Columbia's Harlem Takeover

Like all big cities, New York is a unique tapestry of neighborhoods.  The Manhattanville neighborhood in West Harlem is one of those unique neighborhoods, and it is currently threatened by one of the city’s oldest private institutions, Columbia University, located next door in Morningside Heights.  Yet Manhattanville has its own history and character that have evolved through the residents and small business owners who live and work there, a history and character that Columbia’s plans for a biotech park will destroy. 

In a radio interview in March 2007, the University’s president Lee Bollinger refused to acknowledge the importance of these small businesses that call Manhattanville home.  Instead, distinguishing between residents and “property owners,” he said, “These people who own property…do not live in Harlem and are not part of the Harlem community.”[1]

That charge is false.  Although they may not reside there, they most certainly are a vital part of what makes that neighborhood unique and special.

Anne Whitman is one of the business owners who, in spite of Bollinger’s dismissive attitude, undoubtedly lends Manhattanville its character and maintains its history.  Whitman is president and owner of Hudson North American, a moving and storage company whose clients include Columbia students as well as the university itself.  The company caters especially to artists and designers in New York, the art capital of the country, if not the world.

“What bothers me most is that they’re so arrogant,” said Whitman as she balked at accusations, like those of Bollinger, claiming she is an outsider.[2]

Her father bought the company’s property in 1972, and she continues the business, now in its third generation.  The company has established itself as an important business in the community. Whitman employs 25 local residents in the business, making Hudson American a 100 percent women and minority business.  

However, Whitman has also helped preserve the historical aspect of Manhattanville’s character. Whitman runs Hudson American out of a building that used to house the stables of the Sheffield Farm dairy, a major milk distributor in the late 19th century.  Because of its importance, the building is currently on New York state’s and the national register of historic places.  Columbia’s plan would not only take away the business from the community, it would destroy the building as well.

Manhattanville, on the other hand, has been the key to Whitman’s success. The business’ location at the junction of three major truck routes close to midtown is essential to the company’s success.  According to Whitman, her location makes her unique within her industry. 

 “Without that, I’m just another storage firm, ” she said in 2005.[3] 

Nevertheless, Columbia has told Whitman that her business does not fit into their expansion plans and, therefore, it would be “impossible” for her to remain in Manhattanville.[4] 

Additionally, Bollinger told the WNYC radio audience that the future of American cities does not include light industrial businesses like Whitman’s.[5]   If Bollinger has his way, Manhattanville will not have much of a future as a unique neighborhood in New York City because businesses like Whitman’s, which will all be destroyed for the plans of a private university, contribute to its culture as well.

In addition to hiring local residents, Whitman’s property also contributes to the neighborhood’s unique artist community.  When Bollinger mentioned that Columbia would bring creativity to Manhattanville, Whitman described the artists’ community that has developed in the neighborhood due to the inexpensive space available on her property.

“We have gilding, carving, restoration of investment-quality antiques…by high end artisans,” Whitman told Bollinger.  “If you went up and down the street, you wouldn’t even know this stuff was going on inside the building.”[6]

It is exactly this “stuff” that happens every day not only inside Whitman’s business but also in the wider community that Columbia’s plans are threatening to destroy, according to Nellie Hester Bailey, co-founder and director of the Harlem Tenants Council. 

“Anne’s struggle is linked to the community,” she said. “She has created a business that is truly commendable in its reflection of the ethnic and racial diversity of the community.”[7]

Whitman’s investment in and dedication to the Manhattanville community has made it clear that she will not be intimidated by threats of eminent domain.  Instead, she wants to remain in the neighborhood, contributing to both its social and economic well-being.

When offered $4 million by Columbia for her property, Whitman made it clear that has no plans to move and will fight until the end, telling The New York Times, “Remember that man who stood in front of the tank at Tiananmen Sqaure? That’s me.”[8] 

[1] “Growing Pains,” The Brian Lehrer Show, WNYC, New York City, March 8, 2007.           

[2] Interview with Anne Z. Whitman conducted by Chris Grodecki, June 9, 2007.

[3] Andrew Marks, “Six firms that won’t sell out to Columbia; Convenience, history key factors in wanting to stay in West Harlem,” Crain’s New York Business, January 17, 2005.

[4] Timothy Williams, “Land Dispute Pits Columbia Vs. Residents in West Harlem,” New York Times, November 20, 2006.

[5] “Growing Pains.”

[6] Ibid.

[7] Intreview with Nellie Hester Bailey conducted by Chris Grodecki June 9, 2007.

[8] Williams.