A Tale of Two Villes

Manhattanville, New York City

The final Reporting and Writing I story I did at Journalism School in Dec. 2009.

Hidden in the shadows of tall buildings, two gas stations stake their claim on a triangular parcel of land just off West 125th Street as it runs towards the Hudson River.

To the stations’ south, windows of an apartment building catch the morning sun, beaming it onto the gas stations, which would otherwise be hiding in the shadows. To their north, West 129th Street has been parceled off by wooden boards, shielding off the prying eye from the construction and renovation of buildings that are taking place within.

“Look at that,” said Amrik Singh, manager of the two gas stations for 14 years, pointing to the streets surrounding his workplace. “Businesses are still running. Sidewalk ok. How can they say it’s blighted?”

The debate over the state’s designation of the West Harlem neighborhood as blighted erupted anew earlier this month when a state appellate court declared the description “idiocy.”

The 17-acre site is currently a war zone between Columbia University, which wants to expand there, and property owners, who don’t want to give up their businesses. Columbia won a critical battle last year when a report commissioned by the Empire State Development Corporation said the area known as Manhattanville is blighted. It suffered from “long-term poor maintenance, lack of development and disinvestment,” according to the report.

This designation was a crucial crucial step to the state taking over property on behalf of the university by invoking eminent domain. Columbia needs the state’s help to gain control of six remaining buildings for its $6.3 billion plan to build a satellite campus there.

But just whether the area is blighted was called into question earlier this month, when the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court, in a 3-2 vote, annulled the state’s condemnation of the property. Declaring the move unconstitutional, the court called the study “mere sophistry.”

“Idiocy” and “sophistry” are what the victorious plaintiffs, Nicholas Sprayregen of Tuck-it-Away storage and Gurnam Singh, owner of the two gas stations and Amrik Singh’s employer, see in Columbia University’s plans of taking over property. According to Gurnam Singh, the university left these buildings “empty with a lot of violations to show them as blighted.”

The Singhs, who are not related, contend that though the area was a backwater in the late 1980s, it was already gentrifying before Columbia University established its presence just a couple of years ago.

“Before, no one comes to Harlem. Everyone afraid to come to Harlem, there were robberies in daytime,” said Gurnam Singh, recalling the time when he purchased the gas station from its previous owner in 1987. “Since then, because everyone’s spending money, it’s making everything new here.”

Sprayregen is the other stalwart in the tussle. President of Tuck-it-Away, Sprayregen took over the business from his father in 1990. Having been in the neighborhood for close to 20 years, he thinks that Columbia’s purchase of property in Manhattanville is driving shops out of business.

“If there are any blighting conditions, they’re of Columbia’s doing,” said Sprayregen. “Should Columbia really be the beneficiary of a blight designation when they themselves have caused the negative trends here?”

Ramon Dias, owner of Floridita, a 34 year-old family-run food and beverage chain, found himself caught in that “negative trend” of being driven out of business. Columbia had already bought the property rights of the building that Floridita occupied on a Broadway stretch between West 125th and 129th Streets, and had offered him “a new lease with a relocation clause.”

“I was very pro-expansion based on what Columbia was representing,” said Dias. “But as soon as they got everything they wanted, they turned the guns on me by saying ‘Sorry, there’s no space for you, there’s nowhere we can relocate you.’”

With the strong emotional and generational ties to his Manhattanville business, Dias has no current plan to find a new location for his restaurant, as it would “not be Floridita anymore.”

Asked to comment on the blighted conditions being Columbia’s doing, Victoria Benitez, the university’s senior public affairs officer, referred to an op-ed published on Crain’s New York Business’ Web site on Dec. 13 that said the judges who voted for revoking the blight study had “disparaged the public benefit of the Columbia project and clearly second-guessed the blight finding in a way that would seem to directly contravene the instructions of the higher court.” Benitez declined further comment.

Relocation woes and “manufactured” blight aside, some residents and community leaders do think that Columbia’s entrance into Manhattanville has helped the neighborhood shake off long-term unemployment and crime, both contributing factors to blight, in the area.

Several long-term residents interviewed said they appreciate Columbia’s presence in the neighborhood.

“It’s good,” said Liana Santana, who was born and raised in Manhattanville. “I see more white people coming in, have richer neighbors, rental prices are going up.”

Said Rocki Brown, a Manhattanville resident of 29 years: “Some supers have problems keeping their buildings up, the elevators, the windows all need working on, but generally it’s very safe. After Columbia came in, there’re lesser guys on the streets doing drugs.”

While word is still out on the final decision on the case as the development corporation seeks to bring it to the Court of Appeals, residents and parties involved in the lawsuit think that a more amicable solution must be reached to achieve a desirable outcome

“One person’s blight is another person’s luxury, another person’s need that is being denigrated as unworthy,” said New York State Senator Bill Perkins in an interview. “This is a decision, unfortunately, that was contrived not because of blight, but because of the interest of Columbia to expand without regard to the victims of the expansion. ‘Urban renewal’ has come to be known as ‘people removal.’”

Benitez reiterated that Columbia is not a party in the litigation, but stands behind the development corporation’s decision to appeal. Perkins has already issued an open letter to Gov. David Paterson, who supports Columbia’s expansion, to not appeal the decision and call for a state-wide moratorium on eminent domain.

Sprayregen and the Singhs noticed that the neighborhood was already in the upswing in recent years; it was Columbia who had “manufactured” much of the blight in the study. The issue at heart, they believe, is the need for Columbia and the community to come to a mutually satisfactory agreement of the university’s expansion in the neighborhood.

“Eminent domain is like a gun,” said Gurnam Singh, sitting in his office. “Somebody comes to your home, says he wants to buy your home, you say you’re not selling, he says, ‘Look, here’s a gun.’ You have to sell.”

Shifting his gaze from the construction surrounding West 125th and 129th Streets to his gas stations, Gurnam Singh adds: “Just leave me alone. I’m very happy we won. This is my heart.”


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