New Gallery on the Block

New Gallery on the Block

Columbia's art gallery moved to Manhattanville this summer, and it's trying to bridge the gap between the University and Harlem. Is it working?

Published on October 24, 2017

I.

Alicia Grullón is sitting at what looks like a kitchen table, telling stories from her past—sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish. There’s one story in which she reads a love letter written to her grandmother almost 100 years ago. And then, in another story, Grullón says that she can’t read. There’s a part where she sings a jazz standard, “All of Me”: “Your goodbye / Left me with eyes that cry / How can I / Get along without you?” Her singing reminds me of when Rodolpho sings “Paper Doll” in the first act of A View From the Bridge, all tender and earnest.

Grullón finishes and pauses for a moment. “That was my song.”

Grullón is an interdisciplinary artist based in the Bronx. This video project, called Storytelling, is playing on a small screen in Columbia’s Wallach Art Gallery, which is open to the public. She is the Wallach Network Fellow there, a role created to help build the gallery’s relationship with the local community, and Grullón made this video as part of her work as a fellow.

This year, the gallery moved from the eighth floor of Schermerhorn Hall to the sixth floor of the Lenfest Center for the Arts, which is one of the two completed buildings at Columbia’s new Manhattanville campus. This past summer was the Wallach Art Gallery’s first in operation, as the Schermerhorn location on the Morningside campus did not attract enough visitors to warrant keeping it open while most of Columbia’s student body was away.

Storytelling is part of “Uptown,” the gallery’s first exhibit in the new space. I went to see the exhibit for the first time on a weekday afternoon in July. The gallery was mostly empty, save for a couple of visitors who seemed like local residents. Grullón’s video was near the entrance.

In it, she relays the stories told to her over the course of four or five months by several residents of the Jackie Robinson Senior Center, located in the Grant Houses, the public housing complex across the street from the new campus. Some of them have been living in New York for more than 60 years. Grullón assumes each resident’s personality when she tells their story—hand gestures, accents, sighs. Each narrative is interspersed with archival footage that recalls the time period she’s talking about. I really enjoy the video, and I stay put for the entire runtime, which is about 30 minutes. Grullón is warm and expressive, and the piece is nostalgic, but not cloying.

On the opposite wall, there’s a series of portraits in black and white by John Pinderhughes. I don’t look at these until the end, though, after I’ve circled the room already. There’s a photograph of an older woman wearing a loose nightgown and big, thick glasses. She’s reading a book by a window, and the sunlight falling on her dress makes it look like a neoclassical painter’s drapery study. In another photograph, a woman wears dark, shiny lipstick, a pearl necklace, and a straw hat with a wide visor that looks like the Mad Hatter’s in Alice in Wonderland. She takes up most of the frame, peering at me with big, round eyes. It looks like she’s trying to keep from smiling.

Pinderhughes is a member of the Kamoinge Workshop, a collective of African-American photographers based in New York City, and these photographs are from his series,“Harlem Portraits.” Each of these portraits shows a Black Harlem resident, usually one of Pinderhughes’ friends or neighbors.

“I also notice that a lot of the work in Uptown wasn’t just created in the area—it’s also about uptown, and Black and Latinx culture in uptown neighborhoods, especially Harlem.”

Most of the pieces in “Uptown” are by artists of color, and all are by artists who live and work above 99th Street. Besides Grullón’s and Pinderhughes’ work, there’s also a bright series of paintings by Vladimir Cybil Charlier that figure Black and Latinx leaders as icons (think Nelson Mandela as Saint Patrick, or Frida Kahlo as a Madonna figure). Next to it, a beautiful photograph titled “Yo Mamadonna and Child,” which features photographer Renee Cox in an ample dress of African fabrics and a feathery headpiece, holding her young son, who is naked. In a small, darkened room off of the main gallery space, there’s a video of a freestyle cypher projected onto the wall. The video by Bayeté Ross Smith was filmed with a 360-degree camera inside the circle of rappers, and you can use a trackball mouse to “turn” and see each of them at work.

The exhibit is bold and rich, with work in a wide variety of mediums. It’s easy to move through, and a wall of massive floor-to-ceiling windows fills the room with light. I appreciate how detailed the labels are, replete with information about each artist and their work. I also notice that a lot of the work in “Uptown” wasn’t just created in the area—it’s also about uptown, and about Black and Latinx culture in uptown neighborhoods, especially in Harlem.

Likewise, it’s hard to look at the work in “Uptown” without thinking about Harlem as a neighborhood that’s being gentrified, where the arrival of affluent white residents (and in their wake, or maybe in their advent, Starbucks and Whole Foods) threatens the culture of Black Manhattan, as James Weldon Johnson put it. And it’s no secret that local residents have implicated Columbia in the gentrification of the Manhattanville community.

II.

My visit to the gallery was not my first time on the Manhattanville campus: I had to participate in an experiment at the Jerome L. Greene Science Center, the second of the two completed buildings, for my psychology class last spring. But I didn’t see much of the building, then, as I was shut in a little dark room and asked to choose between images of various desserts flashing across my screen.

I’ve come to find the walk uptown from the Morningside campus interesting. This might be because the walk is downhill and I am disinclined to exertion, but notably, the Upper West Side’s mostly regular grid disbands here, and several of the cross streets run diagonally. This makes the area a little more difficult to navigate, at least by Manhattan standards—125th Street and 129th Street intersect, somehow.

The Lenfest Center for the Arts and the Jerome L. Greene Science Center rise up above the other buildings on the west side of Broadway. My friend told me she was surprised at how much they looked like the architectural renderings that Columbia released ahead of their construction, all futuristic.

There’s also something strange about seeing the buildings in person after hearing and reading so much about “Manhattanville,” in this publication and elsewhere. Many undergraduates will probably tell you that they are against the construction of the new campus, or at least wary of the gentrification that it will encourage in Harlem. But few people seem to have actually visited the campus, or seem to have realized that two of the buildings are already finished. “Manhattanville” is there, and there’s not much to be done about it.

Both structures were designed by Renzo Piano, the Italian architect who designed the new Whitney Museum on Gansevoort Street. The Science Center is nine stories tall and measures 450,000 square feet. It hugs the above-ground 1 train line on Broadway, and like the new Whitney, it’s all vertical lines and transparent glass. Marcelo Velez, the Vice President of Manhattanville Development at Columbia, told the Architect’s Newspaper, “This was so the public can be reassured that nothing sinister is going on within the scientific research building.” Of course, this doesn’t say much about what’s happening underneath it, as my colleague Alex McNab discussed this past April.

Piano’s Lenfest Center, which sits just beyond the Science Center, is more squat, at eight stories and 60,000 square feet. The building is top heavy, and it looks like two large, solid white building blocks stacked on top of a few smaller ones.

I don’t know if the new campus is welcoming, exactly. The loud, buzzing construction work is unpleasant, and it will continue to be unpleasant for the next several years, well past 2018. The buildings are shiny and decidedly modern, unlike the buildings that still border the campus and the warehouses and small businesses that were there before them. The transparent glass makes it easy to see that the two finished buildings are largely empty, and that there are Public Safety officers sitting inside. Both are open to the public; the Science Center’s ground-floor corridor will host a community wellness center, an education lab, and public events engaging people in “the wonders of brain science and the mysteries of the mind.” You also need to walk through the glass-walled lobby of the Lenfest Center to ride the elevator up to the gallery, which is public and free to visit. I still instinctively showed one of the officers my Columbia ID card, even though I didn’t need to.

I spoke to Justin Moore, an adjunct associate professor of architecture in the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture and Public Planning’s urban design and urban planning programs, as well as the executive director of the New York City Public Design Commission, to better understand the design of the new campus. Over the phone, he explains that even though it’s hard to tell with all the construction, Manhattanville is much more open than the Morningside campus, which he describes as “famously kind of a fortress.”

The buildings at Morningside open onto the campus, so all you can see from the street are tall, flat facades. Not to mention, the Morningside campus is enclosed by several sets of iron gates, and walking through them takes a certain chutzpah. The Manhattanville campus is much more open. There are no gates, and it doesn’t disrupt the city grid like the Morningside Campus does. According to Moore, the new campus “orients itself toward 125th Street.” Walking down it will lead you, more or less, to a clean, spacious plaza lined with benches, with a view of the recently renovated West Harlem Waterfront Park. (It’s nice, but I don’t advise conducting interviews for the story you are writing there, as the aforementioned construction noises will make it tremendously difficult to transcribe.)

III.

The second time I visited “Uptown,” in early August, there were about 15 to 20 other people in the gallery. Mostly older Harlem residents, some people who looked to be in their 30s. The visitors I spoke to admired the gallery’s airy new home—for most, it was their first time in the space, as well as their first time visiting the Manhattanville campus—and welcomed the exhibition’s focus on Harlem-based artists.

I start chatting with a man with a British accent named David. We are both standing in front of a series of prints by José Morales: a series of murky Polaroid photographs of incarcerated young men—mostly young men of color—sitting for police lineups. Morales found the Polaroid backs when he was teaching at Rikers Island during the fall of 1977.

David doesn’t like the prints, or just “doesn’t get it,” but likes the other pieces in the exhibit. He lives a block and a half away, and this is his first time at the gallery. We’re talking about the Manhattanville campus—“We’ve watched it grow up. I’m getting used to it”—when another visitor, who later tells me that her name is Elise, steps in.

“I don’t mean to interrupt, but are you noting the irony of the fact that this is such a progressive exhibit in something that was [built using] eminent domain and actually moved businesses out of here?” she says.

We weren’t, but that was what I’d been thinking about as I began to report this article. I mostly listen as the two visitors, both Harlem residents, go back and forth discussing Columbia’s culpability in the changes that are happening in Manhattanville.

“I mean, the businesses that moved out were no great losses,” David offers.

“I mean, I think the question is, it’s not just this, it’s what’s happening to the whole neighborhood,” Elise returns. “I’ve been here my whole life. It’s unaffordable now.”

“Most undergraduates will probably tell you that they are “against” the construction of the new campus. But few people seem to have actually visited the campus, or seem to have realized that two of the buildings are already finished. “Manhattanville” is there, and there’s not much to be done about it.”

“Yeah, but that’s not because Columbia built on this property.”

“Well, it’s because Columbia built on a lot of the properties.”

David clarifies that he’s “not in love with Columbia,” but when Elise emphasizes that there’s no affordable housing in the area, he takes it to mean housing on the site where the campus was built: “But there was no housing there before.”

“I know, but that’s what could’ve happened,” Elise concludes. “There’s no housing. That’s the irony. And all of these [works] speak to these problems that have happened in our city. So it’s a little ironic. It’s beautiful work.”

IV.

Announced by Columbia University President Lee Bollinger in 2003, the $6.3 billion, 17-acre Manhattanville project is bordered by 125th Street and 130th Street, as well as by Broadway and 12th Avenue.

As you can imagine, it was not entirely welcome in West Harlem. Longtime residents opposed the new campus, saying it would endanger small businesses and raise housing costs.

They were right. The New York State Court of Appeals ruled that the state could seize private property in the area through eminent domain to make way for the Manhattanville campus, and several businesses, including Tuck-it-Away Self Storage and two gas stations owned by an Indian immigrant named Gurnam Singh, were forced to move. Still, others reached less contentious deals with Columbia to move away from the building site.

Kenneth T. Jackson, a history professor at Columbia, has speculated that the new campus will “make [the neighborhood] more expensive, more lively.” Rising rents—at least partially due to the new campus—have encouraged the development of a new luxury high-rise, and have encouraged landlords of existing buildings to push out existing tenants in favor of new ones who can pay market price. But as to liveliness, some have accused Columbia of not doing enough to preserve the history of Manhattanville as the new campus goes up and old buildings come down.

I talked to Hugo Torres-Fetsco, a longtime resident of Manhattanville, about the changes that have happened here. We met in front of the Lenfest Center for the Arts and walked down 125th Street to a bench in West Harlem Waterfront Park, where the sun was setting over the Hudson River. He graduated from Colgate University in 2015, and has returned to the neighborhood where he grew up. Torres-Fetsco reckons that his grandparents on his mother’s side moved to Manhattanville about 50 years ago, and his family has been here ever since.

He remembers being around 10 or 11 when people around him first started talking about Columbia’s new campus. In Torres-Fetsco’s strongest memories of his neighborhood, it’s under construction.

“You know, you hear a lot of conversations about eminent domain and potential abuse,” he says. “So I didn’t really know what to make of all of it at such a young age.”

I understand why people, locals especially, might not think the campus has produced a net positive change in the neighborhood, or buy into Columbia’s rhetoric of “growing together” and embracing “a wide range of shared benefits with West Harlem.” After announcing the Manhattanville campus, the University entered into a Community Benefits Agreement to fund development and provide programs and services to the West Harlem community, but many don’t think it goes far enough (i.e. allots enough money) to help Manhattanville.

Still, the university’s apparent hope is that the new open campus will be a good place for community programming. The Manhattanville website reads:

“The new campus plan replaces the postindustrial streetscape of Manhattanville’s old manufacturing areas with publicly accessible green space, widened tree-lined sidewalks, retail stores and restaurants that welcome the entire community. From brain science to the arts and business, the new academic centers on campus will feature a wide range of public programming designed for local students, families and businesses.”

“I think all this—the slick look of the new campus, its vexed birth—helps explain my feeling that the new campus isn’t entirely welcoming, despite the open design. Whether or not this discourages people from visiting the gallery, or enjoying the art there, remains to be seen.”

Reading this, and looking past the benign language of Columbia’s PR specialists, the word that most strikes me is “replaces.” There is no talk of assimilating, at least on the University’s part. The warehouses and other pre-existing buildings on the Manhattanville site were torn down, not repurposed, and as John Reddick, a Harlem-based architect and Columbia Community Scholar, points out to me, the architecture of the buildings and buildings-in-progress doesn’t recall the area’s industrial character. I think all this—the slick look of the new campus, its vexed birth—helps explain my feeling that the new campus isn’t entirely welcoming, despite the open design. Whether or not this discourages people from visiting the gallery, or enjoying the art there, remains to be seen.

V.

Several people that I spoke to for this article, including one of the other gallery visitors I chatted with, asked me if I had talked to Deborah Cullen-Morales, the director and chief curator of the Wallach Art Gallery, yet. My answer was always no, because I was planning to interview her at the end. But the consensus seems to be that Cullen is an exciting curator who has played an important role in the gallery’s move uptown.

I was supposed to meet her at Nous Espresso Bar, in Philosophy Hall, but it was full, so she good naturedly followed me to the group of tables outside Dodge Hall, which were also full. We ended up sitting on a narrowish ledge, my laptop perched on my knees.

Cullen-Morales is gracious and attentive, with short black hair and kind eyes. She arrived at the Wallach Art Gallery in the middle of 2012 from El Museo del Barrio, where she was the Director of Curatorial Programs for 15 years. She tells me that, in her new position, she was expected to oversee the gallery’s move to the Manhattanville campus, and that this task is what excited her about the job.

She describes the gallery at Schermerhorn as “quietly excellent.” While it was free and open to the public, it wasn’t very accessible to people with physical disabilities, nor did the gallery’s location within the Morningside “fortress,” (to return to my interview with Moore) make it “psychically accessible.”

“You have to feel fairly empowered to go through the gates of Columbia, to go into a building, to go up to the eighth floor, to walk past offices and classrooms, even if it’s free and open to the public,” Cullen-Morales explains.

“The Wallach’s first shows in the new West Harlem space could have easily been about so-called Western artists, too—this is Columbia University, after all. The University’s affinity for Western culture (i.e. white culture) notwithstanding, Uptown and Living America were largely about Black culture, and I thought this was a good, considerate choice.”

The new space in Lenfest is bigger, and, as Moore explained to me, more accessible to visitors, although you still need to walk into a shiny Columbia building and take an elevator up to the sixth floor.

Cullen-Morales also tells me that, in joining the Wallach Gallery, she was interested in the possibility of “cross-pollinating” with the broader Harlem community, including El Barrio, where she previously worked, by engaging with artists and museums throughout the area. Likewise, she conceived of “Uptown” as a triennial, so the gallery will feature a new group of uptown artists every three years; she’s keeping a “giant Excel file” of them with curators from the gallery’s now-neighboring institutions, which include El Museo, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling. These museums and galleries organized partner exhibitions to accompany “Uptown,” such asnasty women/bad hombres,” a group show of of Northern Manhattan artists that’s up at El Museo until Nov. 5.

Other new efforts to reach out to the community include expanded public programming across institutions to accompany exhibits such as “Uptown” and “Living in America,” gallery talks with Cullen-Morales and a forum on public housing, the Family Day workshops that the gallery already hosted in Schermerhorn, and a community advisory group called the Wallach Network.

Alicia Grullón, the artist behind the video I saw in “Uptown,” is the Wallach Network Fellow. I visited her at the Center for Book Arts, where she is an artist in residence, to talk about her work with the group. I scan the exhibition on view—some books, naturally—and we sit on high stools at a table near the Center’s workspace while Grullón sips some tea.

She describes the Wallach Network as a collection of artists and cultural workers from the area, one that Cullen-Morales created to bridge the divide between Columbia University and Harlem. It includes artists like Grullón and Shani Peters, whose series of collage prints of protest images on light boxes, accompanied by a seating area of cushy pillows, was in “Uptown” along with Storytelling. There are other types of community figures in the group too, such as a historian and an art teacher from a public school in upper Manhattanville.

“It’s very admirable work that Deborah is doing,” Grullón says, concluding her explanation.

I ask Grullón to tell me more about Storytelling, because I enjoyed the work so much, and she tells me that visiting the Jackie Robinson Senior Center at the Grant Houses and creating the video was part of an agreement to create an art piece based on the work she had been doing with Cullen-Morales as a Wallach Network Fellow.

“In part I did it because, being a New Yorker, I wanted to hear more stories about New York. … I just saw this as a moment of connecting to living history and oral traditions that are often lost, but so much a part of cultures that are not from the dominant culture,” Grullón says.

These outreach efforts, plus the newly accessible space and extended gallery hours, might explain the generous uptick in attendance at the Wallach Art Gallery. Cullen-Morales will tell me later that, from April 22 to Aug. 20—the duration of the first-year MFA show that opened the new space, and then “Uptown”—approximately 7,000 people visited the gallery. This is as many visitors as the gallery saw during all of 2016.

I ask Cullen-Morales about the Wallach’s recent focus on Black and Black-American culture—I’m thinking of “Uptown” and “Living in America,” but also of the gallery’s upcoming exhibits, “a spotlight on Arthur Mitchell” and “Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet to Matisse and Beyond.” Before “Uptown”, the gallery’s focus on Black art was not so concentrated; there was an exhibit on African portraiture in the fall of 2016, and another on Romare Bearden from late 2014 to early 2015, but these were interspersed with shows about Rembrandt, Anna Huntington Hyatt, and so on. The Wallach’s first shows in the new West Harlem space could have easily been about so-called Western artists, too—this is Columbia University, after all. The University’s affinity for Western culture (i.e. white culture) notwithstanding, “Uptown” and “Living America” were largely about Black culture, and I thought this was a good, considerate choice. Cullen-Morales answers my question matter-of-factly.

“Yes, I really wanted the first year—it’s actually going to be the first two years—to be really self-aware of where we are, where we’re sitting, and the changes that are happening in Harlem,” she says. “I wanted the gallery to be both welcoming, but also to be aware that we are part of changes that some people do not see as good. I think it’s important to be self-aware.”

VI.

“Uptown” closed on Aug. 20, before fall classes began. In its place, an exhibit called Living in America: Frank Lloyd Wright, Harlem, and Modern Housing is up until Dec. 17.

The gallery is no longer bright and open.The big panoramic window is covered up and there are new walls and partitions crowded with archival material—enough material that the Wallach hired two exhibition design firms to arrange it, named Project Projects and Leong Leong. (Yes, these are the real names.)

The exhibit, presented in collaboration with the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, examines mid-20th century architecture, and two visions for American living: Frank Lloyd Wright’s suburban sprawl of single-family homes, and dense public housing complexes in cities.

As the Buell Center’s description of the exhibition explains, Wright unveiled his landmark Broadacre City project at Rockefeller Center in 1935, a project that some considered “the symbol of a predominantly white, nostalgic, and chauvinistic nation.” In 1936, construction began on the Harlem River Houses, one of New York City’s first public housing developments.

“Living in America” presents the two narratives side by side, pairing each of the Wright projects it features with a contemporary public housing project. The exhibit has an easy-to-follow chronology, and it features architectural drawings, maps, and flyers, among other promotional materials. Visitors are also encouraged to pick up sturdy white cards replete with information about each development, offered in lieu of descriptions on the gallery’s walls.

The second time I visit the exhibit, I go with John Reddick, an architect and Harlem historian. When I meet him outside the Lenfest Center, he hands me a copy of the Village Voice with Bob Dylan on the cover. It’s from the paper’s last print run, he tells me, and he thought I’d like to have one.

Reddick is tall and affable, and as we walk around the exhibit, he points out or provides context for architectural plans that he finds interesting. He remembers the designs of the public housing projects—a lot of the buildings, like the Carver Houses, look like plus signs—from architecture school.

We stop in front of a section about the Jesse C. Fisher Housing Project. Like many of the other Wright projects on display, it was never actually built. But Fisher was notably the only Wright project commissioned for an African-American community in particular, and it was referred to in Wright’s office as “Housing for Negro Families.” I’m more disappointed than surprised to see a racial slur that he scrawled across his plan for Fisher, which struck me as less polished than his plans for other developments. I point it out to Reddick, and he bends down to look at it, hands on his knees.

“Oh, wow. Wow, wow, wow.” He pauses. “And that’s an intellectual.”  

After circling the exhibit, we walk outside to the plaza outside the Lenfest Center and I interview Reddick amid the din of the construction. He tells me that he enjoyed the exhibit, but that it didn’t provide enough information about the Wright houses in the years after their construction, how several of their owners built additions because Wright’s vision didn’t work for their lifestyles.

Reddick, a Columbia Community Scholar who has been living in Harlem since the 1980s, is a “questioning optimist” when it comes to the University’s role in the neighborhood. He thinks that it would be good for people who actually live in the public housing projects featured in Living in America to see the exhibit, to learn about their histories.

“There were unique archives that people don’t typically get to see,” he tells me. “I can go into Butler and I can go to Avery and see things, but that’s not most people’s experience. So I mean, I still think this exhibit would be great for young people in the neighborhood.”

Targeted outreach to these housing projects and some events with food and drink, Reddick posits, could encourage residents to visit the Wallach.

VII.

There’s a section of “Living in America” about the Ulysses S. Grant Houses. The complex sits just across the street from the new Manhattanville campus, on the other side of Broadway, and if you’ve ever ventured farther uptown than Joe Coffee on 120th Street—hopefully you have, but I won’t make any assumptions—then you’ve probably seen them.

They look a lot like the rest of New York City’s public housing: a group of blocky, slab-style apartment buildings with some open space in between, built in the 1950s. The brick exterior is flat and reddish. The buildings contain 1,940 apartments, and at 21 stories, the Grant Houses are the New York City Housing Authority’s tallest project to date.  

Most people will agree that NYCHA housing is in crisis—the buildings are decrepit, the agency is billions short of the amount of money needed to replace them—and the Grant Houses are no exception. In 2013, a now-defunct website called nychawatchlist.com, set up by Bill de Blasio when he was the city’s Public Advocate, stated that the Grant Houses had more outstanding repair requests than any other NYCHA development. In 2016, the project was without gas for months.

There’s also the problem of gang violence and policing, which Spectator took up in a staff editorial three years ago. In 2014, more than 400 law enforcement officials raided the Grant Houses and the neighboring Manhattanville Houses in a gang sweep that resulted in more than 100 indictments on conspiracy charges on questionable grounds. As with most NYCHA housing, the residents of the Grant Houses are overwhelmingly Black and Latinx.

Columbians, meanwhile, are mostly white, if you take into account both students and faculty, and are affiliated with an Ivy League institution that confers them with extraordinary privileges. This isn’t true for people living across the street from the Manhattanville campus.

I felt as if the look of the new campus next to the Grant Houses mirrored “Living in America”’s juxtaposition of Wright’s stylish Usonian houses with blocky public developments in Harlem, the Grant Houses among them. And there’s something in the aspirational rhetoric that Columbia uses to promote the Manhattanville campus that recalls Wright’s utopian vision for American Living, which “sought a balance between the individual, the family, and the community,” to quote the Wallach’s description.

The campus website says that the space is designed to “[welcome] the wider community to experience a shared space for civic life.” It goes on to say that “Universities hold the possibility of making life better for the communities they call home, for the faculty and students who teach and learn there and for society at large.” This is a transgressive proposition for an academic institution, one with goals that extend far beyond providing undergraduates with a well-rounded education, or supporting graduate research. It proposes that Columbia play a role in shaping the lives of community members who didn’t sign up for that kind of oversight.

VIII.

Most of the wall space in the gallery is devoted to architectural plans and drawings, and it’s easy to forget that people lived, and continue to live, in these developments. But alongside the floor plans there are black-and-white photographs of public housing residents in their apartments, celebrating birthdays and cooling off in courtyards. 

“Columbians, meanwhile, are mostly white, if you take into account both students and faculty, and are affiliated with an Ivy League institution that confers them with extraordinary privileges. This isn’t true for people living across the street from the Manhattanville campus.”

These photographs were collected by Ashley Wu, a graduate student in the American Studies M.A. Program, under the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race. The Wallach brought her on about a year ago because it  was looking for someone working at the intersection of art and public housing to help tell the stories of people living in the developments that “Living in America” features. Residents reached out to Wu in response to flyers she distributed that said, “Help Us Tell Your Story,” and she worked to develop relationships with them and with other community members.

Two of these residents, Ralph E. Waiters and Roger Parris, are poets, and they read their work at one of the Wallach’s gallery talks on Oct. 22. Wu describes them as “old school Harlem guys,” and each read in front of the section of “Living in America” about the housing project they live or lived in, the Harlem River Houses and Riverton Houses, respectively. They read poems—Waiters briskly (Wu told me that this was his first reading) and Parris solemnly, with percussive accompaniment—about growing up in these projects, about playing with their friends and first loves. Parris also talked about how “Riverton, up near that river” was the product of segregation, as the owner of Riverton built the complex after restricting a project downtown to white residents. Waiters and Parris were followed by Ashley Arias, a young poet who goes to high school in Harlem.

A diverse crowd of about 20 visitors gathered for the event. I could tell that several of them were there to support the poets; Parris was even joined by couple of his childhood friends from Riverton in the late 1940s. The reading was brief and informal, but it struck me as a meaningful nod to long-time Harlemites on the Wallach’s part. I left thinking of Parris’ description of the development of a close-knit community at Riverton: “How a flower grows up through concrete.”

IX.

The end of every story I write seems to sound something like, “There’s a long way to go.” But this seems to be the only way a story about Columbia’s expansion into Manhattanville can end. Despite local activism, there doesn’t seem to be a good way to stop gentrification. And it’s safe to say that Columbia is contributing to the gentrification of Manhattanville to some degree—an art gallery, no matter how enterprising or radical, is not going to change that. I don’t know if Columbia’s efforts to reach out to the community that is bearing the brunt of these changes are genuine, either. But as Wu suggested when I spoke to her, there are certainly people with good intentions at Columbia. Deborah Cullen-Morales’ efforts to reach out to the Harlem community seem sincere, and her history at El Museo can attest to that.

Near the end of our interview, I asked Cullen-Morales, more explicitly, about the gallery’s relationship with the Harlem community, considering Columbia’s contested presence there. As with my question about the Wallach’s focus on Black culture, I expect a cagey answer, but she responds without much prevarication.

“Those decisions were made long before I came here,” she says simply, about the development of the Manhattanville campus. “I had nothing to do with that.”

Cullen-Morales goes on, hopefully, “Not to absolve myself of it, but if I’m interested in working in that space, I think there’s a good way to do it. There’s a better way to do it and there’s a worse way to do it. So I want to try to do it in the best way possible. So at the very least, whatever the mixed feelings could be, maybe I can offer something to the broader community.”

Correction: A previous version of this article misrepresented the relationship between Wallach Art Gallery and the artist Lorella Paleni. The Eye regrets the error. 

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