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  • Ursula Murray-Bozeman

Strangers in Their Own Homes

Updated: Sep 4, 2021

Not all residents in 620 go to Barnard. By Ursula Murray-Bozeman

When Victoria Sullivan moved into 620 W 116th St. in 1965, it was like any other residential building in Morningside Heights. But when Barnard bought the building just a year later, things started to change. “They, early on, were very aggressive in wanting people out because they wanted to make it into a dorm,” Ms. Sullivan said. She said that although she was never made an offer, the tenants understood that they would be paid a small sum to leave. New York City rent control laws prevented Barnard from evicting the tenants.

Now Ms. Sullivan, an artist and playwright who moves between New York City and upstate New York, is one of a handful of tenants in a building that once held 40 private apartments. Ms. Sullivan said she is aware of only one other tenant, although four of the units in the building are occupied by tenants. While the students are largely indifferent to the fact that they have older neighbors, Ms. Sullivan says that life in the building has changed for the worse.

“It’s extremely isolating. I have no friends in the building,” Ms. Sullivan said. She said that even though she’s been living there for 53 years, the public safety officers at the desk do not always know who she is.

She said that she used to find the students oppressively noisy, but that now they tend to be quieter. “When you think between 1965 and now, the culture has changed—we had alcohol, we had drugs, we had loud rock music,” Ms. Sullivan reminisced. “A lot of that has changed.” She added that despite the general noise level, she did not remember it creating problems while her kids were growing up. She suggested that students might be quieter now because of electronic devices with headphones.

For students, having non-affiliated neighbors doesn’t seem to make a big difference. “It’s very weird in that I guess we all know that there are real people but we don’t necessarily know anything about them,” one RA, who asked to remain anonymous, reflected. She said that when she became an RA, the college did not mention the tenants to her or explain how a noise complaint from one of the tenants might be dealt with. Sometimes, she said, she warns her residents not to be too loud because she’s not sure if they would call the police.

The tenants, the RA said, also don’t seem eager to interact with students. When she introduced herself to one of the tenants in the elevator, she said they seemed “very separate” and told her, “I won’t really remember [you], there will be someone else there next year.”

Last year, the RA found an elderly woman who had fallen in her apartment and was calling for help. She had gotten a call from a 620 resident who could hear the woman yelling. Later that year, the woman died in her apartment; the RA noticed when an ambulance came to collect the body. “In our RA group chat we were all freaking out because there was an ambulance taking a dead person out of the building so we were like, ‘is it a resident?’”

The RA said she wonders if the tenants, most of whom are elderly, would live in the buildings by choice: “I wonder why they would live there. I imagine it’s terrible living amongst a bunch of college students.”

And indeed, Ms. Sullivan seems to agree. “It’s not at all pleasant living in a building where there’s 40 apartments and there’s only two that have regular tenants.” According to the floor plans, there are actually four units occupied by unaffiliated tenants in 620.

The building itself, one tenant, who wished to remain anonymous, noted, has deteriorated since Barnard acquired it. “This used to be a really elegant building, it had moldings on the walls downstairs, it had beautiful tiling, it had beautiful chandeliers,” she remembered. “Every time [Barnard] had a problem, they just put a new pipe hanging from the ceiling in the lobby. They simply don’t understand being landlords … Sometimes they don’t even heat this building on the weekends.”

Barnard bought 620 116th St. in March of 1966 as part of an urgent effort to expand their housing at a time when, according to a contemporaneous Barnard Bulletin article, Barnard dormitories only housed 731 students. By December of that year, 27 Barnard seniors lived in 620, and the college planned to expand further as soon as the original tenants moved out. Then-Director of Residence and College Activities, Elizabeth Meyers, told the Barnard Bulletin that “Barnard wishes not to be unfair to the tenants so that apartments are available to us only when the tenants can find new housing.” This assurance came after criticism from the tenants that Barnard was forcing them out of their homes.

It is not surprising that the purchase was a contentious issue; the same newspaper issues that reported the purchase contain headlines such as “CU Republicans Back Gym in Park.” In 1967, the New York Amsterdam News cited the Morningside Tenants Committee’s estimate that 8,000 tenants had been moved out in recent years by Columbia University. The Tenants Committee protested “Columbia’s ‘anti-people program,’” arguing that the University was re-segregating the neighborhood. Just a year later, Columbia students would occupy five campus buildings in protest over the proposed gym in Morningside Park.

In 1971, Barnard bought 600 W 116th St., another residential building, and allegedly sent out eviction notices, stoking further resentment. The tenants took Barnard and the company that made the sale, Jacard Realty, to court for allowing students to move in before the sale was finalized. In a letter to the editor in the Barnard Bulletin, the tenants railed against Barnard’s expansion: “Housing imperialism on Morningside Heights by Barnard College and Columbia University against residential buildings has got to stop.” Barnard maintained that, as with 620, no tenants would be evicted, although they also allegedly assured students that units would become available more quickly than they had in 620.

In a recent statement to The Blue and White, Barnard suggested they have revised their policy of automatically converting residential units to dorms once the units are vacated: “As apartments are vacated entirely and returned to the College’s inventory, the College assesses its current needs along with available capital funding, and slates apartments for conversion based upon the needs assessment.” They clarified that no units have been rented out to new tenants, although their policy suggests that it’s a possibility in the future. This change in policy comes at a time when Barnard relies on students studying abroad to provide housing to students who are guaranteed it, and when Barnard transfer students still do not have guaranteed housing.

“They haven’t put any pressure on me to leave in recent years,” Ms. Sullivan observed. “So I’m still here. And they’re waiting for me to die. Which isn’t my favorite state to be in.”


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