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As Columbia University moves into Manhattanville, its industrial past is erased

The vernacular architecture of West Harlem is slowly being eroded as part of Columbia University’s long-awaited expansion

It wasn’t all that long ago that the sidewalks of Manhattanville, up in West Harlem, were lined with the gritty industrial architecture that once defined New York City. Cobblestones and slaughterhouses, dairy factories and horse stables, humble warehouses and faded tenement buildings: This type of patchwork vernacular streetscape, home to generations of Manhattanites, is now becoming increasingly rare, as the city is overwhelmed by generic glass boxes.

Today, the heart of industrial Manhattanville, which is sandwiched between Broadway and 12th Avenue at the end of West 125th Street, has been replaced with a giant hole in the ground that’s ringed by a few remaining historic fragments. The gas stations are gone, the stone cutters have vanished, and just one auto body shop remains underneath the iconic arches of the Riverside Drive Viaduct. In block after block of this Harlem community, the past has been completely erased, as Columbia University’s $6.3 billion campus extension moves in.

After a bitter, decade-long fight, the first two buildings on Columbia’s new Manhattanville Campus—both designed by starchitect Renzo Piano—are now open. It is not yet clear if the tradeoff was worth it. This ongoing construction project will displace an estimated 5,000 people, and has already pushed out dozens of small businesses. So far, Columbia has leased space to just one new business on its campus—a rock climbing gym—while leaving wide swaths of land empty and undeveloped.

From her father’s auto body shop on 12th Avenue underneath the Riverside Drive Viaduct, Ana Diaz has had a front row seat to the destruction of Manhattanville’s industrial fabric. “You know how you watch a termite eat the lumber? At first it looks like nothing, and then you turn around, and it’s all gone. That’s what this feels like,” says Diaz, who works at the front desk of the 2000 Auto Service Corp. “Now it’s like, the first phase is already done! They are already holding classes over there!”

For Diaz, the demolition of Manhattanville has meant the loss of customers, colleagues, and community. “There were a lot of businesses down here,” says Diaz, recalling all of the unique shops that once stood underneath the viaduct. “It used to be a meat packing district. You would gag with the smell of the meat, which was rotting. There was a fish bait shop, where everybody would come to buy bait and go fish. There was a pizza shop, a stripper club.”

Many of the businesses displaced by Columbia did not want to leave the area, but were forced out with the help of the New York state government, which threatened to use eminent domain to seize their property. “You had the car wash—he was pushed out. The gas station—pushed out. The laundromat was pushed out, too,” says Diaz. “Now there’s no laundry, and they didn’t do anything with the property.”

The 2000 Auto Service Corp. is the last active industrial business still standing in a four-block area that extends from West 125th Street to West 132nd Street between Broadway and 12th Avenue, which has been almost completely demolished by Columbia. In time, they will also be pushed out. Columbia University became their landlord in 2007, and it plans to eventually demolish their century-old warehouse during the second phase of its campus expansion.

For those who have studied the history of West Harlem, the demolitions in Manhattanville have diminished the soul of the community. “These were not remarkable buildings, in the sense of high design; a lot of them were vernacular. But often, that’s what makes a neighborhood really exciting,” says Eric K. Washington, a historian, tour guide, and author of Manhattanville: Old Heart of West Harlem. “They were of cultural interest. They revealed the soul of the neighborhood, and what made it important.”

On a recent walk around the new campus, Washington reminisced about the neighborhood’s earlier charms, including its days as an automobile manufacturing center and a milk processing hub. “There are so few neighborhoods that you walk in and they really tell you what they were all about, and you feel it immediately. It was a neighborhood that still had that,” said Washington, a New York native who lived in Manhattanville during the 1990s. “It had a funkiness to it, and I was an advocate for preserving a lot of that funkiness. I do not like to see things become completely sanitized, because you are washing away the soul of a place, when you do that.”

Today, where gas stations and lunch counters once stood, Columbia University has constructed two new buildings: the Lenfest Center for the Arts and the Jerome L. Greene Science Center. Grey and glassy, they loom over the heart of old Manhattanville, providing a stark contrast between the neighborhood’s gritty roots and its highly polished future.

If Manhattanville’s landscape is already a pale reflection of its past, then during the next phase of construction, it will lose even more of its colorful history. As the campus extends to the north, the coming wave of demolitions will sweep away a variety of interesting structures, including a 113-year-old apartment building and a 98-year-old automobile showroom.

However, several important industrial buildings still cling to the edges of the campus, including the 107-year-old Sheffield Farms dairy processing plant and the 94-year-old Studebaker car factory. Both are owned by Columbia, and both are not protected by landmark status, although the university intends to leave them standing, for now. This April, Washington will lead a walk around some of these remnants for the Municipal Art Society, as part of a special 20th anniversary version of his first Manhattanville walking tour.

Throughout all five boroughs, some of the city’s most unique neighborhoods are being swallowed up whole by developers, from Canal Street to the Iron Triangle. These large-scale erasures have left behind disorienting new landscapes, severed from their historic roots. It is something Washington knows all too well from his work in Harlem.

“If you have made Harlem’s main street look like every other main street, seeing Harlem as a destination will become fleeting. It is not in anyone’s interest, in the long-term, to dissolve the unglamorous,” says Washington. “Too much beauty is not really good. It needs to be interrupted by a few sharp edges.”

Work is currently underway in Manhattanville for two new Columbia Business School buildings, designed by Elizabeth Diller of Diller Scofidio + Renfro. To open up space for these buildings, Columbia demolished an entire city block of warehouses and residences, located between West 130th and West 131st Street from 12th Avenue to Broadway.

The first two buildings in the Manhattanville Campus—the Lenfest Center for the Arts and the Jerome L. Greene Science Center—have already been completed, replacing a half-block of restaurants, gas stations and warehouses located between West 129th and West 130th streets.

In 2011, this area was still home to an active car wash, gas station and warehouse, which which had stood in the area for at least 50 years.

The gas station, seen here in 2011, was owned by Gurnam Singh, who was one of the last holdouts in the neighborhood’s bitter, protracted fight against Columbia’s expansion plans. Singh and his family had owned the business, located at West 125th Street and 12th Avenue, for over 25 years.

Today, the land where Singh’s gas station stood remains empty, and is mainly used for storing portable toilets and scaffolding. Columbia has not yet announced what building might be inserted here.

The Singh family also owned a second gas station at the corner of West 129th and West 125th streets. It is now being replaced by the University Forum and Academic Conference Center, also designed by Renzo Piano. This triangular block was also home to the Floridita Restaurant, a much-loved Cuban eatery that relocated further east, and reopened after three years of frustrating delays.

The gas station, seen here in 2011, was one of at least three in the neighborhood that were demolished by Columbia. The neighborhood, which is located next to a Hudson River Parkway entrance, now has just one service station, which will eventually be demolished by Columbia during its next phase of construction. Manhattan is now running out of gas stations.

A variety of other building types were also demolished throughout the neighborhood, including a row of apartments and warehouses along West 131st Street, seen here in 2011. This block is now a large hole in the ground, awaiting the business school expansion.

Another demolished structure on West 131st Street, also seen in 2011. “I would certainly have preferred that a lot of the buildings were incorporated into the plan, and not just erased from the neighborhood,” says Washington. “I still feel that way, but I put it aside, because now it’s done, and you can’t put them back.”

The landscape of new Manhattanville already has a much different feel, as evidenced by the University Forum building. Located at West 125th and Broadway, this sharp-edged concrete triangle is intended to be Columbia’s “gateway to the new Manhattanville campus.”

The Lenfest building, another top-heavy gray slab designed by Renzo Piano, is currently one of the only Columbia buildings in the neighborhood that has upper-floor spaces open to the public. It is fronted by a small plaza paved with concrete blocks.

The plaza, like all of Columbia’s buildings in the area, is ringed by dozens of security cameras, and several forms of hostile architecture, including skateboard deterrents, narrow benches, and a scattering of hard, uneven boulders. Security guard patrols are also a constant presence throughout the neighborhood.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery is one of the only cultural spaces regularly open to the public on the new Manhattanville campus. Located on the sixth floor of the Lenfest building, the gallery opened in 2017, and is still working on reaching its new neighbors. During a recent weekend, just one other visitor was present.

The Jerome L. Greene Science building, also designed by Renzo Piano, is home to the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute; its ground floors will eventually house several new businesses, including a cafe and restaurant.

Although the upper floors of the building are not open to the public, its large glass lobby is publicly accessible. It mainly houses an interactive art installation and a security desk. The ground floor also houses an education center and community wellness center.

The science center currently has one ground-floor tenant, the Steep Rock West bouldering gym, which opened in 2017 and offers visitors a $25 day pass to climb the walls.

Columbia recently announced it had attracted a second business to its campus, Dear Mama Coffee, which will build a coffee shop in this large glassy atrium. The opening date has not yet been determined.

Next door to the arts and science buildings, construction is underway for the expansion of the Columbia Business School. The campus, located in a Zone 3 hurricane evacuation area at the edge of the Hudson River, is linked together by an enormous underground “bathtub” built 70 feet underground, which houses much of the buildings’ facilities.

The Manhattanville campus, which is built above an earthquake fault line that runs along 125th Street, is expected to expand further north in the coming decades, although Columbia University scientists believe the fault line is “at ‘substantially greater’ risk of a 6- or 7-magnitude earthquake than previously thought,” according to the New York Times.

The Studebaker Building on West 131st Street is one of Manhattanville’s few historic buildings not scheduled to be demolished. This a 1924 automobile factory later became home to the Borden Milk Company, and currently houses administrative offices for the university.

The Sheffield Farms dairy plant on West 125th Street, a second historic building that Columbia has promised to keep intact. The history of this elaborate milk processing plant, which opened in 1911, is included in a small exhibit nearby, about Manhattanville’s milk processing past. It is now known as Prentis Hall, and is used by Columbia for art studios and offices.

Underneath the Riverside Drive Viaduct, just one auto body warehouse remains. The 2000 Auto Service Corp. has served the community here for several decades, but will eventually be displaced during Phase 2 of Columbia’s expansion. “We’ve been here thirtysomething years, when the road was cobblestones,” says Ana Diaz. “What’s funny is I have a lot of clients from Columbia—professors, workers. When we close, where are they going to go?”

Some of the last visible cobblestones in the neighborhood line the shop’s driveway, leading into its 106-year-old warehouse. According to Diaz, Columbia University wrested the building away from her previous landlord by using the threat of eminent domain against him.

Several other century-old buildings nearby will also be demolished during the next phase of the Columbia expansion, including this six-story apartment building on West 132nd Street, which was erected in 1905.

This four-story automobile showroom on Broadway and 132nd streets was built in 1920, and most recently housed the Tuck It Away storage company. Its former owner, Nick Sprayregen, fought against the use of eminent domain for six years, taking his case all the way to the Supreme Court before losing. The warehouse will eventually be demolished as part of Phase 2.

This two-story garage, on the east side of Broadway between 133rd and 134th streets, was built in 1918 and is currently home to the El Mundo department store. Although property records indicate that Columbia has not yet acquired this property from its owner, it is mapped as being the northern end of their campus expansion.

Nathan Kensinger is a photographer, filmmaker, and curator who has been documenting New York City’s abandoned edges, endangered neighborhoods, and post-industrial waterfront for more than a decade. His Camera Obscura photo essays have appeared on Curbed since 2012. His photographs have been exhibited by the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the NYC Parks Department, and inside the Atlantic Ave-Barclays Center subway station.

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