Columbia University students called on the school to cancel the course. (all photos Josh Wang, courtesy United Front Against Displacement)

Columbia University is facing criticism after it surfaced online that students would be proposing policy changes for Harlem — the very neighborhood which the Ivy League school has slowly been encroaching into for decades. 

A tweet first posted by user @AchmatX, who identifies as a Harlem resident, went viral with thousands of likes and retweets. It was followed by action on the ground on September 22, when the anti-gentrification organization United Front Against Displacement (UFAD) and two Columbia student activism groups — the Housing Equity Project (HEP) and Student-Worker Solidarity — staged a protest against what they say is Columbia’s gentrification of the neighborhood. UFAD made a list of demands, including a call on the university to cancel the course, which the advocacy group called “nefarious.”

According to a description on Columbia’s website, students enrolled in a course titled “Co-Designing Smart Cities,” taught in the School of International Policy and Public Affairs (SIPA), would work with “community stakeholders” to come up with solutions for challenges facing the neighborhood. The class would consider “traffic congestion, energy supply and consumption, green-house gases emissions, unplanned development, basic services, waste disposal, and increases in crime management,” among other areas of improvement.

The school works with the 125th Street Business Improvement District (BID), which encompasses the five blocks between Fifth Avenue and Morningside Drive along 125th Street. New York City’s 76 BIDs are mainly located in highly commercialized areas like Union Square and Flatiron, and the nonprofits are governed by property owners, commercial tenants, residents, and elected officials. Members pay a tax, and the group works to help the businesses succeed. When reached by Hyperallergic, Sam Mattingly, a representative of the 125th BID, deferred to the university for any specifics about the course.

“Co-Designing Smart Cities” course description (screenshot Valentina Di Liscia/Hyperallergic)

Outrage over the class emerged alongside growing backlash over two highly publicized, and criticized, examples of the university’s tightening grip on Harlem: The continued construction of the university’s new 17-acre Manhattanville campus and the school’s decision to terminate the tenancy of the Red Balloon Preschool, a 50-year-old community pillar.

Sam Howe, a sophomore at the university and general body coordinator of the Housing Equity Project, sees the course as adding insult to injury. “It’s packaging having control over this community as part of the experience you get as a student,” he said.

When reached for comment, a Columbia SIPA spokesperson told Hyperallergic that the school “is committed to supporting local community organizations, and students at SIPA have been engaging with Harlem community organizations for decades.” 

“Being adaptive and responsive to community needs is an important part of public policy, and students work alongside the Harlem community as partners and collaborators,” the spokesperson continued. “We think this direct engagement is mutually beneficial to both our students and the Harlem community.”

Protest signs read “Columbia is a landlord” and “Columbia students against Columbia’s gentrification.”

For decades, Columbia has been expanding out of its historic Morningside Heights campus into the Harlem community that surrounds it. Its most ambitious project is the new Manhattanville campus between West 125th and 133rd Streets, approved by New York City’s Planning Commission and City Council in 2007. That year’s plan estimated that close to 300 residents, 85 businesses, and 880 employees would be displaced.

The state and university threatened eminent domain, and ultimately the university expelled the existing residents and businesses and undertook the decade-long project. It is now home to the university’s business school. 

Brittnee Lucas, who spoke at the September protest, grew up in the nearby Manhattanville public housing with her mother. “A lot of the men in our community worked in the places across the street — the storage place, a trucking company,” Lucas told Hyperallergic, adding that she does not believe the university hired anyone she knew from the neighborhood. “It was never a conversation about what we can do together. There was never an inkling of ‘This is a community.’ But these people are the fabric of this neighborhood.”

Closer to Columbia’s original campus, the Red Balloon Preschool has offered affordable childcare with financial aid to longtime Harlem residents and faculty’ children since 1972. The university owns Red Balloon’s space on Riverside Drive near 125th Street, but will shutter the school in August 2023: Red Balloon will no longer be affiliated with the university or be able to lease the space. The closure elicited outcry from staff members and parents.

Brittnee Lucas speaking at the September protest

These and other actions on Columbia’s part have lent a dark backdrop to the course, with activists pointing to the class as yet another example of the university overstepping its reach in the neighborhood. “They gobble up real estate for their anticipated needs,” said Craig Gilmore, an organizer living in Washington Heights whose activism has centered on stopping a proposed women’s jail in Harlem. “At the same time, for those parts of the city close to the university, they try to gentrify them. They try to make them more attractive to potential students, to students’ parents, etc.”

“What I see is Columbia working with some local businesses but not with local residents,” Gilmore continued. “I just don’t think they are giving voice to the poorer people who currently use that section of 125th Street, and I think they should.”

Allegations in the initial Tweet that students in the course would collaborate with the Mayor’s Office, the Manhattan District Attorney’s (DA) Office, and the New York City Police Department (NYPD) also sparked anger. A Columbia spokesperson did not confirm these partnerships, though Hyperallergic was able to reach a representative at the DA’s Office, who said the agency “is no longer scheduled to present to this class.” (The Mayor’s Office said it was not aware of the course, and NYPD did not respond to Hyperallergic’s inquiries.)

Decolonize This Place (DTP) reposted the original tweet about the course. (screenshot Valentina Di Liscia/Hyperallergic)

In an interview with Hyperallergic, Princeton University Architecture Professor V. Mitch McEwen, whose own research focuses on technology and urban design, observed that the “Co-Designing Smart Cities” course description is rife with the “clichés of business management.” The wordy blurb includes fragments of corporate tech lingo such as “human-centered design” and multiple inclusions of the word “user,” deployed as a synonym for the public.

Beyond the gentrification controversy, the course’s application of “smart city innovations” has also attracted criticism. UFAD’s Ryan Costello drew attention to privacy and policing concerns associated with the concept, pointing to its potential role in surveillance. The computer company IBM coined the phrase “smart city” in 2011; realized versions of the idea comprise sensors to gather data on everything from water consumption, traffic, and personal health to greenhouse gas emission and park bench usage.

McEwen pointed to the “embarrassing” Google model in Toronto that failed last year after five years of planning, in part due to citizens’ concern over data privacy. South Korea built a “smart city” but could not fill its apartments, and the United Arab Emirates never finished theirs. 

Costello thinks that smart city features are already emerging in New York City — he pointed to the city’s switch to the subway OMNY system as a “first step.” The cashless system streamlines transit, but it has also elicited privacy concerns.

Beyond newfound hesitancy over smart cities, however, Columbia students are also wary of the university’s expansion.

“The part of the student body that I regularly interact with is pretty aware of how negative the impact of Columbia has been on these issues,” Howe said. 

He called “Co-Designing Smart Cities” an “incredibly conceited concept.”

“One of the things you pay for with Columbia tuition,” he added, “is getting to have a certain privilege and control over the community, of which you are, at most, usually a temporary participant or member.”

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Elaine Velie

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.