Blue Notes, October 2014
Updated: Jul 13
Having a conversation in the smallest room on campus is awkwardly cozy. Bed, dresser, and desk almost completely cover the room’s 79 square feet, leaving a small patch of open floor in the middle. It was in this diminutive space that I met Ian Davies, the room’s unimpressed occupant. Soon after getting there, I painfully nicked my knuckles on the edge of the desk mid hand gesture. Evidently, Ian’s room was not the best place to talk about Ian’s room. So we left.
In the cramped but infinitely more comfortable environs of the Hungarian Pastry Shop, our conversation flowed more freely. When the room is at its best, Ian observes, “it sometimes feels like the walls are hugging me.” But aside from these occasional spatial embraces, Ian’s relationship with his room tends to be polite and professional. He does what he can to make his room work for him, reminding me that “it’s not the size that counts, it’s what you do with it.”
Ian is somewhat intrigued by how much room size and location seem to matter to people here at Columbia—and by extension the premise for this article. As an exchange student from the highly urban University College London, he has had his fair share of experiences with tiny, decrepit living quarters. Back at UCL, people’s room size mattered much less because all socializing, including the alcoholic variety, took place in common rooms. The rules and regulations that dictate life at Columbia are far more constrictive than the size of one’s dorm.
But students’ lack of privacy and autonomy anywhere but their room is only part of the story. From a European’s perspective, Americans simply seem to care more about their material possessions. Of course, the English are materialistic too, says Ian. “But we’re more aware of it.”
Morningside Heights’ fire house is a tiny, one-truck operation on West 113th Street. Aside from the red garage door, the building looks more like a well-maintained apartment than a fire station. Only a plaque dated 1889 hints at the building’s history.
Back in 1860, when Morningside Heights was still farmland, politician William “Boss” Tweed ran the city’s notoriously corrupt Tammany Hall political machine. Tweed had gotten his start in the fire department, which was deeply linked to Tammany. The organization’s leaders depended on support from Tammany Hall, which in turn utilized the fire department to raise money and secure votes. In Tweed’s days at the Fire Department, competition for Tammany’s favor gave rise to violent rivalries among companies. In 1850, the department fired him for leading firefighters in an assault on a rival company.
Exiled from work within the Fire Department, Tweed moved on to govern it. In 1859, he was elected to the Board of Fire Commissioners and became a key liaison between Tammany Hall and the city’s fire system. But the machine’s days of influence on fire fighting were numbered. In 1865, the state moved to supplant the volunteer system with the state-run professionalized Metropolitan Fire Department.
Along with the creation of the Metropolitan Fire Department, New York prohibited the construction of new firehouses for the next fourteen years. The ban coincided with a period of unprecedented population growth in New York; so when it was lifted in 1879 the city scrambled to catch up, building forty-two firehouses in the next fifteen years. Ours, completed in 1890, is one of them.
Our firehouse went up on the eve of Morningside’s development into our modern neighborhood. Two years after its construction, The Bloomingdale Insane Asylum sold off its land to Columbia, and workers broke ground on the site of St. John the Divine.
Four horses and a steam engine sat at the fire department in 1891. Today, a fire truck, with “Pride of Morningside” written in script across the windshield, is parked in the garage.
Harlem Hospital has just opened a new building with a gallery to house its Depression-era murals. But the murals, which were painted by black artists and prominently depicted African- Americans, almost never were.
Back when the murals were commissioned by the WPA, hospital administrators attempted to prevent their installation. The hospital’s director at the time reportedly said that ‘he didn’t want any black faces on the walls’. But Charles ‘Spinky’ Alston, CC ’29 TC ’31, who supervised the mural project, led a successful campaign to reverse the decision.
The murals fell into decline over the years. The rooms where the works were housed were repurposed: one ended up lining a room used for bathroom supplies; another, “Recreation in Harlem” by Georgette Seabrooke, originally in the nurses’ recreation room, was buried under plaster.
In 2004, when the building was going to be demolished, the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation launched a drive to restore and rehouse the murals, which ultimately raised $325 million. The result: the Mural Pavilion at 135th and Lenox Avenue, whose block-long exterior is decorated with a digital reproduction of the murals, printed on the building in ceramic ink.
The restoration has deformed some of the faces, but the more preserved ones are original and even touching–they’re not tokenistic archetypes, as you might expect of a federally-funded mural. With its church and school and mailman and construction worker, it’s a bit of a civic altarpiece. But there’s also life and humor: in the school scene, two boys exchange raised eyebrows over their books.
Giving the murals the place they deserve has meant rehabilitating them as high art, matching them with classical panelling and moulding that mimics the original rooms they occupied. Right now, however, the pavilion is still sterile and unfinished. Seabrooke’s Recreation mural is in a corner of a huge empty room, bathed in a cold white light that contrasts sharply with reimagined nurses’ rec room which housed it in the ’30s. Seabrooke said she wanted the painting to be something to ‘partake in’– hardly signalled by the red velvet rope. Of course, there was a time when the only thing surrounding these life-filled visions of civic optimism was in fact plaster.