by Mabel o. Wilsn
When I ascend the grand steps in ront o McKim, Mead,and White’s statel Low Librar on m dail trek to teachon Columbia Universit’s campus, I am greeted b DanielChester French’s heroic bronze sentinel Alma Mater. Asour “nourishing and bounteous mother,” she smbolizesthe intellectual sustenance oered to all alumni, includingmsel, who have matriculated through the school’s neo-classical uptown campus. While m downtown alma mater,New york Universit, ma lack such an iconic tourist attrac-tion, its alumni relations department works hard to remindits grads, about once a month, that our allegiance can bepledged one credit card swipe at a time. But what i ouralma maters had developed voracious, insatiable appetitesand were both hell-bent upon devouring their neighbor-hoods as part o their ambitious campus expansion plans?And i we were to analze their tactics or amassing newterritor, might the battle between competitive hot dogeaters Joe “Jaws” Chestnut’s stu and gulp technique(Columbia) and Takeru “the Tsunami” Kobaashi’s dunkone, chomp two method (NyU) be an apt analog?Columbia’s landholdings are the stu o urban legends.When I was a graduate student in the earl nineties, talesabounded about how Columbia was second onl to theRoman Catholic Church or having assembled the largestcache o land holdings in the cit. Some said that Columbiahad been around so long that it still owned the land underWashington Square Park—an incursion into NyU’s guardedterritor to be sure. (The true stor is that it was sited abit urther south, near Park Place, when it was still King’sCollege in the eighteenth centur.) Another widel circulat-ing rumor was that Columbia held the deed or the parcelthat Rockeeller Center now sits upon, its campus home
G o w n t r o U n c e s t o w n, 2 – 0
beore Columbia migrated uptown to its current Morning-side Heights compound in 1897. Over the ears, Columbiahas staed airl compacted in its gated connes, choos-ing to build upwards and downwards rather than spreadoutwards. Eorts in 1968 to stake a claim in nearb Morn-ingside Park or the construction o a new gmnasium, aacilit that some believed would not be ull accessible toits predominatel black and Hispanic Harlem neighbors,erupted in a spirited campus uprising led b students andthe radical group SDS, taking over several buildings, muchto the chagrin o campus administrators and cit police.Columbia Universit’s recent attempt to move into Har-lem has proceeded more like a game o whack-a-mole thanan all-out ground assault. B accruing parcels one b onein ar west Harlem, rechristened these das as Manhattan-ville, Columbia has amassed a 17-acre tract. Buildings arecurrentl being cleared brick-b-brick so that Renzo Pia-no’s master plan or a new mixed-use academic center cansoon commence construction. The use o eminent domain,however, in which New york State designated some o theprivate properties as blighted in order to claim them or“public use,” has not been implemented without consider-able blowback. Attornes representing two holdouts arecurrentl appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse arecent ruling upholding the use o eminent domain. Despiteall eorts to extricate them, it would seem some o thosepesk moles are burrowing under or an extended sta.The urban landholdings legend has been recentlupdated to rank NyU as the number one owner in the cit,suggesting that the now possess more acreage than eventhe Archdiocese o New york. Indeed NyU’s presence inGreenwich Village over the past twent-ve ears hasincreased several-old. Unlike Columbia’s spatial strateg,which tpies what historian Michel Foucault characterizedas “the enclosure,” a hallmark o the nineteenth centur’sparadigm o the disciplined societ, NyU’s spatial strategapproximates what philosopher Gilles Deleuze called “rhi-zomatic,” a distributed sstem emblematic o our societ ocontrol. To put it in lamen’s terms, NyU’s tactic has beensomewhat akin to the pop-up shop that never leaves.With new dormitories, rehabbed classrooms, moreoces, galleries and caes sprouting in all directions east,west, north and south, rom the East Village to Governor’sIsland and rom downtown Brookln to Abu Dhabi, NyU hasplanted hundreds o its violet fags in locales around theglobe. But with the spring debut o “A Universit as Greatas Its Cit: NyU’s Strateg or Future Growth,” a plan to addsome six million square eet o space b its bicentennial in2031, not all o its Village neighbors are happ about beingurther crowded out. In the master plan conceived b Grim-shaw Architects, the eort to clone I.M. Pei’s landmarkedSilver Towers, or example, has alread met with erceopposition rom local preservation groups who packed thepublic hearings held b Communit Board 2 this past week.Their concern ma be justied as this new venture b the800 pound purple gorilla-in-the-hood would erect the talleststructure in Greenwich Village, a condominium/hotel towerwhose top foors will no doubt oer panoramic vistaso NyU’s vast holdings.Whether or not NyU will move ahead with its plans inhistoric Greenwich Village and elsewhere in the cit willattest to how well these communit groups can tacticallchallenge, like their uptown comrades, the legions o law-ers these institutions have at their disposal. In the end itma not be enough that the cit no longer eeds the beasto these land hungr institutions. Perhaps the land grab om alma maters can be contained in other was—Columbiama need a lap band to curtail its appetite, and NyU maneed to undertake a master cleanse to fush out the toxins.Both institutions ma come to realize that the need to reignin their ambitions in order to maintain a more balanced andhealth relationship with the town and its people, who ulti-matel give each school that distinctive New york Cit vibe.