Manhattanville, New York City: the safeguarding of collective urban narratives and senses of place

Michelle Stefano

The history of New York City, and Manhattan in particular, is one of constant change. Built upon a harbor that has seen the arrival of millions of immigrants and migrants from throughout the country and world, it is a city that has always been pulsating with the rhythms of global economic demands. Nonetheless, in the past several decades, these changes can be argued to threaten its cultural and social fabric at a quickening pace. In particular, this has led to rapid demographic changes in neighborhood composition, mainly as a result of rising real-estate prices and the increasing construction of luxury housing and other amenities.

While there are a plethora of ‘sites’ in which this tension between non-local and local level needs can be explored, this particular case study focuses on local community experiences and responses to the planned expansion of the campus of Columbia University in the area of Manhattanville, West Harlem. Currently, local inhabitants are fearing the loss of their neighborhood, which was historically an area for trade and manufacture, including the making of automobiles. It can be argued that the expansion of Columbia, an Ivy-league University, reflects neoliberal policy in that it is seeking to both attract and accommodate an increasing number of students as it situates itself as an educational centre on a global stage. For instance, on its website, Columbia states its intentions as follows:

As new fields of knowledge emerge, the nation's universities are growing to pursue the expanding missions of teaching, research, public service, and patient care. With only a fraction of the space enjoyed by our leading peers across the country, Columbia has had to face an especially critical need for space in a dense urban environment.
While Columbia is a globally respected academic center, it is also a vital local New York institution, committed to the economic, intellectual, social, and cultural vitality of our neighborhoods and city. In that spirit, together with our West Harlem neighbors, elected representatives, and civic leaders, Columbia has developed a plan for a mixed-use academic center that provides a long-term future of shared opportunity in the old Manhattanville manufacturing zone of West Harlem (Columbia, 2010).
Although the potential benefits of job creation, in particular, and economic, social and cultural regeneration, in general, have yet to be realised, there exists a significant force of opposition from local community groups and individuals. In this light, this case study seeks to examine the impact of the expansion on the collective narratives and senses of place that have evolved and are expressed within the Manhattanville area. Moreover, an examination of the values that are attributed to both the pre-existing buildings and places of the area and the newly constructed campus and redesigned elements will also be conducted. The main approach of investigation will entail qualitative research methods, such as in-depth interviewing, oral testimony collection and participant observation of particular events and meetings. At present, community action groups and individuals opposing this plan are in the process of being identified and will, thus, be consulted in order to uncover its impacts. In a more general view, examining the impact of this regeneration project can allow for a deeper understanding into the processes and experiences of trans-industriality as it is unfolding.