`Not the West Harlem I knew’

Columbia’s expansion has raised fears among Harlem residents. Photos by Luis Gonzalez.


A group of over 20 residents and businesses owners nestled into a small corner room in the office of Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer in West Harlem. The topic of discussion for the night was small businesses, changes in Harlem and concerns about those changes. Owners of small business throughout the neighborhood as well as city agency representatives filled the room.

Another face in the room was Victoria Mason-Ailey, planning and community affairs coordinator at the Offices of Government and Community Affairs at Columbia University. She handed out laminated packets, emblazoned with an image of Columbia’s planned expansion and began to detail how the university is planning to change West Harlem.

“Our project of our campus expansion is a 25-year initiative. We’re looking to build 16 new buildings over the next 25 years,” she said. “You should know that we are currently seeking bids for the three retail sites in the Jerome L. Greene Science Building. I think…one would be for a restaurant, one would be for retail, one possibly a grab-and-go type of merchant.”

Brewer interjected: “All local merchants?”

“That is..the desire but again the bid and the application is online and is accessible to all,” Ailey responded.

Ailey left soon after and attendees across the room had curious looks on their faces. What exactly does this expansion mean?

West Harlem for Sale

Almost like a series of time lapse photos, the landscape of West Harlem is changing. Where there were once family-owned or “mom and pop” businesses there are “FOR RENT” signs or gated storefronts. Empty lots that went decades without a single plant grown or planted are now filled by several stories of concrete slabs that house luxury condominiums. Banners that read “Live in Luxury. Rent Now,” and “Luxury Condos. Call #” line the facades of once affordable building complexes.

Almost impossibly, new specialty restaurants and bars are being created and filled with New Yorkers from other neighborhoods who, at one point, saw no reason to travel north of 110th Street. As journalist Andrew Padilla said, “West Harlem is simply not the West Harlem I knew growing up.”

West Harlem, which is broken into the two smaller neighborhoods of Hamilton Heights and Manhattanville, is in the midst of drastic change and overhaul to its landscape. Simply put, West Harlem is gentrifying.

Gentrification is much more than just rent’s going up; it’s rezoning laws, tax breaks and private sector takeovers that lay the foundation for these changes to take place.

Padilla, a journalist known for his “El Barrio Tours: Gentrification in East Harlem,” has studied gentrification in depth in his native Spanish Harlem.

His definition: “Gentrification is the process of public land being turned over to the private sector, being subsidized by the public sector, forcing rents higher, old residents out and newer wealthier residents in.”

Gone are the days of 99 cent stores standing adjacent to Latino-owned canchas, which serve as discount clothing stores. Now, organic coffee shops, smoothie and shake bars and yoga studios can be found scattered throughout the same places.

If this trend continues, everyone currently living in the neighborhood will be priced out.

Powers of Eminent Domain

The neighborhood of Manhattanville will soon become the backyard of an Ivy League institution, Columbia University. The university’s 17-acre expansion is underway from 125th Street and Broadway, over to the Henry Hudson Parkway, up to 133rd Street and Broadway.

Columbia was able to acquire much of the property through the state’s power of eminent domain on grounds that the area was blighted. The area was ome mainly to warehouses and car repair shops and garages – dimly lit streets and the smell of oil dominated the air. Scaffolding was always prominent and the few block stretch looked like the New York of old – grimy and hard working. But to local residents, the urban “blight” there is alleged to have been due to the negligence of the university itself.

In a New York Times report, Nicholas Sprayregen, owner of Tuck-It-Away storage, who fought to keep his land in Columbia’s Eminent Domain land grab, claimed that the university “warehoused” property after buying it and neglecting it.

Columbia was granted the land, much to the dismay of residents and property owners in the area. According to Columbia’s webpage dedicated to information on the expansion, the project will provide jobs, green space and affordable housing.

In addition, according to a community benefits agreement created as a contingency for seizing the land under eminent domain, Columbia appointed the West Harlem Development Corp. to oversee the following: a $76 million benefits fund to assist nonprofits throughout the neighborhood, $30 million for the Teachers College Community School, $24 million for affordable housing and $20 million in access to Columbia’s new facilities. The total benefit is worth over $150 million.

Floridita, a Cuban restaurant and long-time staple of the community, was relocated as a result of the expansion. It now sits on 12th Avenue on 125th Street, under the Henry Hudson Parkway. There was an agreement between owner Ramon Diaz and Columbia to cover the costs of a build out, according to court records, which Columbia later reduced.

According to court documents, Columbia University reduced the amount it would pay Diaz for the build out of his new space, from $820,000 to $727,000.

According to court documents, Diaz alleged Columbia did not claim responsibility for hazardous conditions as a result of its building project and did not act in good faith according to prior agreements and felt Columbia was attempting to end his business for good.

After two years, Floridita reopened in 2013. The relationship between Diaz and Columbia appeared to be much better.

A Tsunami of Gentrification

The benefits agreement’s figures are grand but can’t prevent what will inevitably happen as the expansion continues to grow – mass gentrification.

“People who have more money who move into a neighborhood and raise the property value,” says Ed Morales, a journalist who co-directed the 2009 film “Whose Barrio?” about the gentrification of East Harlem.

“The upward pressure on rent in the neighborhood and this also encourages landlords to do unscrupulous things, sometimes outside the law like, threatening people to move out of refusing to repair their apartment,” he said.

“And then there’s the involvement of art event and art galleries and pop-up stores that have been classically used in neighborhood that are in the process of being gentrified to create an aura of desirability around the neighborhood,” Morales said.

A gallery, Gitler, was built on 148th Street and Broadway last year.

Kenneth Thornton, a licensed real estate agent and resident of West Harlem, echoed some of the sentiments of Morales.

“It comes down to prices and neighborhood amenities – not even just your bar or coffee shop but you’re right near the water here. You have some parks, you have some green space,” he said. “I feel like a lot of folks are seeing that – maybe they can even afford to live downtown – but downtown is congested, there’s a lot of noise. They come up here and they see wide streets, brownstones, tree- lined streets.”

On the Columbia University expansion, Thornton sees proposed amenities that will continue to draw people into the neighborhood, from future university students to renters.

“That development is only going to spur more interest in the area,” he said. Green space, retail space, those are neighborhood amenities that you really didn’t see over there .” [

Thornton said one sign that the neighborhood has “made it” for real estate development is that it is being considered for hotels. ”They see the people now wanting to move into this part of Manhattan,” he said .

According to a New York Post report, a hotel headed by a former Soho House executive will be built in Manhattanville in the near future. Soho House is a members only boutique hotel in Soho.

A Warning Sign

Sitting in a quaint, new Italian restaurant on 149th Street and Broadway, Angela Long recalled the events of September 28, 2015. Around 4:30 a.m. an electrical fire broke out in her room and proceeded to eviscerate nearly two thirds of her apartment. “There were no walls, no ceilings, there was three inches of water…so it was pretty bad.”

Luckily, she, her son and pets escaped unharmed. Soon after the fire was put out the Red Cross came to deliver care packages. A cleanup crew arrived and floodwater was removed from the apartment. “I thought to myself what am I going to do? Where am I going to go? I was overwhelmed.” Under the circumstances she had no choice but to rent a hotel room temporarily, she said.

Her story then twists once she tries to get in contact with the building management company for repairs.

“What is it? November 16th? And still no word from the management company,” she said. Her apartment has had no repairs since the date of the fire and the building’s management company has been reluctant or unwilling to address the situation. She has called 311 and even hired an attorney to help her throughout the process with no results. Fortunately, she admitted, she had renters’ insurance, which is covering the rent of a nearby apartment for two years.

The displacement proved to be a heavy burden on the shoulders of her and even her son, who began “acting out” in school shortly after the fire.

“It’s a rent-stabilized apartment so every, about nine months, they try to do some sort of eviction. Like, they won’t cash the rent checks and then say the rent hasn’t been paid.”

Her aunt, who rented the space before her, also experienced similar neglect, from constant flooding, to ceilings that would collapse on top of her. Eventually, Long convinced her aunt to let the management company do repairs. The repairs were left half done. In 2009, Long felt she had no choice but to move in to ensure repairs were completed.

“It was strategic. It’s a mixed-income building but I’m sure it won’t be for much longer. Whenever the get the chance they’ll jack it up [the rent],” said Long.

When she first moved in she paid $780 a month for rent; now she pays $1,400.

“They were trying to evict me and it was going to trial…and I was just tired of fighting,” she said. The company maintained that Long was not legally allowed to be in the apartment since her aunt’s name was on the lease. (The building’s management company did not return a phone call.)

After agreeing to a rent increase, she was allowed to sign a lease and remain at the apartment, she said.

According to Morales, such are warning signs of gentrification.

Demographic Changes in West Harlem

The evidence is very clear in terms of demographic shifts and declines in West Harlem. Hamilton Heights saw an increase in its white population of 231 percent and a decrease in its black population by 25 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. census. Manhattanville experienced similar changes with its white population increasing by 234 percent and its black and Latino population decreasing by 21.9 and 9.5 percent respectively, according to census data.

A 2010 New York Times report found that in 2008, 22 percent of white households in Harlem had moved in within the previous year.

A 2000 census data table for Community District 9, which is comprised of Hamilton Heights, Manhattanville and Morningside Heights, shows income levels between $50,000 and $74,999 at 12.0 percent. Based on the American Community Survey fro 2009 to 2013, shows an increase to 16.2 percent.
Residents have also started paying more for rent, on average, according to census data. 2000 census data shows that 3.7 percent of renters paid over $1,500 a month for rent. The American Community Survey for 2009 to 2009-2013 show that this number wnet up to 21.4 percent.

Who’s Able to Afford These Rents?

An apartment complex at 525 W. 133rd St., was built within the last five years next to a New York City Housing Authority complex. Apartments rent from $1,850 to $3,125 a month, according to streetesasy.com. If the median income for the neighborhood is $38,735 a year, who exactly are these apartments for?

Another inquiry into The Westborne on 137th Street and Broadway reveals similar rent prices. The building, which hangs a “Luxury Rentals” banner on its façade, features apartments that range from $2,655 to $4,950 a month, according to streeteasy.com

Apartment hunters would be hard pressed to find an apartment in West Harlem for less than $1,800 a month. Obviously these apartments are not targeted towards people living in the neighborhoods.

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