The History and Legacy of Washington and Morningside Heights

by Casey Bell, Jordan R. Marco Franco, Samantha Page, and Talia Moore

Through a collection of photographs and interviews we address how institutions change spaces. In our project we explore Morningside and Washington Heights and the culture and atmosphere behind these spaces. We focus on how private and state run institutions work to construct how space is accessible/inaccessible among different demographics. Throughout our time there, we noticed the differences between these two neighborhoods, following the legacy of their history.

Passerby stroll past Los Amigos Flower Shop on 158th & Broadway in Washington Heights. (photos by Talia Moore)

Prior to the purchase of Manhattan island by Peter Minuit in 1626 the Lenape tribes used the area we now know as Washington Heights for various survival purposes, such as: fishing, hunting, and trading. In addition, they utilized the space for their agricultural needs.

Purchase of Manhattan Island by Peter Minuit 1626. Panting by Alfred Frederick.

It wasn’t until The Second World War that Washington Heights became home for Spanish speaking people. After an influx of Cuban and Puerto Rican migration, the Heights became mostly known for its Dominican population as they became the majority group at around the mid 20th century.

As we walked through the streets of Washington Heights, a predominantly Latinx neighborhood, we noticed its vibrant community, bilingual signage, and community owned businesses.

A woman puts back a bouquet of roses at Los Amigos Flower Shop.
Several individuals gather outside of Liberato Food Market on Broadway & 163rd St.
Most of the shops that line Broadway are small businesses.
Store front awnings on Broadway are written in Spanish and English.

However, we noticed curbs and sidewalks were littered with trash and fire hydrants were leaking.

A man crosses W 164th and Broadway.
A fire hydrant leaks outside of Bohemia Reality Group.
Fast food trash covers the curb of W 164th street.

It was shocking to see an area with a boosting local economy, which include a vast number of small businesses, and a vibrant culture be set up against the rest of Manhattan and fail in regard to cleanliness. Though the rent is cheaper in The Heights than the rest of Manhattan, prices keep going up as new resident come in — further accelerating the gentrification process. This leads one to wonder: how long will the streets be like this?

Morningside Park several blocks away from Columbia overlooks West Harlem.

Before Columbia relocated to Morningside Heights in 1896, this neighborhood was predominantly inhabited by Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and African Americans. Today, Morningside Heights is 49% white, 19% Asian, 15% Latinx, 13% African American, and 3% 2 or more races.

In 1919 Columbia began to buy buildings in Morningside Heights because the institution was worried that their faculty and staff would not be able to afford ‘good’ housing in the area, thus would have to live in the tenement housing of Mornginside Heights. The effect of this on the community of Morningside Heights was the closing of single room occupancy hotels and the eviction of residents of the community, who were predominantly Dominican, Puerto Rican, and African American.

In 1968 Columbia sought to build a gym in Morningside Park. In the plans for the park Columbia highlighted that residents of the community would have a separate entrance than staff, employees, and students of Columbia. Within the community the plan for the gym became known as, “Gym Crow” and the community resisted against it through protests and student strikes. The gym was never built.

Being built on a hill, Columbia overlooks the rest of Harlem. Meant to be a powerhouse of elite thinkers, this allows the institution to assert intellectual dominance over the community.

A woman walks past one of Columbia’s many security booths on W 119th St.

Unlike The Heights and the rest of Harlem, the streets and area that surround Columbia’s campus are pristine, almost as if it is not a part of the of the neighborhood.

Outside of Columbia’s East Side entrance are two public safety vehicles.

All throughout the campus, the area is surveilled by public safety patrol, meanwhile the rest of Harlem is overseen by the NYPD.

A security guard stands outside his booth at the West side gates of Columbia.

After getting denied an interview a security guard since he warns us he on camera and would not be able to speak about the university as it is, because of his contract, which he mentions is managed outside of Columbia University jobs, we look to speak with two black students walking by.

“Being in the institution itself I do feel a responsibility of kind of finding ways to resist within there, but then I also sometimes feel a little bit resentful of that,” said Amelia, a graduate student at Columbia.

Keenan Teddy, also a graduate student at Columbia discusses the relationship between race and space within the institution’s neighborhood and beyond into Harlem.

“I’ve done some work in a school on 145th, and also in Frederick Douglass, right down the hill there — but that’s another thing that I think is a huge gap in terms of race and space — literally if you walk down the park, there is a high school. And when you talk to a lot of students their impression is not “Oh, I’m about to go here to school, when there’s a university right here.” So there’s a huge disconnect in terms of space and in terms of this being a secluded community, and it was really built that way, historically, on purpose,” said Teddy.

A woman walks through W 116th and Morningside Drive.

This mural, placed within historically black and brown Harlem, depicts Africans and Native Americans in chains at the hands of a non-African, non-Native leader. Its placement, on the hill that Columbia is built on which overlooks the rest of Harlem (“the imbeciles”) is a direct translation of the violence the institution projects onto the rest of the community.

A banner stretches across the gates of Barnard revealing plans for the Milstein Center.

Though it has already displaced so many due to rampant gentrification, Columbia plans to further expand its settler project by creating a “Milstein Center” meant to incentivize “building community,” when in reality it destroys it.

The entrance of Barnard College is lined with gates and a security booth.

When comparing Morningside and Washington Heights, one notices the different spaces that access to wealth allows. Because it is an elite, ivy league institution, Columbia gets awarded the luxury of being safe, looked after — not overseen — , and clean. In turn, those in areas like West Harlem and Washington Heights, though with great local economies, get neglected by the State in ways that Columbia does not. While the university is protected, those in Harlem are under constant violence, this perhaps creates a caste system through spatial difference. Because individuals within the Columbia community are seen as “the thinkers” meant to further promote European pillars of Western thought, they get to displace black and brown bodies in the process. Meanwhile, people of color, resist as they might, suffer through the powers of capitalism at the hands of “knowledge.”

Here is a map of Columbia depicting the future buildings the university will intent to renovate and build. (

One should not think of Columbia as an isolated incident, but rather an instance in which capitalism and its best friend, racism, are working together — as they always do — to further promote the displacement of brown folk, much like it has historically always done. It is imperative to fight against Columbia and its gentrifying history, legacy, and contemporary run, yet no lose sight of all the gentrifying that is going on in the rest of New York City. If there is anything one should know about displacement of brown bodies is that it has been happening since Europeans first started to settle in the U.S, it did not begin with Brooklyn coffee shops. As those who resist, we must look at it from a historical perspective so as to know the beast we are up against, only to then look into the present in order to go beyond.

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