwhile to focus on the ways in which Columbia can preserve the historic character of Manhattanville. And as the reverberations of the actions of our university extend beyond that new 17-acre plot on the Hudson River, we should consider the ways in which Columbia can preserve the historic character of all of its neighbouring Harlem communities.

      Columbia is not responsible for the changes going on in all of Harlem. It was only 2002 when Bollinger sparked the idea of expansion; gentrification, on the other hand, is a well-documented phenomenon in this city and country and has been a force in Harlem itself for at least the last 20 years. Nevertheless, as Columbia University in the City of New York and in the Neighborhood of Harlem, we have a responsibility to preserve the historic character of the space that we inhabit. The question is not should we, but how should we preserve the history of Harlem ?

      How should we at Columbia preserve Harlem given that the retention of its past, the continuation of its present, and the prospects for its future are all profoundly affected by our very presence on this land?

What is Harlem?

125 Subway Art2_Orellana.jpg   Jared Orellana

      Take the A, B, C, or D train to the subway station at 125th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. At the turnstiles, six tall images will introduce your entrance into the world above. The pictures depict a Harlem, but not the one into which you will soon enter upstairs. The black-and-white impression of a horse-drawn carriage plastered on a subway wall poses an odd and significant contrast to the Harlem that bustles above and around you.

      The history of Harlem is just as long as it is diverse. Before thinking about how Columbia should preserve the historic character of Harlem, it is worth parsing out what its history and character actually are. Is Harlem those snapshots on the station wall, or the city and subway that move above and below them? Or is it something else entirely?

      I arrive in Central Harlem on a bicycle, which I lock up on Lenox Avenue between the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and Harlem Hospital Center. It’s easy to find the walking tour group with whom I’ll be spending the next two hours. Harlem’s gentrification hasn’t yet reached this part of town, it seems. The streetscape is a mix of coloreds, so the small crowd of light-skinned folks loitering by a bike rack is conspicuous on the heavily trafficked street littered with the thrown-out flyers for Bob Avakian’s new book event at the library.

      Our group of about 10 to 20 white tourists and me are surrounded by what late Harlem Renaissance poet Arna Bontemps fondly referred to as “Negrodom.” The scene harkens back to the origins of this black Mecca when Nieuw Haarlem was a tight-knit group of Dutch settlers avast in a wilderness of “red men.”

      “Welcome to historic Harlem,” the guide says, and our tour begins.

125 Subway Art_Orellana.jpg   Jared Orellana

Imagining Nieuw Haarlem

      All communities have a founding myth, and one of Harlem’s begins with Dr. Johannes Mousnier de la Montagne.

      In 1636, de la Montagne, a Huguenot fleeing Catholic France, arrived in the Dutch village of Capsee—present-day Battery Park. He came with his wife, his son Johannes Jr. (who liked horseback riding), and their newborn daughter Marie.

      It was from there, within the imaginings of Manhattan’s first physician, residing on the southern tip of the island, that “Harlem” was born. Shortly after arriving in America, de la Montagne and his family, equipped with only a wooden dugout canoe and a paddle, made their way up the East River.

      His trip is described in mythical beauty by Carl Horton Pierce in his 1903 book New Harlem Past and Present: The Story of an Amazing Civic Wrong, Now at Last to be Righted.

      “This dauntless medical student took the paddle in his own uncalloused hands—a modern Ulysses, steering his way through strange and hazardous channels. … The lonely heron’s shrill cry alone broke the ‘sabbath stillness of the wilderness,’ and it may be supposed that as the Montagnes reached the end of Blackwell’s Island, and heard the roaring ‘as of a bull’ of Hellgate, their hearts were touched by some emotion of dread,” Pierce wrote.

      De la Montagne and his family landed on the shore of the Harlem River at 105th Street. Following an American-Indian trail on Lenape hunting grounds, now St. Nicholas Avenue, de la Montagne made his way to where it now intersects with Seventh Avenue. Here, he constructed a wooden cabin for himself and his family.

        By the time winter arrived, there were three settled households in Harlem. In March 1658, by the ordinance of New Netherland Director-General Peter Stuyvesant, the village of New Harlem, or Nieuw Haarlem, named for a small Dutch town, was officially established.

      Families migrated uptown, paddling the three hours’ commute from New Amsterdam to New Harlem. When they arrived, they surveyed the land and staked plots in a stockaded village that, by 1664, had a church, a militia, and 23 families. It is said that back in those days, the area was so forested that one could shoot a deer for dinner from their kitchen door.

      These Harlemites were farmers. Harlem women, dressed in short gowns and slippers, stayed inside spinning wool and flax to make clothes and bedsheets for themselves, their husbands, and their children.

      On winter Sundays, the congregation would all sit in the pews with foot stoves to keep warm as they studied their silver-clasped Dutch bibles.

      After doing business, Harlemites would gather for drinks at the Indian Trail Inn, chatting in Dutch about crops and horses and cattle.

      This was their Harlem, but as a new addition to Columbia’s own landscape reminds us, it was by no means the first one.

Preserving amid a history of displacement

      “Your time is coming, you white motherfuckers,” a black Harlemite spits out at the un-coloreds in my tour group as we pass 135th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard. About an hour later, underneath the ugly overhang of the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building, another black Harlemite feels that it’s his turn to make a guest appearance, overpowering the speech of our guide.

      The old-timer, who unlike me is well dressed for the fall, soliloquises under the State Office Building: “Black spirit is here. All this gentrification stuff is gonna backfire. This is the beginning of the end,” he says ominously.

      But displacement has been the recurring chorus in the song of Harlem’s history.

      The beginning of the beginning of the end in Harlem actually reaches all the way back to the mid-17th century, when that one Huguenot landed off of the East River with his family. The idea of Harlem has its origins in the de la Montagnes’ bold trip, but the reality is that a neighborhood in the neck of Harlem’s woods had already been established by the Lenape Amerindian tribe.

      Dressed in deerskins and smoking red copper tobacco pipes just south of current day Mount Morris Park Historic District, an area where bulrushes grew, the Lenape lived in longhouses furnished with mats and hatches and wooden dishes and more stone pipes for tobacco.

      It is through the Dutch descriptions of the native people at this time that evidence of the first antagonistic reappropriation of Harlem emerges.

      “The Indians are indolent, and some, crafty and wicked … but hospitable when well treated, ready to serve the white man for little compensation,” Dutch geographer Joannes de Laet wrote in 1625.

      Over 250 years after the Dutch drove the Lenape from their land, the white people who lived in Harlem in the late 18th and early 19th century saw the migration of blacks, who were running away from racial violence and poor housing conditions, up to Harlem as just as much of a threat to their neighborhood as Columbia and other gentrifying agents are seen today.

      “The Negro invasion … must be vigilantly fought,” reads a July 1911 edition of the now out-of-print Harlem Home News. “The invaders will slowly but surely drive the whites out of Harlem. We now warn owners of property. … The negro must have some place to live, but why must he always drive the white man out of his home in order to find a home for himself?”

      It is likely that no homes now survive from this early era of Harlem. Michael Henry Adams, an historian and a founder of the preservation advocacy organization Save Harlem Now, writes in his book Harlem: Lost and Found that “the architecture of the first inhabitants of Harlem left almost no trace; even shortly after these [Native American] hunters and gatherers moved on, there would have been little sign of their early shelters.” And today, it seems that the most Dutch thing about Harlem is Amsterdam Avenue.

      Considering this deficit in the history of Harlem, Columbia, as a piece of Harlem’s history itself, must, in all of its elements, continue to dedicate itself to the historical preservation of the many characters of this neighborhood.

Spaces to preserve

      The daunting drizzle has come out of its clouds. Our guide smartly directs us to take shelter beneath the scaffolding surrounding the demolishment of what was once the Renaissance Casino and Ballroom.

      It is clear that Bontemps’ Negrodom is now threatened. The sense of the loss, or death, of a neighbourhood is a reality for today’s Harlemites, and even for the tourists who can only imagine the long-gone glamour of landmarks left unpreserved.

      The preservation movement in Harlem has largely been a losing battle. Carolyn Johnson, whose mother worked at Columbia for 35 years, is the owner and founder of Welcome To Harlem, a Harlem history tour company. She admits that finding parts of old Harlem on her tours is “like a scavenger hunt.” Moreover, what is preserved are those elements that are valuable in the eyes of the newcomers and not necessarily those meaningful and important to long-term residents.

      The “Harlem” page on Wikipedia, whose collaborative platform makes it a more accurate reflection of people’s opinions than more restrictive organizations like the National Park Service and New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, lists at least 56 places in Harlem (not necessarily including Morningside Heights) that it considers to be historically prominent. These include the Abyssinian Baptist Church, the Harlem YMCA, and El Museo del Barrio.

      Few would deny that these places are significant to Harlem. But what is even more significant to 23-year-old Hugo Torres-Fetsco, who has lived in the same apartment on Tiemann Place and Riverside Drive since the age of two, is the playground nicknamed “Dolphin Park” where he used to play as a child.

      To Rodanne Smith, who’s been a resident of the Grant Houses located between 123rd and 125th streets for 50 years, it’s the supermarkets, the florists, the cleaners, the free student lunches and children’s summer camps and church programs.

Grant Houses_Orellana.jpg  Jared Orellana

      For Maritta Dunn, who grew up in Harlem in the 1930s and ’40s, much of her Harlem is already gone: Prelude Club, Broadway Bar, a couple of Chinese restaurants—all have been swept away by the familiar tides of gentrification.

      The 197-a plan, the proposal for neighborhood development by Manhattan Community Board 9 (the local government body whose jurisdiction includes Morningside Heights, Manhattanville, and Hamilton Heights), suggests 31 sites for study toward designation as historic landmarks in the district. Seven of these sites—Meeting with God Church on 130th Street, the Nash Building at 3280 Broadway, the Studebaker Building on 131st Street, Lee Brothers’ storage building on Riverside Drive, West Market Diner on 131st Street, and Skyline Windows on 130th Street—are owned by Columbia. Teachers College’s Bancroft Hall is one of 15 places proposed for designation as historic landmarks. Morningside Heights is one of five areas CB9 proposed for study toward historic district designation.

      John Reddick, an architect, former member of the West Harlem Local Development Corporation’s board of directors, former co-chair of CB9’s Landmarks Preservation and Parks Committee, and a Columbia community scholar, says that “people come with a kind of mythic sense of [Harlem],” and certainly in writing about this neighborhood, myths have become a motif, most significantly the myth of a single, unified Harlem. Also, there is the myth of a single, unified Columbia as varying parts of the University work both towards and against the preservation of the neighborhood’s historic character.

      Columbia exists in an interesting spot within Harlem. Not only because its campuses and its community are often seen as discordant with the neighborhood that surrounds it, but because, as Columbia helps to shape Harlem’s future, it simultaneously works to remember its past.

Columbia preserving the bones

                                                                         Jared Orellana                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

      “It is dawn on 125th Street. Families are rising. The train booms overhead; trolley tracks run between the cobblestones and the early morning traffic. Workers hurry to their jobs at the local automobile factories, printers, and storage companies. The largest employer in the area is the Sheffield Farms dairy, whose proud billboard boasts the motto, ‘For the Rising Generation,’ and shows a healthy child enjoying a glass of milk. Horse-drawn wagons emerge from a nearby stable building to distribute bottles across upper Manhattan.”

      This is the Manhattanville that Columbia is preserving, as described in the online iteration of a University exhibit about the neighborhood in 1929. The exhibit, which is currently displayed in the Nash Building, tells the story of Sheffield Farms, a bottled milk manufacturing facility whose remains are being replaced by our new campus.

      Columbia’s preservation of Manhattanville is contractually binding, as a result of Columbia’s voluntary signing of the Declaration of Covenants and Restrictions. While CB9’s 197-a plan is only a suggestion, the contract Columbia signed sets guidelines for the University’s expansion and requires that Columbia preserve the historic character of the Manhattanville neighborhood. It obliges the University to maintain the architectural integrity of the Prentice, Nash, and Studebaker buildings and to create an interpretative multimedia exhibit to document the history of the Sheffield Farms milk producing complex that used to exist on the current campus.

      Beyond Manhattanville, Columbia has been engaged in the architectural preservation of Harlem since 1985, and for the past 20 years, preservation of the historical heritage of Morningside Heights has been a part of University policy. The Capital Project Management and Planning department of Columbia Facilities has an Exteriors and Historic Preservation team, which dedicates itself primarily to Morningside Heights, fixing damage and providing facelift to historic buildings.

      Since July 1, 2007, the University has mandated that only Columbia Facilities or its associates may work on Columbia buildings so that, as is written in the University’s statement on the issue, “the design, construction, maintenance and repair of university facilities [are] accomplished in a manner consistent with the university’s … historic preservation concerns.”

      So far, Columbia has restored over 250 buildings.

        Columbia has also agreed to reduce displacement of current Harlem residents. In documents like the Manhattanville Community Benefits Agreement and the 197-a plan, the preservation of people through low-income housing and job creation is distinguished from historic preservation. But preserving people is preserving history, argues community activist Tom DeMott, who graduated from Columbia College in 1980.

      “If you’re talking about historic preservation, you have to be talking about seeing the value of the Harlem community,” DeMott says. “One very significant part of the Harlem community is the damn people who live here.”

        But in a neighborhood whose strong sense of community is being dashed into a new wave of nebulousness as a result of present social change, retention of today’s Harlem residents may seem an uncomfortable anachronism. Like Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater—now bookended by a GameStop and a Red Lobster—the low-income residents that Columbia seeks to save risk becoming out of place in their own home. None of the Harlemites interviewed for this story, however, seemed fearful that, in spite of keeping their houses, they may lose their sense of home.

      “There’s just somethin’ about [Harlem],” Johnson says. “As much as it might change, some things are going to remain the same, and even with all of those people that are moving in, some of them will try to preserve and keep as much of that [Harlem] as possible.”

Beyond administrative preservation

      The reality of this university is that, beyond the work of the administration, there is a committed cast of characters—disjointed faculty members, staff, and students—who are each working in ways both large and small to recognize and preserve the neighbourhood we live in.

      My tour guide’s name is Clay Eaton. He’s a seventh-year Graduate School of Arts and Sciences student in the department of East Asian languages and cultures. All of the tour guides at Big Onion Walking Tours, a New York City walking tour group started by a former Columbia American history Ph.D. student in 1991, are Columbians. I actually found out about Big Onion through a Facebook advertisement in February advertising a free historic walking tour hosted by Undergraduate Student Life on the Columbia class of 2019 Facebook page.

      “Given Columbia’s location, it is helpful for students to learn about Harlem,” Chia-Ying Pan writes to me via Facebook. Pan is Undergraduate Student Life’s director of education, outreach, and international student support, and she paid for the March tour.

      But Eaton and the others at Big Onion represent just one layer of how common Columbians are preserving the history of Harlem.

      A December 22, 2008 post on the blog Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York called “Capturing Manhattanville” tells the story of Daniella Zalcman, a 2009 graduate of Columbia College and a former managing editor of The Eye.

      Zalcman, an architecture major, created for her senior thesis an encapsulation of time—a textual, pictorial, and videographic record remembering the history of Manhattanville and the state of the neighborhood as she witnessed it in the early phases of construction in 2009.

      The Making of Manhattanville—what Zalcman named the website where she has displayed her work—“is an attempt to capture the neighborhood as it appears now,” as explained on the website’s “About” page. “Teetering on the cusp of that next great change.”

      The capturing of Harlem and its neighborhoods is a task not only in the minds of Columbia students; it is an effort equally as present in the minds of many of their professors too. Harlem is one of the few New York neighborhoods specifically highlighted by Columbia history professor Kenneth Jackson in his popular course History of the City of New York. A professor at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, Andrew Dolkart wrote the book Morningside Heights: A History of Its Architecture and Development. In 1953, the late John Atlee Kouwenhoven, who received a master’s degree at Columbia in 1933 and a Ph.D. in 1948 and was a Barnard English professor, published The Columbia Historical Portrait of New York; An Essay in Graphic History in Honor of the Tricentennial of New York City and the Bicentennial of Columbia University, which included a variety of historic images of Harlem.

      In 2004, as a part of the Columbia 250 project—“a digital memory box of Columbia history” in honor of the University’s 250th anniversary—the contributions of Dolkart, Jackson (who was one of the co-chairs of the project’s steering committee), and others manifested in a section of the project called “Harlem History.”

      As the director of the Lehman Center for American History, Jackson also contributes to some of the historical exhibitions at the Columbia libraries such as “Harlem Views: Perspectives from the Collections of Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library,” which ended on July 31.

      Enter the word “Harlem” into the search bar of the Columbia University Directory of Classes, and 13 results appear.

      Type it out again onto the Teachers College course schedule search, and there will pop up one more. On most Wednesdays from 5:10 to 6:50 p.m., assistant professor of history and education Ansley Erickson teaches a class called Harlem Stories, a two-semester course that focuses “on the history of education in Harlem.”

      Erickson’s class is a supplement to a much larger project that she’s been working on for the past few years with professor of education Ernest Morrell called Educating Harlem, which their website describes as “a collaborative investigation into the history of education in 20th century Harlem.”

      Morrell stresses that his and Erickson’s research is not only analytical but is inclusive of the Harlem community. “There’s all sorts of tools that Columbia has,” Morrell says. “We have people that can devote their entire lives to studying history, but the community itself is an asset. The model of history work that we are trying to engage in is one that engages with the community, not one in a community or about a community.”

Restricted access

      Restrictions on certain aspects of Columbia, though, can make community access and engagement challenging, presenting an obstacle to the University’s ability to preserve Harlem’s history not only for Columbia, but for Harlem itself.

      Located next to Blue Java Coffee Bar on the first floor of Butler Library, the Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning, an in-house group that creates classroom new media supplements, has at least 10 projects that either directly or tangentially relate to the history of Harlem. Of those 10, two are public access, three private access, and half are Columbia access only.

      Maurice Matiz, the director of the CTL, believes that many of the private or Columbia access only projects could benefit the public.

      The problem, he explains, is copyright. Much of what the CTL makes draws heavily upon material not owned by Columbia. For example, the Harlem Health History project, which was “created to enhance students’ historical research on health-focused social movements in an African American community,” includes “health reports and studies, news articles, advertisements, images, and interviews,” many of which Columbia did not receive permission to publish. To pay for permissions for each piece of material would be very costly, but reuse of material isn’t an issue when it is kept confined to the private classroom.

      Regardless, lack of public accessibility and community engagement is one of the most prominent criticisms waged against Columbia’s attempts at preservation.

      Many of the Columbians and all of the Harlemites interviewed for this story had never heard of Columbia’s Sheffield Farms exhibit. This even includes those like Walter South, former co-chair of the CB9 Landmarks Preservation and Parks Committee and the vice chair of the 197-a planning committee, who lives in the old headquarters of the Pure Milk League near Riverside Drive.

      Currently, the exhibit is advertised through fliers handed out to different Columbia departments and at some schools near the Manhattanville campus, but Leonard Cox, the assistant vice president of strategic communications and the film producer for the exhibit’s senior project team, admits that, in spite of these efforts, there have been only about 100 visitors to the exhibit since its opening six months ago.

      Even if someone is able to learn about and locate the exhibit, its position in a Columbia office building makes it feel inaccessible and unappealing to the community according to Reddick.

      “Most people don’t have that comfort factor [to go to a Columbia building],” Reddick points out. “To say there’s an exhibit in the Nash Building and think in any way it has outreach. … Why don’t they put it somewhere where the community really goes all the time? … It’s like saying, ‘It’s hanging in the closet on the fifth floor of the Nash Building.’ Who gets there? It’s a joke.”

      None of the preservation at the Manhattanville campus seems to extend beyond the University’s 17 acres. Our preservation of Manhattanville, it seems, is limited to the memorializing of Columbia’s Manhattanville.

      Many community members criticize the University’s 197-c rezoning plan as preservation that focuses only on the bare minimum and that still sacrifices important historic value in the neighborhood for the sake of an architecturally out-of-context new campus.

      The 197-a plan’s proposed historic preservation is far more extensive than that included in Columbia’s 197-c rezoning plan. A framework comparison between CB9’s 197-a plan and Columbia’s 197-c plan created by the Pratt Center for Community Development supports the assertion made in CB9’s review of the 197-c plan that “the neighborhood’s dynamic, richly layered historic, ethnic and cultural character, that would be preserved under the 197-a Plan, would be eliminated under Columbia’s 197-c proposal.” In other words, Columbia’s plan is more historically destructive than the community’s.

      The 197-a plan recommends that, for contextual zoning of the neighborhood, the traditional street walls should be maintained. The 197-a plan “also preserves diverse architectural styles and historic character.” Columbia’s plan sets the street wall back along the majority of 12th Avenue, allows for taller buildings than the 197-a, “and requires the demolition of most of the properties considered by the 197-a Plan to be of historic value.”

      Whereas CB9’s plan “identifies 14 buildings, Riverside Drive and IRT viaducts, and the Third Avenue Railway Turnaround on 12th Avenue between St. Clair Place and 125th Street for preservation through formal designation,” Columbia’s plan “does not seek formal designation and the resulting regulation of any historic properties.”

      Prentis, Nash, and Studebaker are the only buildings of historic value on the Manhattanville campus that the University has preserved. In addition, it has saved the West Market Diner and the façade of the old Sheffield Farms Stable building, which it has moved to a location off campus, further uptown.

      “How can only three or four buildings preserve the character of a neighborhood?” community scholar and neighborhood historian Eric K. Washington asks in a June 18, 2007 article in Architectural Record titled “Piano, SOM’s Columbia Plan Stirs Controversy.” “That’s a lot of responsibility for four buildings.”

      Furthermore, the loss of the Sheffield Farms Stable, according to the Manhattanville campus’ Final Environmental Impact Statement—a predictive analysis of the expansion’s effects on the surrounding neighborhood—is a “significantly adverse” impact to the maintenance of the historic architectural context of the area.

      Anne Whitman, the former owner of the stable building and the owner of Hudson Moving and Storage, was unable to speak on the record for this story due to a confidentiality agreement she signed with Columbia about the Sheffield Farms building.

      However, an October 18, 2006 post on a blog called Eminent Domain Abuse hints at what may still be Whitman’s feelings about the Manhattanville project’s preservation efforts.

      “They want to bulldoze my property after they steal it away from me for their private purposes through eminent domain abuse,” Whitman writes of Columbia and the historic stable building. “Their plan is anti-affirmative action and anti-historic preservation.”

      Even in Morningside Heights, Columbia’s historic preservation of the neighborhood has been the cause of controversy—particularly a 2008 plan to demolish three historic brownstones on 115th Street.

      One of the most popular arguments in support of keeping old buildings like the Sheffield Farms Stable building and the 115th Street brownstones is that they keep the old stories of an area.

      “Old neighborhoods go through changes,” says Barnard urban studies assistant professor Aaron Passell, who studies the relationship between historic preservation and gentrification. “If we can find the structures that have formed the physical environment of that neighborhood, we can connect social moments to those structures, but if those structures are gone, we lose that opportunity.”

Completing our history

      For the oldest of old neighborhoods in New York City, that opportunity seems to have already been lost. Out of the four books, one zine, and countless online articles used as research for this article, only one—Adams’ Harlem: Lost And Found—gives more than a cursory description of the Lenape: the people who lived in Harlem before it was hip, who lived in Harlem before it was Haarlem.

      Perhaps this scarcity of a native historic narrative is only the result of the random happenstance of which books I brought out of Butler Library, but historic preservation can be a sad business. Many things can be constructed out of existence, beyond recognition and repair, and today, only 0.3 percent of Harlemites are Native American or Alaskan.

      Columbia has had for a while a plaque dedicated to the Battle of Harlem Heights in 1776, but it was only this year that plans were carried out to memorialize those people who have been here since before anyone had ever heard of New Harlem or New York or even the New World. The whitewashing and black-washing (most of the descriptions of Dutch Harlem also came primarily from only one of the books used in research for this article) of Harlem’s history certainly seems to be much more than an historical happenstance.

      Two evenings ago, through the open cracks of the windows of my third floor Contemporary Civilization class in Hamilton Hall, I heard Harlem music. Not a saxophone or a zither—I heard a drum, beating to the chants of the Native American Council, huddled out in the crisp fall chill to dedicate a plaque of their own to this land.

      It was only a few minutes before my professor asked someone to close the window. We had shut them out, metaphorically speaking, or so it seemed, but the new plaque here is a vital indication of the resilience of all of our Harlems.

Lenape_Dade.jpg   Xavier Dade

The end of the tour

      We finish a few minutes late. I am rushing back to Columbia in the rain, trying to make it to Dodge Fitness Center in time for my lifeguarding shift at 3. Once I’ve relaxed into the chair, the sight and sound of the steady swoosh of fingertips that glide across chlorinated water lulls me into recollections of a passage from a book I borrowed from Butler.

      “From 1666 to 1668, the Hudson River formed the western boundary of the Harlem lands and properties. The same Hudson River flows between the same banks in 1903, although made up of different particles of water. The Town of New Harlem existed in 1666; and the same Town of New Harlem exists today, in 1903, although made up of different ‘particles,’ or members.”

      On the tour, we saw a Popeyes, an IHOP, a parking lot, a hair salon. Later, I ask Eaton why he didn’t show us pictures of the ballrooms and headquarters and housing that once occupied the space of this now-nondescript city scenery. He has pictures, he says, and shows me that they are tucked with his notes inside the crook of his arm.

      “It’s important to see the neighborhood now,” he tells me, “rather than as it existed.”

      The sad reality, though, is that Harlem’s present transformation affects our vision of its past. When we reached one of the last stops on the tour, a street corner from which Eaton told us to direct our eyes at City College of New York’s Shepherd Hall, we had to step off into the street in front of a dumpster. The scaffolding at an adjacent construction site was obstructing our view.




   enemy of the state

      The Alum Behind the Activism

  Courtesy of Tom DeMott


     “HARLEM!” shouts Tom DeMott, a graduate of Columbia College, class of 1980. “Is not for sale!” replies  a small crowd, clapping along to the beat of a snare drum.

      Beneath the crook of his right arm, DeMott holds a turquoise-colored sign. “FUERA COLUMBIA,” (Spanish for “Get Out Columbia”) is written on it in bold, black Sharpie above the words “HARLEM IS NOT FOR SALE.”

      It’s March 8th, 2011, but DeMott’s been protesting since 1969. He’s demonstrated against a myriad of University issues, including Columbia’s involvement in the Vietnam War and its plans to build a gym in Morningside Park with a separate entrance and lower quality facilities for local community members. Marching around the entrance of the 125th Street 1 train station on this chilly Tuesday, DeMott is protesting the University’s Manhattanville campus expansion plan, leading an anti-Columbia movement that has caused WikiCU to dub DeMott “an enemy of the state.”

      Five years later, I find this enemy of the state sitting on a piano bench in his apartment. His long, gray hair stops just above his blue and white checkered shirt. It’s unbuttoned halfway, making the New York city slicker look like a surfer boy, palms resting on his blue jeans and a beaded bracelet decorating his deeply tanned right wrist.

      “Hi poopy doopy! How ya doin’?” DeMott asks his four-year-old granddaughter Shailaya as she runs into the room. He moves and leans back against the white cushions of the couch that faces the window; a cat relaxes in a rocking chair nearby. Shailaya snuggles up into DeMott’s denim lap.

      “Help me Jesus to know where I’m goin’,” he sings softly to Shailaya over the strums of his guitar. The living room is aglow with notes and melodies and the low light of a late Thursday afternoon shining through the windowpanes on the quiet corner of Riverside Drive and Tiemann Place.

   Leon Wu

      DeMott’s been at home in NYC since 1969; his house borders the wilderness of Riverside Park. He moved here from the woods and fishing of his country origins in Amherst, Massachusetts, a town whose population is just a few thousand people over the total number of enrolled students at Columbia University.

      In Massachusetts, where his father worked as a professor at Amherst College for 40 years, when DeMott wasn’t playing soccer, or basketball, or tennis, or driving his dad’s car out into the woods to read Plato, he would listen to music: jazz and soul and the blues, Bob Dylan’s “Talkin’ New York.” Eventually, he says, the song got to him. He also knew that Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, two authors whom he admired, would hang out at the West End Bar near Broadway and 114th Street, and he liked the gym at Columbia, so he decided to head south for the city.

      It was autumn of 1969 when DeMott, 18 years old at the time, first stepped onto campus as a Columbia student.

      “I came down [to Columbia] with a concept of, ‘I’m going to read more Plato.’ I came down with a concept of, ‘I’m going to go to a good school, I am going to find great teachers,'” DeMott recalls. But, three semesters before DeMott arrived, the school that Columbia College Dean James Valentini touts as “the greatest university in the greatest city in the world” was swept up in a maelstrom of activist anger that shut down the campus for a week, caused the University president to resign, and forced the New York Police Department to assist the Department of Public Safety in enforcing the law by physically removing protesters on campus.

      DeMott’s welcome to Columbia, therefore, was not characterized by balloons and smiling NSOP orientation leaders at the gate. Instead, political graffiti expressing the outrage of students against their university’s contributions to the Vietnam War and Columbia’s plans to build a segregated gym in Morningside Park burdened the entrance into the school.

      In his suite on the ninth floor of Carman Hall, DeMott shared a room with Steve Cohen, part of the Columbia College class of 1973, who would be arrested later that year during a raid on Carman led by 20 plainclothes cops for “breaking down one of the doors of Low Library.”

      In the middle of all this—the graffiti, the raid, the political demonstrations, and police beatings on campus, what DeMott calls a “whirlwind of ideas”—it wasn’t long before he too was inculcated into a culture of anti-Columbia activism, spending much of his free time in Carman smoking pot and engaging in political discussions to the sounds of Steve Miller and Led Zeppelin on the record player.

    “I was just doing what was right,” he explains. “We shut down the University. There was no classes. … Sometimes, the professors just gave people a pass … [and] would hold their classes outside, not just ’cause it was a nice spring day, [but] because there was some shit goin’ on, some political action.”

      By 1971, DeMott had received an injunction and was banned from going onto campus because of his participation in student a protest. Though he was no longer allowed onto school grounds, meaning that he was unable to attend any classes, he had not technically been expelled. Nevertheless, DeMott soon decided to quit Columbia. The campus politics were distracting him from Plato.

      After leaving college, DeMott worked two jobs for a while, one at a bookstore and the other at the Manhattanville station of the U.S. Postal Service on 125th Street, where he would continue working for the next 30 years.

      In 1978, seven years after dropping out, DeMott had a wife, Maria, and a son, Jamie, whom he named after James Brown. Maria was working for the University, and so DeMott took advantage of the opportunity to take free classes at Columbia until, eventually, he decided to work the late-night shifts at the post office and dedicate the daylight hours to full-time university study.

      DeMott completed his bachelor’s in English at Columbia College in 1980. “Naturally, I didn’t go to my graduation,” he says, chuckling.

      Long after the age of “gym crow” and the end of the Vietnam War, DeMott has continued to fight against Columbia. Spend just a short amount of time speaking with DeMott, and it won’t be long before he brings up his “10-year battle” against the University’s Manhattanville campus expansion or tells you about how “the presence of Columbia [is] so damningly elitist.”

      Nowadays, DeMott speaks about the battle in past tense, although he says, “If we have a thinking and reflective mind, we are always in the middle of battles.”

      Recently, DeMott has occupied himself with other activities: his short stories, his music, his songs, his poems, his paintings, taking care of his mother who passed away last spring, tending to his three cats (Twilly, Iris, and Homes), and warbling “Help me Jesus” to Shailaya.

      This is the first personal profile of a man whom the media most often depicts shouting, not singing. His house, filled with old records and books like Egyptian Art in the Age of the Pyramids and Games for Reading, reveals that there may be a person behind the political character. I wondered whether DeMott’s experience at Columbia had shaped anything other than his activism.

      “I had a couple of professors who really encouraged my writing,” DeMott says. “That was helpful, and that gave me a sense of confidence.”

      But DeMott’s identity as a Columbian, not as an anti-Columbian, is tenuous. He doesn’t consider himself a Columbia Lion. He finds the term “Columbian” too limiting, although he points out that he is also hesitant to label himself an activist. He is not proud of having gone to Columbia.

      “I would be proud of it if everybody had a chance to go there,” he says. “I don’t worry about and never thought about being a part of the Columbia community. The whole idea scares me. … I certainly felt a sense of community while I was at Columbia. It just wasn’t Columbia University.” It was the student activist community.

      DeMott’s relationship with the University is, and perhaps has always been, divided between loving his classes and hating his college. A poster of Bob Dylan, a man whose song had helped to bring him here, was up on the wall of the dorm room his first year at Columbia, where he would pin a political button on his chambray shirt before going outside to demonstrate. For DeMott, though, such a division is not a conflict nor is it a hypocrisy. He says that his relationship with the University is like a person’s relationship with a musician: Some songs are “the greatest thing in the world,” and some are “a piece of crap.”

      “I can really point to Columbia University as an institution and really think that it reflects some of the worst things about culture and about civilization,” DeMott says. “At the same time, I can love the classes. I can love the intellectual experience that I had even fighting against the place.”

      A few days prior to our interview, I hung out with DeMott for an hour at what he calls the 29th annual West Harlem Anti-Gentrification Street Fair, a low-key block party on Tiemann Place. There, I told him that WikiCU had named him “enemy of the state.” He laughed.

      As the light dims in the comfortable apartment, I confess to him that I didn’t want to use WikiCU’s words to name this article. “Frenemy of the state” I thought would be more accurate.

      “Frenemy of the state,” DeMott repeats. “I don’t quite buy that. I think enemy of the state is a closer truth, and I think it’s funny too, by the way, and I actually think it’s quite complimentary.”

      At the end of our interview, DeMott is still sitting on the piano bench. He cradles his guitar like a soft kitten. He plays an original, “On The Shoreline.” I halfway expect to hear a lamentation of the loss of some of the old Manhattanville—after all, DeMott now lives in the shadow of the Columbia campus expansion he’s spent the past decade protesting. But I’ve assumed too soon.

      “He came along one step at a time down the shoreline to love me. She came along in wind so strong down the shore line, down the shore line to love me,” he croons.

      “Maybe this is the man behind the Manhattanville Tom DeMott,” I think to myself, and then I notice the large and colorful canvas partially obscured behind the bench.

      “HARLEM IS NOT FOR SALE,” DeMott has painted on it in red, black, and green. I realize then that I’ve been looking at it all wrong: the Bernie Sanders sticker on the front door, the outsider art on the walls, the books (Junk Politics: The Trashing of the American Mind, which was written by his father Benjamin DeMott, is shelved alongside The Baroque Poem)— “A part of my everyday life is always resisting bullshit,” DeMott had told me.

      There is no person behind the politics. Activism is behind Tom DeMott.


   cross-examining elizabeth

      Speech, Silence, and the Central Park Five at Columbia University

  Charles Wenzelberg


        What happened to Patricia Ellen Meili in Central Park on the night of Wednesday, April 19th was awful. However, it was anything but an anomaly in 1989 New York City. This was a New York with crack on the streets, graffiti on the subways, and crime all over. An average of 36 murders per week caused street smart people to use at least two and even up to four locks on their doors plus a police lock for added protection. Just in the week of Meili’s brutal beating and rape alone, there were 28 other reported incidences of first-degree rape or attempted rape across the city.

        From our present-day perspective, it is easy to forget that when Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, and Raymond Santana Jr. – the East Harlem teenagers who, along with Korey Wise, would later become known across the city as the Central Park Five – left the Schomburg Plaza with 33 to 39 other Black and Latino youth at around 9pm, the Central Park that they traversed was not the “oasis from the insanity [of the city]” advertised in today’s Lonely Planet. The buildings were crumbling, the garbage was overflowing, and the green areas had all turned brown, even in April’s spring.

        In a New York where the jails were overcrowded and in a park whose grassy fields had dwindled down to dirt and dust, there was, in spite of the overblown media attention, nothing truly exceptional about the case. In fact compared to other crimes, the Central Park Jogger saga had ended quite well. Meili, the tragic victim who had been beaten beyond recognition, regained her health, and “the wolf pack,” as the media referred to McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana, and Wise who were accused of attacking Meili, was locked away with sentences ranging from seven to 13 years thanks to the hard work and diligence of the legal team led in part by the curly-headed assistant district attorney, Elizabeth Lederer, 36 years old at the time.

   Michael Norcia

        However, 13 years later, the perfectly woven tale of a successful, young, White woman nearly slain by the lust and violence of dark thugs on a dangerous night in a crime-ridden city began to unravel as a new confession to the crime appended an afterward to the happy ending of the Central Park Jogger case. On December 19th, 2002, New York State Supreme Court Justice Charles J. Tejada vacated the convictions of the Central Park Five, each of whom had already served their full sentences, based on a reinvestigation of the case that determined the falsity of the Central Park Five’s confessions and proof that serial rapist and murderer Matias Reyes was, in fact, solely responsible for the crime.

        With Reyes’ confession and his DNA confirmed to have been on Meili’s body, a shadow spread over the Central Park Jogger drama, casting its characters in a new light. The villains became victims. It was no longer the Central Park Jogger case. It was the Central Park Five case as the wrongfully convicted youths were held as tragic heroes, much as Meili had been perceived a decade earlier. The then heroes became villains as Lederer, once praised for her performance in a landmark case, became, in the eyes of many, the embodiment of a racist rule of law as she was accused of coercing false confessions and ignoring the gaping inconsistencies in the stories that had been crafted about the crime.

        It was the Central Park Five’s speech, their taped confessions, that were used as the primary source of evidence against them, and it was Reyes’ speech, his eventual admission of guilt, that led to the Central Park Five’s exoneration.

        Much of the aftermath of this case though has been marked by silences. Even in the very beginning, the city’s relative silence about other incidences of rape amplified the noise around the Central Park Jogger case, a media uproar that many have identified as a significant factor leading to the public’s conviction of the five boys far before their legal trial.

        In particular, silence has played a unique and significant role in the story of Lederer’s life since the Central Park Jogger case. Whereas Linda Fairstein, the city prosecutor who assigned Lederer to the case, stepped down from her position as the head of the sex crimes unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office after the convictions were overturned, Lederer remains an active prosecutor. Whereas in November last year, Mystery Writers of America, a literary group, withdrew the “Grand Master” award for literary achievement, which it had given to Fairstein only two days prior, because of her role in the Central Park Jogger case, Lederer has not received any comparable repercussions.

        This unequal treatment could perhaps be due in part to the differences in Lederer and Fairstein’s own relationships with silence about the case. Whereas Fairstein, even after 2002, continues to defend the original investigation and assert the guilt of McCray, Salaam, Santana, Richardson, and Wise, Lederer has kept quiet about what happened.

        Today, the silences around the Central Park Five, and around Lederer more specifically, are not only aural but are visual as well.

    Thomas Guercio

        Nearly every publicly available photograph of Lederer taken in 1989 is in black and white. In almost all of the pictures, she wears a dark blazer, white blouse, pencil skirt, stud earrings, and white shoes. In one photograph, she is seen smiling with an expanding file folder and papers held against the crook of her right arm as she heads to court to cross-examine Salaam. One would hardly recognize her as the same smiling woman reclining on a yellow towel in a beach chair wearing a dark swimsuit and holding a cocktail in her right hand: the current cover photo of her Facebook page.

        One would be even less likely to recognize her from her faculty bio on the Columbia Law School website, the first webpage that pops up when the words “elizabeth lederer” are entered into Google. When seen through the lens of the Law School, Lederer is a faceless person, a name with a vague description. Not even her Columbia email is listed.

        The previously-stated changed to in 2013. In spite of the original convictions having been overturned and the case’s prosecution having been condemned over a decade earlier, it was also not until 2013 that the Law School silenced any mention of Lederer’s connection to what was previously included as the first of two “high profile cases” that Lederer worked on.

        This information appears to have been removed in response to an act of speaking out against Lederer’s position as an adjunct faculty member at the Law School. She has held the position at least since 2010 – eight years after the Central Park Five were judged innocent. This speech against her working at Columbia came in the form of a petition started by a man named Frank Chi, who in 2013 began advocating for Lederer’s removal from Columbia’s faculty after watching the 2012 Ken Burns documentary The Central Park Five, which renewed popular interest in the case.

        The petition, simply titled “Columbia Law School: Fire Elizabeth Lederer”, has itself now been silenced. Since at least late January of this year, the link to the petition, hosted on CREDO Mobilize, has been inactive even though as late as November of last year new voices continued to speak out through signatures added to the petition.

        The absence of the Central Park Five case from Lederer’s Columbia biography, a couple of her students say, is reflective of its absence from her Columbia class: sample trial practice.

        “It hasn’t come up at all,” one of Lederer’s current students tells me. “Nobody’s asked about it. She hasn’t brought it up on her own… for all I know, it hasn’t been talked about.”


        In spite of the tacit silence, another of Lederer’s current students claims that all 14 people enrolled in her class are well aware of their teacher’s past. In fact, the student tells me that, when deciding which of the three spring trial practice sections to take, they were cautioned by their advisor “that Professor Lederer is very good but that she also is a controversial figure.”

        It is the controversy of a person who, as one of her students describes her, “seems like somebody who really just wants to put people in cages”, that caused 8,635 petitioners, including many Columbia affiliates, to advocate against Lederer working in our school, and yet, she remains, returning to the Law School’s Room 107 every Wednesday night to teach.

        The significance Lederer’s presence as a living artifact of this history holds for Columbia and its surrounding neighborhood, the same Harlem community that raised those five young boys before they completed their childhoods in prison cells, is one story of the Central Park Five that has not yet been told. However, it is this Central Park Five story that is, perhaps, most relevant to us as students, staff, faculty, administrators, or simply curious observers of the school that has hired the person at the contentious center of the Central Park Five case.

        Professor Lederer is infamous for allegedly forcing false speech and mobilizing it as a weapon against five innocent children. In exploring the ramifications of the silences surrounding her story, we can clearly see the role that University affiliates and non-affiliates have had in sustaining the symbolic power of Lederer’s legacy.

•     •     •

        To most people in Harlem, the name Elizabeth Lederer means nothing, Michael Henry Adams, a well-known Harlem activist and historian, tells me.

        “Many Harlem people, just on principle, they looked at the prosecutors and the whole police force just as pigs,” Adams explains. “And they wouldn’t see [Lederer] as any different or more benign than any of the rest of them.”

        Adams references a long and well-documented history of racially-biased interactions with representatives of government and law enforcement in Harlem. The relationship between Harlemites and law enforcement has been one of distrust and abuse, qualities not all that different from Columbia’s own relationship with Harlem.

        In July 1964, four years before Harlemites and Black Columbia students rose up in response to the University’s proposal to build a segregated athletic facility in Morningside Park, riots broke out in Harlem and various other parts of the city and country in response to the murder of a Black high school student in Harlem by an off-duty, White police officer.

        These riots occurred only 21 years after another Harlem riot, in 1943, in response to a White police officer who shot an African-American soldier in Harlem and only 25 years before the Central Park Jogger case, which Adams cites as one of only two times that there were almost riots since he moved to Harlem in the 1980s.

        Within the context of these spectacular events and other more everyday forms of racial bias and abuse experienced by people in Harlem, the importance of Lederer as a figure, Adams explains, is diluted. It was not Lederer who shot and killed James Powell in 1964, nor was it Lederer who shot and wounded Robert Bandy in 1943.

See the source image

   Dick De Marsico

        With a consistent pattern of negative law enforcement interactions, the exact identity of a particular prosecutor or police officer, Adams tells me, loses its importance with time.

        “For many people,” Adams says, “[Lederer is] just part of the nameless, faceless police, so Columbia students know who she is, but…” I interrupt Adams, and I tell him that for us she is also without a face, seemingly even without a uni, as her page on the Law School website shows.

        Although Lederer may remain an anonymous figure for much of the neighborhood, the impact of the Central Park Five case is still a very real, lived experience for a lot of people in Harlem. At the time of the case, although the majority of mainstream media was ready to blame the five boys, a large community of people in Harlem doubted their guilt and pushed back against what they felt was a racially-biased trial.

        “I don’t feel that I am very protected in an incident that I may be near or may be close to,” Belkis Valerio, a resident of The Bronx who works in Harlem, tells me in Spanish. “Because of discrimination or whatever it may be, I could become involved in a situation like that [like the Central Park Five].”

        Many people of color in Harlem, like Valerio, believe that they could have taken the place of The Five and still can if they were to become involved in a similar situation today.

Central Park 5 Evidence  New York City Law Department

        “It was because of their skin color,” says Donna Gooden, a Black Harlemite explaining her interpretation of the 1989 case. “It just breaks my heart because our Black kids, our Black boys are targets and victims.”

        “Virtually most people in Harlem said ‘that could be my child,’” Adams says.

        The community’s feelings about Lederer herself though are much murkier, even among The Five.

        Santana, one of The Five, signed the petition against Lederer, but Wise, who served the longest sentence even though he wasn’t even in Central Park that night, feels more ambivalent about her.

        “So what where she work at,” Wise says. “She’s doin’ her job.”

        To some others in Harlem though, Lederer wasn’t doing her job at all.

        “She wasn’t a good prosecutor,” says Miguel Clemente, a lifelong East Harlemite. “To me, my opinion, she wasn’t if she got these kids sentenced.”

        Regardless of Lederer’s culpability for her work on the Central Park Jogger case, the fact is that, for many people in Harlem, Lederer is more than just a reflection of a racially-biased legal system. In continuing to hire Lederer, in staying silent about her role in the Central Park Five case, and in its lack of response to the 2013 petition, Columbia speaks to the Harlem community about its values.

        As Derrick Moore, a Black Harlem resident who grew up across the street from the Central Park Five, explains “[Columbia] should take a more active role about who they hire and how it affects the people here in the community… Maybe, she is qualified to teach, or maybe not. I’m not sure about that, but it’s kind of disheartening that the process continues to be like ‘hell with the people that live here.’”

        What residents like Moore feel is The University’s disregard for their community is exemplified by the fact that Columbia Law School has become a safe haven for Lederer in the middle of a neighborhood full of people who once actively despised her.

        As the case went on, Lederer would commute to and from court surrounded by an outfit of police officers to protect her from the angry citizens outside, particularly people of color, who would yell insults and threaten her in outrage over the case and trial proceedings.

See the source image  Chester Higgins, Jr.

        Even Wise, 16 years old at the time and the only one of The Five currently living in Harlem, turned to Lederer just after being charged for first-degree assault, sexual abuse, and riot and said “you bitch, you’ll pay for this. Jesus is going to get you.”

        In 2013, Lederer received death threats as Burns’ documentary about the case as well as the petition to remove Lederer from Columbia renewed old anger against her.

        Nowadays though, Lederer seems to be neither crowd-fearing nor God-fearing. When she finishes her class on Wednesday night at 8:10, she walks out of the front door of the Law School, crosses Amsterdam, and continues on through College Walk to Broadway alone.

        While Lederer herself may feel secure on her way through campus, her presence at the school makes some students uneasy.

        “I’m always gonna be wondering what that turning point would be for any of her Black students,” says Ayomide Omobo Law School ’21. “When do they stop being the good kid that she actually likes in her class and just be another Black child in the wrong place at the wrong time?”

        Some other students though believe that having a controversial professor contributes to the intellectual diversity of the Law School.

        “It’s another facet of education,” says one of Lederer’s current students. “It makes your legal education more real.”

        Many students point out that Lederer’s story is only one out of many examples of systemic injustice at Columbia.

        As Céline Zhu BC ’20, co-president of the Columbia Pre-Law Society, puts it “[at Columbia] we also have professors on this campus that do literal acts of violence that we turn a blind eye to… There’s so many other professors… that we allow to go through life and not really question either.”

        Just this year, The Spectator discovered that the University has never taken tenure away from professors, even in instances where professors have been convicted of sexual harassment or assault.

        In 2010, the same year that Lederer was hired, Gaviota Velasco SEAS ’11 reported being sexually harassed by a staff member in the Earth and Environmental Engineering Department and told The Spectator that “she never received a response from EOAA [the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action] and had to continue working with her harasser”.

        In November 1986, about two and a half years before the Central Park Five saga began, an anonymous student’s allegations of sexual harassment by then political science professor Seweryn Bialer were denied, and the University’s General Counsel pinned the problem as simply arising from Bialer’s “gregarious and open manner.” Bialer, who passed away this February, continued teaching at Columbia for another 11 years.

  Columbia Daily Spectator/Nov. 19, 1986

        It is darkly ironic that these three incidences, which are only a portion of the published examples of faculty and staff misconduct against students, all involve ignored allegations of sexual harassment or assault. Lederer’s job is to prosecute exactly these kinds of crimes. Yet for those who view her as one in a number of implicit or explicitly violent faculty members at Columbia, Lederer is aligned with people like Velasco and Bialer. Like them, she is a faculty member with questionable morals and actions and whose presence causes some people to feel unsafe.

        Even one of Lederer’s current students expresses their moral qualms about taking her class. They joined her class in spite of her history only because of what they say is the difficulty getting into any section of sample trial practice, much less guaranteeing that they are not in the one run by Lederer.

        “Ethically, it’s conflicting” the student says. “It’s sort of hard to sit there and not consider her past… It’s in the back of my head the whole time, like especially when she says things about criminal defendants that seem somehow disrespectful.”

        Omobo emphasizes that safety is not just physical but mental and emotional as well. Therefore, while Lederer, unlike Velasco or Bialer, does not commit any form of physical violence, she does cause some people, like Omobo, to feel emotionally violated.

        Echoing Zhu’s comments though, Omobo says that, when she thinks more about it, she is actually not too shocked that Lederer works at Columbia.

        “I’m surprised that this person did this thing, and then over the next couple of hours, I’m like ‘why am I surprised,’” Omobo reflects. “This is what it is. This is what it always is. This is what they always do. Columbia doesn’t care about us… This is just another way that they show it.”

  Steve Schapiro

        Similar to Omobo, when I speak to Eric Seiff Law School ’58, who was Wise’s lawyer during the 2002 case, he tells me that the Law School’s continued hiring of Lederer is just “Columbia being Columbia.”

        If Lederer is unexceptional, a mere manifestation of Columbia’s role as, what Omobo calls, “an instrument of White supremacy,” then maybe it makes sense that, in spite of a petition with thousands of signatures, an op-ed in The New York Times and a counter op-ed in The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates along with articles by BET, The New York Post, The Hollywood Reporter and others all about Lederer and her faculty position at our school, the majority of the people that I spoke to, including students at the Law School, had no idea who Lederer is or knew that she works at Columbia.

        Before the publication of this article, Lederer’s name only appeared in The Spectator three times, each in relation to a rape case involving a Columbia student that Lederer worked on over four years prior to the Central Park Five case.

        When I speak to the editor in chief and city news editor of The Spectator from 2013, the year that the petition encouraged coverage of Lederer in national news outlets, they both tell me that they don’t remember ever hearing about Lederer but that the story would have been one that The Spectator would have had an interest in covering.

        The Spectator’s silence on this issue may be read as a testament to how insignificant Lederer’s story may seem against the backdrop of the many similar machinations of a University that, Zhu says, is “self-serving… [and] has an interest in maintaining itself” at the expense of some of its students and surrounding community.

  Columbia Daily Spectator/Apr. 11, 2019

        The other importance of the absence of Lederer from the pages of our publication is that it reveals how The Spectator itself fits within a larger framework of media violence against the Central Park Five.

        The response of The Spectator to Lederer is opposite that of many other media organizations, like the ones listed above. Instead, The Spectator, in choosing silence over speech, most resembles  the responses of Lederer and of the University administration itself. However, the violence associated with Lederer’s silence, the University’s silence, and the silence of The Spectator is just one of many acts of violence mainstream media has wrought against The Central Park Five and people affected by the case.

        The media plays an especially complicated role in the story of The Five. Sometimes through its silence and other times through its speech, media outlets have been accused of participating in the harm caused by the case and its aftermath.

        In 1989 for example, the speed and voracity with which the media covered the Central Park Jogger story attributed an act and attitude of violence to “the wolf pack” even before they ever entered a courtroom.

        By contrast, historian Craig Steven Wilder says in an interview for the The Central Park Five documentary that, in 2002, “I felt ashamed, actually, for New York, and I also felt extremely angry because their innocence never got the attention that their guilt did. The furor around prosecuting them still drowns out the good news of their innocence.”

The New York Daily News front page for April 21, 1989 about the Central Park Five.                                                                              New York Daily News/Apr. 21, 1989

        During the original case, there were only a handful of newspapers that would publish Meili’s name, the victim of the crime. The constant speech expressed about the five young suspects was almost entirely absent for Meili, whose identity most mainstream media felt should be protected.

        The Amsterdam News, a Black newspaper located in Harlem and one of the papers that decided to publish Meili’s name, made sure to break the silence about Meili in response to what they viewed as the unequal treatment afforded to Tawana Brawley, an alleged African-American rape victim who about a year earlier had had her image and name spoken all over national media.

        Just as it was The Amsterdam News, the oldest Black newspaper in the country, who broke the silence about Meili, it is I, one of the few Black journalists at The Spectator, who break our 34-year silence about Lederer.

        Following the publication of this article, there will be at least one more important speech act made about the Central Park Five. This summer, African-American director Ava DuVernay will release a Netflix miniseries, a narrative retelling of the Central Park Five story, called When They See Us.

        Continuing to speak about the Central Park Five through media like this article or like DuVernay’s show is a crucial part of retaining an historical memory about an ever-repeating past, Adams tells me. Being an historian, it makes sense that Adams stresses how crucial history is to our understanding of the world and, by extension, to how we act in it.

        It is a history of negative interactions with the police that affects how some Harlemites feel about the Central Park Five case. It is a history of allegedly violent faculty and staff members who maintain their employment at Columbia that affect how some students feel about the University. It is a history of loud media made about Lederer’s employment at the Law School that makes The Spectator’s silence so striking.

See the source image

  Dimitrios Kambouris

        With an historical consciousness and knowledge, Adams sees how much of the past remains present in Harlem, especially regarding policing and violence against young Black men.

        “Of course [people in Harlem are affected by the Central Park Five case today],” Adams tells me. “Because nothing’s changed… Amadou Diallo [a 23-year-old African-American man murdered in 1999 by four New York City Police Department officers, who were tried and acquitted] is no different than a Trayvon Martin or a Tamir Rice, so it just continues.”

        And it continues not only in Harlem but also at Columbia.

        On the night of Thursday, April 11th, nearly 30 years to the date of the Central Park Jogger crime, I, a 23-year-old African-American man, walked onto the campus of Barnard College, a school where many students are much like Meili: elite, young, White women. At the Milstein Center, I was confronted by a group of five to six Public Safety officers and was physically restrained and pinned against a countertop after non-violently refusing to show my Columbia ID.

        The Barnard administration initially responded with silence, vaguely referring to an “unfortunate incident” in their original statement on the issue. Like Lederer, who declined our request to be interviewed for this article, the Barnard administration kept its mouth shut when asked to speak out against the racial bias of its Public Safety staff.

        When Barnard finally changed its rhetoric, one Columbia student criticized what he called “cowardice at Columbia” as the administration gave in to pressure to acknowledge the racism involved in what had happened. When the charges against the Central Park Five were overturned, one of the case’s detectives, Michael Sheehan, similarly commented that “to vacate every one of these charges seems to me an act of moral cowardice and political correctness in the worst degree.”

        When I reveal to Omobo who Lederer was in 1989 and who she is at our school today, she complains that “instead of hiring people who can make Columbia feel safe for everyone, you’re hiring someone who does the exact opposite”.

        Columbia University Public Safety states that its mission is “to enhance the quality of life for the Columbia community… where the safety of all is balanced with the rights of the individual,” but not all of the individuals in the Columbia community see Public Safety officers as people who make them feel safe.

        At the April 12th listening session about Barnard Public Safety’s treatment of me, one Black student says “We’ve all seen these highly publicized incidents of police brutality… [with] local police forces, but now it’s on campus police forces… Is the way that [a Black person] would interact with an outside police officer the same as how you would interact with a Public Safety police officer?”

        Speaking to Omobo in the lobby of her residence hall just across the street from the Law School, she says “being Black in the US is always looking over your shoulder… [Knowing that Lederer works here] just means I’m gonna look over my shoulder just as much inside of Columbia Law School.”

See the source image   Ian@NZFlickr

        In thinking about why the Central Park Five case received so much more media attention than other similar cases at the time, University of Connecticut sociology professor Gaye Tuchman theorizes that the location (Central Park), the timing (two years after the similar Tawana Brawley case), and the demographics (an upper-class White woman allegedly brutalized by lower-class Black men) made it the perfect story for mainstream media. The location (an Ivy League campus), timing (videos of police brutality have recently received a lot of press), and demographics (a Black man walking into a school of predominantly White women) of what happened to me was also a potent mix that made my story go viral.

        The problem with these events though, Adams says, is that be it a Black man murdered by police, a Black student battered by campus safety officers, or Black boys wrongly incarcerated for a rape, the speech about the event eventually ceases to be spoken, and when it does, memories start to fade.

        “Although people have been critical and say ‘oh! We must take this down. This is terrible,’ We forget,” Adams says. “We forget. Every bad thing, we forget it.”

•      •      •

        On May 1st, 1989, 12 days after she was attacked, Meili awoke from her coma. In Burns’ documentary, some of The Five recall feeling relieved. Meili was so severely battered that it was unclear if she would survive, but when she woke, there was hope that her testimony would reveal the truth of what had really happened. When asked though, Meili couldn’t speak about the crime. She had forgotten. Reyes had beaten the memory right out of her brain.

        Of all the absent statements in this story, Meili’s is the only one that was forced. Meili’s silence was an unwanted effect of her trauma, like the Central Park Five’s speech in 1989 was an effect of theirs.

   Kaila Jones

        Unlike Meili, people at Columbia and people in Harlem do remember the relevant past, and the University administration does too. Although time may make our speech about injustices gone by whittle down to whispers, there is no coma that keeps us from contextualizing Columbia’s actions. The question to consider then is how do we manage this memory. Do we say something, or do we, like Lederer, stay silent?

   Afro Mini-Mart

      What’s Inside Vietnam’s First African Grocery Store?

  Chris Humphrey


          At first glance, it looks just like any other convenience store. The same strings of Oishi shrimp snacks and revolving wire rack of Orion Marine Boys adorn either side of its entrance, just as they do at many of the capital city’s corner stores.

          However, a closer look reveals that, though it dons the same large white lettering on a red background as the signs above VinMart and Circle K, there is something different about Afro Minimart. The map of Africa in lights above the store, the pictures of fufu and eba (popular West African dishes), the dried dates behind the crisps on the wall outside and Simba potato chips alongside rib-eye steak-flavored Lays are all markers of what the owner claims is Vietnam’s first and only African grocery store.

          After seven years studying and working in Vietnam as a software engineer, Afro Minimart’s founder opened the store two years ago. He would rather remain unnamed — more on that later — yet chose to open the shop to help introduce his home country of Nigeria to Hanoi.

   Chris Humphrey

          “Why not bring Africa to Vietnam,” he says, “[I was] like, ‘I need to create something that is different, something that is unique, something that can make people feel Vietnam is more like a home.”

          The owner’s products feature the kind of foreign spices many immigrants miss once they move to Vietnam. The first space the mart filled, therefore, was food.

          While the rice and noodles that dominate Vietnamese cuisine are also staples in Nigeria, the owner noticed how hard it was for many of his compatriots to adapt to local eating habits.

          “Back in Nigeria, noodles are for kids,” he emphasizes. “But here, it’s for everyone. They eat it every morning. But for us, it’s like we’re drinking water. In Nigeria, we eat solid food.”

          In a show of support for those Nigerians fed up with phở, bored of bún, and miffed by miến, the owner looked up a recipe for the West African dish garri on YouTube and, together with his Vietnamese wife, cooked 100 kilograms of what became Afro Minimart’s inaugural item.

          Today, the mart boasts a mix of products from a multitude of places. Black tea sits on a shelf above green plantains. Face masks hang beside fake hair. Shea Moisture is sold near skin-lightening lotion. There are Choco pies and chocolate-flavored Oreos.

  Chris Humphrey

          Describing the diversity of his wares, the owner clarifies that the shop is not all about Africans; Americans, Indians, Europeans, and anyone else in search of spice comes to visit. Even the very name of the store is designed to make it accessible to a wide variety of people.

          “We don’t want Vietnamese to look at it like it’s a place they cannot come,” the owner reasons. “They will just see that it is ‘afro.’ They won’t even know what is the meaning of ‘afro’ anyway. If you write the full name — African Minimart — they will feel like ‘it’s a place we shouldn’t go.’”

          Equivocating the store’s name, however, was more than just a smart business decision. Curtailing the outward expression of the mart’s African identity via the ambiguity of the word “afro” also served as an important defense mechanism as appearing too black may put off Vietnamese, while enraging Africans simultaneously.

          The owner recalls, for example, how the store’s sign was originally decorated with the image of the face of Oduduwa, a deity of the Yoruba religious pantheon. The face is dark with big lips, a broad nose, and lots of hair. The owner says it is a common thing to see in western Nigeria.

          Yet within only a day of putting the face on the sign, people had already started posting negative comments about it on Facebook.

          “‘Who the hell put this freakin’ face on a shop?! Is it that the Vietnamese have started racism again?! How can they put Oduduwa’s face on a shop?!” one comment read.

  Chris Humphrey

          The owner and his brother-in-law quickly rushed to the store soon after to remove the face. Now, the only human figure on the store’s sign is a racially ambiguous, lime-green colored person on a motorbike meant to advertise the store’s speedy delivery service. Where the face once appeared, there’s now a large map of Africa.

          Even without Oduduwa’s face out front and after adopting the relatively nebulous word “afro,” the owner agreed to participate in this article only on condition of anonymity due to the possibility that his work at the store may prompt a racially discriminatory backlash from the Vietnamese employers at his other jobs.

          The owner says his fear is not unfounded. In nearly a decade of living in Vietnam, the owner has had a number of run-ins with racism, from being asked why his skin is so dark all the way up to having a manager hide from him during a job interview.

          In direct response to some of his negative experiences, the owner began working to support African expats here in ways other than running Afro Minimart. While the mart provides customers with a taste of home or ingredients for African restaurants, the owner also does what he can to provide his community with housing. He owns an apartment building, and all of his tenants are African. Oftentimes, he points out, Vietnamese landlords or neighbors will not accept black people, and so he says his building is one of the few available places that many dark-skinned expatriates can find.

  Chris Humphrey

          The owner cares for Hanoi’s African population in more personal ways as well, sometimes by simply sitting down with young Nigerians in his shop and talking to them about how to make it in Vietnam.

          At the end of every day, the owner drinks a bottle of Orijin Bitters and enjoys his wife’s African cooking, including egusi soup, a dish he is adamant was unavailable in Vietnam before he opened the store. In spite of the racial issues he’s faced, he now considers Hanoi home. 

          “I learned from [Vietnamese people] a lot,” the owner says. “They go out and look simple, look small, but they are big back home.” Afro Minimart, a small store with a big mission, he says, is the same.