Columbia U., Race, Class and the Gentrification of Harlem

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Nellie Bailey: Ethnic cleansing in Harlem led by Columbia U., whose Chair is also chair of the New York Fed

Story Transcript

NELLIE HESTER BAILEY, COFOUNDER, HARLEM TENANTS COUNCIL: This is a condo, very expensive, $500,000, $1 million units, across from Marcus Garvey Park.

DAVID DOUGHERTY, TRNN: Harlem is changing. Widely considered the historic cultural capital of black America, the neighborhood situated in New York City’s Upper Manhattan area looks very different today from its life in previous decades. Where there were once crumbling tenement housing complexes and a critical lack of infrastructure and services, there now stand luxurious new condominiums and a variety of upscale urban amenities. The cityscape is not the only thing that has changed in Harlem. The population is looking increasingly wealthier and whiter, as newcomers continue to move to the neighborhood while previous residents find themselves moving out as housing prices and the cost of living skyrocket. Harlem community activist Nellie Hester Bailey says the neighborhood’s experience with gentrification raises important questions about who benefits most from urban economic revitalization.

BAILEY: Well, when you redevelop houses, any house, and of course it’s good, the issue is: why–and this is a standard reply of so many old-timers in Harlem–why is it that the development here was only worthwhile when whites moved in? Why didn’t we see this? Why was this not done for us? Why were we allowed to live in the misery of drug infections and vacant lots that was littered with glass and garbage and needles? And I think that’s a legitimate question. And it’s fair for one to ask what undergirds all of this, this public policy and legislation, if it’s not race and class.

DOUGHERTY: Harlem and the rest of New York City have witnessed a steady decline of their black population, as people displaced by gentrification have been forced to relocate to more affordable parts of the country like the South. Harlem’s black population grew significantly in the early 20th century, as many people migrated from Southern states and were often unable to find housing in many other parts of the city due to the unwillingness of white landlords to rent to people of color. In the 1920s and ’30s the neighborhood became the epicenter of an explosion of black cultural production in the areas of art, music, and literature in an era that became known as the Harlem Renaissance.

BAILEY: This is the famous Cotton Club from the Harlem Renaissance. It has historic note in the Harlem Renaissance, one of the few remaining buildings from that period. It still has a very active clientele and series of events. It is a favorite of the tourists who come into New York City, because it really represents the jazz age period of the Harlem Renaissance.

DOUGHERTY: There are many people from Harlem who share a difficult history of marginalization and abandonment by the state. The area was previously subjected to severe targeted cutbacks in public spending on vital services and regularly endured sustained predatory landlord practices that led the city to repossess a large number of neglected properties that had become uninhabitable. Community investment has long been desired in black Harlem, but neighborhood residents today say they are still feeling betrayed by the city’s policies and the role of real estate markets in decision-making processes.

BAILEY: Black people came to Harlem because they had no other choices. There was nowhere to go. They were pushed into Harlem, into a slum. And it was part of–it was because of institutional racism. It was because of public policy that discriminated. The city used to own 60 percent of the real estate here in Harlem. Why was there not a strategic program of development that developed housing that was income-targeted, that it reflected the reality of the incomes of the people who was here?

DOUGHERTY: There are a number of powerful actors and interests at play, with investment practices in financial and real estate markets. The Manhattanville area of West Harlem is the target site of a large and costly expansion project by the prestigious Columbia University. The private Ivy League school says that it needs more space to accommodate its growing student body and research institutions, and that the project will create thousands of jobs for the community. Those opposed to the move worry that many of the jobs will not become available for years to come and that they may come too late. The announcement of the expansion had already attracted a number of real estate developers to the area, and has since accelerated gentrification and community displacement, as rents continue to rise as a result.

BAILEY: This Columbia University expansion site that expands from 125th to 133rd, from 12th Avenue–which would be, really, the Hudson River to Broadway. And Columbia University’s 18 acre expansion cost about $6 billion.

DOUGHERTY: There have been several legal battles over the power to use eminent domain in Manhattanville, which allows an entity to confiscate private properties if it is determined that the surrounding area is blighted and will be developed for civic purpose. A small number of private property owners have continued to resist attempts by the university to pressure them into selling and relocating, though New York’s Court of Appeals recently ruled in favor of Columbia’s use of eminent domain, reversing an earlier ruling. Columbia University has been accused of manipulating regulation so that the Empire State Development Corporation, a New York public authority that has received significant financial contributions from the university, would determine that there was sufficient blight in the area to initiate the eminent domain-backed land grabs.

BAILEY: Columbia University had its sight on all of these private properties. But in order to jumpstart eminent domain, there has to be a finding of blight. So what did the university do? They allowed their property to become blighted so that the determination of blight would be found to jumpstart the eminent domain process. The public review process that is required for this confiscation was completely controlled by the university. And so it was a foregone conclusion what the results were going to be.

DOUGHERTY: An active and enduring resistance has been born in Harlem in opposition to the expansion project and other motors of gentrification, as community members engage in protests and other forms of organizing. Some residents and organizers like Nellie are concerned about the means by which institutions like Columbia University are able to use their influence and tax exempt status to manipulate levers of power through their connections with financial elites, real estate developers, and the state.

BAILEY: President Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, also serves as the chair the New York Federal Reserve. The Federal Reserve is one of the most powerful financial institutions in the country. One can easily surmise that they are in fact the shapers, the architects of the future of New York, both financially and residentially and commercially. They will determine, through the control in its relationship with the financial markets, what goes on here in New York City.

DOUGHERTY: In addition to Columbia University’s president’s recently appointed role as chair of the New York Fed, there are also a number of other heavy movers in the school’s current 24-member board of trustees. Among them are a number of high-level executives and some of the most powerful financial investment banks, including Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, and Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Also in the ranks of the board of trustees is the owner of a luxury New York City highrise real estate company, as well as a standing judge on the United States Court of Appeals’ Second Circuit court.

BAILEY: Columbia University is a key partner in deciding the future of New York City. They’re not just an educational institution; they’re one of the leaders of the city in deciding the course of growth and development of this city and who stays and who doesn’t.

DOUGHERTY: Harlem’s experience with gentrification and an influential university using its leverage to collaborate with state and private sector elites in large expansion projects is not an anomaly. Places like Boston with schools like Northeastern University, Baltimore with Johns Hopkins University, and Richmond with Virginia Commonwealth University, along with a number of other cases across the country, reflect a growing trend. For Nellie, the development and growth promised by such projects often fails to materialize into concrete gains for working class people of color, who instead find themselves disproportionately pushed out of their communities and into an uncertain future.

BAILEY: The story of Harlem here is really a reflection of the stories of Harlem across this nation, and it is about what are we going to do. This is not just a local problem. It’s not just a Harlem problem. What’s happening in Harlem is happening in the Bronx and Bedford-Stuyvesant, where these communities are being lost, where people are being driven out, and deliberately so, as a result of public policy, which is really about ethnic cleansing. You’ve got to get out of here. We don’t care where you go. New York City has, on any given night, 38,000 people in its homeless shelter system–38,000. Mayor Bloomberg has made it clear we don’t care where you go. We will give you money, a one-way ticket to leave New York City, but we want you out of here. You have to leave. This is expensive real estate. We can no longer afford to have working-class black people here or immigrant communities with great expectations. We have other plans, and these plans are governed and driven by the market.

End of Transcript

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