Originally aired on February 27, 2008.
When I was taking the bus into New York City a week ago, I saw one of those huge posters plastered to the side of a building just as we were getting into the city. The poster read:
The West Harlem Community knows how to share.
Why don’t you?
Stop threatening eminent domain.
Intrigued, I followed the website provided at the bottom of the poster. There I found a story that didn’t surprise me as much as I wish it would have. Columbia University wants to expand its property in West Harlem community to build a new bio-research lab so that it can continue to compete with other Ivy League Universities. In media released by the University or entities sympathetic to the expansion, the West Harlem community is portrayed as run-down industrial area that is a “blight” on Manhattan. It neglects the fact that this community happens to be a vibrant community with one of the lowest crime rates in the city.
Columbia effectively wants to take over this 17-acre chunk of West Harlem and use it to suit the University’s needs without any regard for the West Harlem community. Because community residents and business owners do not want to leave, Columbia has resorted to threatening to use eminent domain laws to seize the land of these business owners and residents. Seizures through eminent domain are intended to be used for public projects such as schools, highways, and public buildings. However, it has become more and more frequent recently that state governments interpret the law to apply to private companies as long as the property can somehow be argued to serve a “public use”. There are important legal decisions that counter this trend, but they are far from the norm. Columbia can argue that, as a University (even a private one), they ostensibly serve some public purpose. Furthermore, because Columbia will develop and gentrify the neighborhood, they can claim that they are serving a public purpose by removing the blight of the West Harlem community. But as this area is “developed” affordable housing will disappear, displacing a large group of the community. Is this really a public service?
I found out about a similar situation with Harvard a few months back. Harvard wants to expand into the working class neighborhoods of Allston/Brighton to build – you guessed it – a biotechnology research center. Unlike Columbia though, Harvard has been covertly buying up land through a number of dummy real estate companies. In response, the Allston/Brighton community formed Neighborhood Assemblies, which are directly-democratic associations of local residents and workers united to combat Harvard’s expansion. Also in the Boston area, there is a similar struggle going on against the Biolab proposed by Boston University to go in the South End of Boston where they conduct research on such organisms as Ebola and anthrax right in the heart of residential community.
This information should make all of us deeply question this situation. These are questions that I hope you will consider because they are also questions that I don’t have the answer to:
First off, why do so many elite universities suddenly want to build Bioresearch facilities? Could it have anything to do with the increasingly militaristic and imperialist nature of the United States government? The wars that we are fighting and will in all likelihood fight in the future will create tons of high-paying jobs in the bioresearch field.
Next we should ask if it is just a coincidence that all these wealthy universities are trying to get land for these projects from the poor communities surrounding their campuses. Is there a connection between the oppression our government will inflict on people abroad with these new biotechnologies and the oppression taking place in the back yards of the universities developing those technologies?
Finally, we need to ask who institutions of higher learning – such as Columbia and Harvard – really benefit. Columbia claims that its bio-research facility and development on the land constitutes “public use” under eminent domain. These institutions claim to benefit our society as a whole because they educate citizens of this country and yet they clearly do not mind trampling over poor people in their own backyards. If these institutions really benefited the entire community, then why do these elite institutions always seem to be surrounded by poor neighborhoods such as Harlem bordering Columbia and New Haven around Yale?
I think all of these questions are important in rethinking the role of elite education in our society.
Westharlembusinessgroup.com – for more information about Columbia’s project in Harlem
Baamboston.org – for more information about Harvard’s expansion into Allston/Brighton
Stopthebiolab.org – for more information on the proposed Biolab in the South End of Boston