Morningside Heights: 2 Parks Sandwich Town and Gown

New York Times November 21, 1999

Rising above the rugged hills overlooking the Hudson River, the soaring Gothic spires of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, at Amsterdam Avenue and 110th Street, and the venerable modernist Riverside Church stand as sentinels over Morningside Heights, a neighborhood long known for serving the needs of the body, mind and spirit.

Part college town, part ivory-tower enclave, the neighborhood's streets are filled with students carrying backpacks and families pushing strollers. Posters advertising performances, foreign films, lectures and scholarly conferences are plastered on the bus stops and storefronts along Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue. Bookstores and cafes dot the commercial streets.

Bordered by 110th and 125th Streets and Morningside and Riverside Parks on Manhattan's West Side, Morningside Heights is marked by large institutions, including Barnard College, Teachers College, the Union Theological Seminary, the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Manhattan School of Music. At its heart is Columbia University's campus, which has shaped the life of the neighborhood for more than a century.

In recent years, housing prices have risen swiftly, hitting what brokers and residents say are astounding numbers.

"The prices have gotten outrageous here," said Erica Lasner, who with her husband, Eugene, an architect, bought a two-bedroom apartment in a co-op on Riverside Drive four years ago The Lasners began hunting for a larger apartment last summer and found that three-bedroom apartments run as high as $800,000. The prices have more than doubled in four years, Ms. Lasner said.

Depending on the location in the neighborhood and building amenities, prices for one-bedroom apartments range from about $100,000 to $250,000, area brokers said. Two-bedroom apartments run from $400,000 to $500,000, said Klara Madlin, owner of Klara Madlin Real Estate.

TWO years ago, we had to drag people north of 96th Street," she said. "What we're seeing now are a lot of people who are priced out of buildings in the 70's and 80's on the East and West Sides."

Marisa Chaves, an agent with the Corcoran Group, said co-op prices had increased 30 to 50 percent in Morningside Heights in the last three to four years. "Your dollar will still get you more than it will on the Upper West Side," she added. "Morningside Heights used to be sort of a secret, but it's not any more."

Some less expensive co-ops can still be found, particularly in Morningside Gardens, a housing development built in 1957 along the northern edge of the neighborhood. The six-building, 983-unit development was built with state and federal subsidies.

The co-op's below-market prices range from about $55,000 for a studio to $152,000 for a three-bedroom. There are no income ceilings for buyers, but there is a long waiting list.

"All this was supposedly part of a slum clearance plan," said Joan Levine, who has lived in Morningside Gardens since the development opened in 1957 and is the chairwoman of the co-op's community relations committee. But, she added, it was really part of a plan by the neighborhood's major institutions to prevent the impoverished Harlem neighborhood from encroaching on Morningside Heights.

"It was a success in that it's really been an integrated development since the beginning," Ms. Levine said.

Morningside Gardens was built in conjunction with the General Grant Houses, a public housing development of nine buildings and 1,940 apartments at Amsterdam Avenue and 125th Street. Residents of the two developments work together to sponsor programs for the elderly and children.

Children living in Morningside Heights can attend any of the more than a dozen elementary and middle schools in Community School District 3. Several of the schools are overcrowded and have reported low standardized test scores, but two new schools offer some innovative programs and smaller class sizes.

The k-5, 283-pupil Manhattan School for Children was given an Annenberg Arts Challenge Grant in the last school year. In a recent citywide test, 65.8 percent of the school's third and fifth graders scored at or above the national average. The 143-student Crossroads School, a middle school, covering grades 6 to 8, emphasizes communication and writing skills and features an extensive computer program. Both are in a renovated building on 109th Street.

Among the highly regarded private schools in the neighborhood are the nursery-to-eighth-grade, 435-student Bank Street School for Children and the pre-k-8, Episcopal affiliated, 300-student St. Hilda's and St. Hugh's School. Annual tuition at Bank Street ranges from $12,800 to $16,680 and $13,300 to $15,700 at St. Hilda's and St. Hugh's. Both schools provide some financial aid.

AT the k-8, 250-student Cathedral School, set on the 13-acre grounds next to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, tuition ranges from $15,000 to $16,000. About 40 percent of its students receive some form of financial assistance.

The pre-k-8, 252-pupil Roman Catholic Corpus Christi elementary school charges $3,070 in annual tuition for a parishioner and $3,520 for a nonparishioner.

Long known as a domineering and demanding neighbor, Columbia has moved in recent years to improve its relationship with the surrounding community.

"In the last two to three years, Columbia has been a lot more responsive to community's needs," said Maritta Dunn, president

of Community Board 9, which includes Morningside Heights. "The distrust between the community and Columbia still exists, but things are much, much better."

Even before Columbia arrived on Morningside Heights in 1897, the once-rural neighborhood was the site of conflict between institutional and commercial visions. In 1886, real estate speculators sought to force out the

Bloomingdale Insane Asylum to better attract middle-class families to purchase row houses planned for the rocky plateau along Broadway. They were successful and the asylum moved to rural Westchester County. But property values did not increase substantially until the new Broadway subway line opened in 1904. By then, Columbia, Teachers College, St. Luke's Hospital and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine had moved to the area.

Over the next century, conflict between institutional land owners and neighborhood residents continued. In the 60's and 70's when Columbia purchased about 90 residential buildings, turned single-room occupancy hotels into student housing and announced plans to remake the neighborhood, tensions between the university and community residents sometimes resulted in hostile confrontations.

The most famous was in 1968 when students closed down the university in demonstrations that were sparked by a Columbia plan to build a gym in Morningside Park. The gym was never built.

But much has changed in recent years. Columbia has stressed improving relations with its neighbors, holding community meetings to discuss plans for new construction and to develop a comprehensive plan for future renovation and construction projects.

"In the past," said Ms. Dunn, "when Columbia had a building that needed some repairs, they would repair it with the cheapest stuff and not pay any attention to the history of the building. But with the new plan, they had a lot of community involvement."

One example is a new Columbia dormitory now under construction at 113th Street and Broadway, which at the community's request will include the facade of a late-19th century row house that has been demolished. Still, after extensive community meetings, Columbia rejected a proposal by residents to include commercial space in a new administrative building for its law and business schools on Amsterdam Avenue.

"There's still a lot of distrust," Ms. Dunn said. "You can't turn the tide in just a couple of years, but it's changing."

While tensions in the neighborhood have eased, some long-standing town and gown conflicts remain. In 1995, the Jewish Theological Seminary, seeking more space to house its growing student body, moved to evict 23 families from two buildings it owns on 122nd Street.

The residents fought the effort and the seminary voluntarily renewed the leases of four tenants. Eleven others filed a lawsuit and in January, a housing court judge ruled in favor of 10 of the original tenants and said their leases must be renewed.

"There are many positive changes," said Peter Marcuse, a professor of urban planning at Columbia and neighborhood resident since 1978. "but the process of gentrification has displaced many low-income people and, over the long term, changed the neighborhood."

Columbia's recent move to revitalize its buildings and storefronts along Broadway has drawn praise from many, but not all, residents. In a community of scholars and social activists, the restoration of historic buildings goes only so far in erasing the scars of previous battles.

"I agree that a lot of coffee shops and bars have gone, and to some people that is an issue," said Andrew S. Dolkart, an architectural historian, "but unlike what's happened in other neighborhoods, this commercial street still retains its character and Columbia is now making a conscious effort to make the Heights beautiful."

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