Steven Gregory, “The Radiant University”

Steven Gregory recently published a paper in City & Society, “The Radiant University: Space, Urban Redevelopment, and the Public Good,” in which he analyzes Columbia University’s efforts to expand its Morningside Heights campus into West Harlem. The paper came out in 2013, so let’s call it “relatively recent” rather than brand new, but it makes a good contribution to the literature on universities and urban geography, and thus falls within Academography’s ambit. Gregory’s paper is more ethnographic than conceptual, but its significance lies precisely in the wealth of detail provided by its extended case study.

Gregory’s story is a tale of “David and Goliath”: it recounts how Columbia University fought to get the power to expand its campus into Manhattanville (an area in West Harlem just north of the historical Columbia campus in Morningside Heights) and how the community sought, unsuccessfully, to resist. It seems that Columbia would have preferred simply to have bought up all the property in the relevant area. However, since not all property owners wanted to sell, the university was obliged to resort to more complex legal and rhetorical tactics, which in turn elicited legal action and public protests from the community in question. The key weird premise here is that it would have been calamitous for Columbia to only mostly own the Manhattanville area, as if any amount of non-university-owned space was an intolerable form of contamination to campus space. The expansion plans were all or nothing. Thus when in 2009 all but two property owners had sold out to the university, the university still vehemently continued its efforts to acquire the last holdouts (48).

Officially, the explanation for this was architectural: “Columbia officials claimed that exclusive control was necessary in order to construct a “bathtub” below the site; that is, a seven story subterranean basement that would conceal the new campus’s infrastructure and enable pedestrian traffic between buildings” (50). I would interject, though, that there is also a deeply American cultural premise here about the nature of a university campus: that it should be a homogeneous space, fully controlled, scripted, landscaped and functionally effective — in short, a prototypical “walled garden.” Not every U.S. university tries to conform to this cultural norm of spatial purity, but many do, and it creates precisely the “town/gown” divide that so many have subsequently decried. One can get an excellent sense of this walled garden archetype by visiting College Walk at the center of Columbia’s Morningside Heights campus. It’s guarded by high iron gates and a force of security guards — the better to create a safe, imposing, yet beautified space for the wealthy student population. (I hope that if Gregory writes more about this case, he will comment more explicitly on the spatial politics and racialized workforce protecting the original Columbia campus.)

I would surmise that Columbia’s preference for acquiring fully controlled blocs of urban space derived ultimately from its unexamined fidelity to this cultural norm about spatial purity, and that the architectural plans for an underground space were only the superficial manifestation of that fidelity. In any event, as Gregory documents quite thoroughly, the university was subsequently obliged to fabricate a narrative according to which its campus expansion served the public interest, to sell this narrative to the relevant public authorities, and therefore to acquire the right to exercise eminent domain in taking the remaining properties from their recalcitrant Manhattanville owners. It is particularly strange to observe a private non-profit university publicly calling itself “a public institution” on the flimsy grounds that it educates “people in all kinds of areas” and receives Federal funding (55). Doubly strange to find out that the New York State Court of Appeals later ruled that this was a sound claim (64).

Much of Gregory’s paper focuses on the rhetorical labor and political maneuvering that Columbia deployed to get — in the end successfully — the eminent domain rights it wanted. It appears that the university intentionally let some Manhattanville properties deteriorate (having previously purchased them), thus itself producing the very urban decay it went on to critique (60). It hired consultants to organize “sock puppet” pro-expansion advocates who would testify in its favor (63). It maintained a previous business relationship with the firm, AKRF, that was subsequently hired by the public authorities to determine whether the area was officially “blighted” (56). In short, all the usual tactics of urban influence and power-mongering were on display, just as anyone might expect from Robert Caro’s famous study of New York urban planning, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.

The rhetorical component of this project was an ugly effort to represent urban minority neighborhoods as “disorderly” and backwards. As Gregory sums up:

Columbia fashioned a narrative that constructed Manhattanville as a postindustrial dead end, whose salvation could best be achieved through “smart growth”—growth that would resurrect Manhattanville “as a world center for knowledge, creativity and solutions for society’s challenges.” The contrast between an obsolete present and a “smart future” provided the discursive framework for the blight finding and case for eminent domain. The AKRA Neighborhood Conditions Study (and EarthTech Inc.’s subsequent “audit”) employed a rhetoric that emphasized the footprint’s visual and physical isolation from surrounding areas, and the deteriorated state and “functional obsolescence” of existing structures. To overcome this opacity the University promised “transparency,” an architectural ideal rooted in a modernist glass utopia, and in anxieties concerning the disordered diversity of the street. (65-66)

It’s ironic that this sort of temporalized racism and classism — where the minoritized urban other represents the past, while the affluent global elites are the future — got produced by a university that has been at the center of postcolonial studies. I noticed, though, that Gregory does not examine the internal organizational structures of Columbia University in any detail, and indeed, one of the things that is quite striking here is the opacity of private universities in their capacity as corporate actors. It does not appear that Gregory interviewed anyone from the university’s real estate operations or long-term planning offices, but I surmise that it would have been quite difficult to have extracted any candid information from those parts of the institution. Most likely he would just have been transferred to the public relations office. I was still surprised that Gregory barely comments on his own relationship to his employer, other than noting that he did participate in the protests he writes about and that he lives in faculty housing. Yet not all anthropologists end up writing critically about their own employers; I wondered how Gregory came to his project.

Let me make a final comment about where Gregory fits into the field of ethnographic work on higher education. On one hand, as Gregory examines the community protests against the university in some detail, his paper ends up providing useful comparative data to scholars of university politics and protest. I am struck by the extremely heterogeneous, socially diverse composition of the protesters, which included everyone from youth groups to the local SEIU union chapter, and mobilized an unusual inter-ethnic coalition. It would be interesting to compare this with the social composition of earlier protests at Columbia, particularly the famous 1968-9 protests against the university’s effort to build a gym in Morningside Park. And more generally, to compare community-led politics with student-led politics.

In a different relationship, Gregory’s paper brings a controversy-centered, event-oriented, narratively rich perspective to the growing literature on urban space and political economy in higher education. (I’ve just started a Zotero bibliography on this topic.) My favorite bits of this literature remain Gordon Lafer’s “Land and labor in the post-industrial university town” (2003), which is about Yale University’s power to control labor, real estate and racial divides in New Haven, and Kate Eichhorn’s “Breach of Copy/rights: The University Copy District as Abject Zone” (2006), which is a more ethnographic study of the “abject” space of university copy shops nearby the University of Toronto. Gregory’s case could usefully be read or taught alongside these earlier papers; Yale offers an apt comparison case in terms of an elite university’s role in urban development, and Eichhorn’s study raises the broader question of why we so often find zones of social abjection adjacent to large universities. Eichhorn’s paper might even lead us to ask whether elite institutions like Columbia need abject zones like Harlem, the better to establish their own “radiant” status, as Gregory puts it, through sheer force of contrast.

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Eli Thorkelson

Eli Thorkelson edits Academography and also keeps a research blog at decasia.

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