The turf war between Columbia’s soon to be neighbors, the Manhattanville and Grant houses
By Luca Marzorati
In the early hours of June 4, just five blocks north of campus, more than 400 uniformed New York Police Department officers stormed two public housing complexes—the Grant Houses and the neighboring Manhattanville Houses—as part of the largest gang bust in New York’s history. Forty young men were arrested in a coordinated effort between the NYPD and the Manhattan district attorney’s office, which unveiled two indictments spanning 145 counts later that afternoon.
The June raid marked a precise culmination of an investigation that lasted over four years. Most of the suspects were arrested in bed and then paraded in front of the television crews, which had been notified in advance of the bust.
The accused gang members looked, quite understandably, as if they dressed in the midst of a police raid: sweatshirts were thrown on haphazardly, with handcuffs slapped on wrists before arms could tunnel through sleeves.
Soon after the raid, New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton tweeted a picture of himself surrounded by flak-jacketed officers. Yet the precision of the raid belies the tenuous situation in West Harlem, a rare Manhattan neighborhood that changed less in the last few decades than adjacent areas.
This stasis is likely to end in 2016, when Columbia plans to open the first building of its Manhattanville campus. As a whole, the Manhattanville project will cost $7 billion and span 17 acres, bringing an Ivy League research institution and all its trappings north past 125th Street.
The debate over whether the campus should be built (over the objection of some local landowners and community groups) on a large contiguous plot is, for better or worse, over. However, the verdict is still out on whether Columbia can accomplish its more ambitious goal of integrating the Manhattanville campus into West Harlem. The university will take over the neighborhood, but will it do so as a landlord or a partner? Whereas Morningside Heights was built up around Columbia’s campus, the Manhattanville buildings rise in the midst of a long developed neighborhood.
Manhattanville sits in the valley between Columbia and City College, with 125th Street serving as its major east-west thoroughfare. For the past two decades, the street has also served as a territorial border between gangs from the two largest housing complexes in West Harlem: the General Ulysses S. Grant Houses (from 123rd Street to 125th Street between Broadway and Morningside Avenue) and the Manhattanville Houses (north of 129th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue).
In recent years, gang members from Manhattanville, including the Make it Happen Boys (MHB), have been assisted by auxiliary members from Money Ave (slang for Manhattan Avenue), located across Morningside Park from Morningside Heights. Together, Money Ave and MHB have clashed with 3 Staccs, a gang that controls the Grant Houses. These three groups make an arc surrounding the Columbia campus on the north and east fronts.
While the gang violence has barely touched the university community, and crime rates across Manhattan have fallen rapidly over the past two decades, mapping the conflict underscores the tricky geography of West Harlem. Whereas the geography of Morningside Heights contains “buffer zones” between the Columbia campus and the areas where this turf war has been fought, the Manhattanville campus does not. The Manhattanville projects flank the entire east side of Columbia’s Manhattanville campus, perhaps complicating any notion of the university seamlessly integrating into a new neighborhood.
The two indictments released in the wake of the June raid uncover the nature of the gang war and the changing nature of crime in our area. Money Ave, 3 Staccs, and MHB have a loose organizational structure with a largely teenage membership. There’s no evidence that the gangs were involved in what would be considered typical gang activities, such as drug dealing and extortion. Instead, Money Ave, 3 Staccs, and MHB are not professional organizations with a business model, but a collection of fluid “crews” who are primarily interested in protecting their own turf from potentially humiliating incursions by rivals (the proof of which—snapshots of street signs in rival territory—remains common on Twitter).
The rivalry between Grant and Manhattanville, which had mainly taken the form of online threats, fights (some of which were filmed and uploaded to the website World Star Hip Hop), and the occasional shooting, escalated in the fall of 2011. Early on the morning of September 11, Tayshana “Chicken” Murphy, an 18 year-old who was one of the best female basketball players in New York, was murdered in a stairwell of the Grant Houses. Two Manhattanville residents were later convicted of the killing. Tayshana was the sister of Taylonn Murphy, a member of 3 Staccs who had shot at members of Money Ave in March 2011, yet the highly-publicized murder, seen as a cold-blooded execution of an innocent bystander, took the conflict to the next level.
Also fueling the fire was the growth of social media, which gave gang members on both sides a platform to taunt rivals and boast of criminal exploits, while also giving law enforcement officials a trove of actionable data. Three months after Murphy’s murder, a Money Ave member named Walter “Recc” Sumter posted a video on YouTube insulting 3 Staccs members and mocking the murder.
Two weeks later, Sumter was shot and killed leaving a party in East Harlem. Hours later, Eric “Bullet” Pierce, one of the accused shooters, sent a Facebook message indicating that he “threw bitches in the graveyard for real” and set his status to “Niggas die every day.”
Some gang members appeared to be aware that these social media postings would come back to haunt gang members on both sides. One 3 Staccs member posted, “For all you lil dum ass Grant niggas the cobs [sic] is on FB…so why the fuck are yall putting shit up about beef on FB!!!” One gang member instructed another to take down a Facebook post out of fear that it would signal their gang ties to the police. Nonetheless, the retaliation, and the online record, only grew.
The lengthy indictment provides insight into how the gangs would function and the nature of the project rivalries. The first major hurdle was obtaining a firearm, which are increasingly hard to find in New York. Multiple gang members would often have to pool their money to get a working gun with ammunition.
Large groups of gang members, usually with more people than weapons, would congregate and enter the rival project complex, walking around until a confrontation broke out or the police arrived. For instance, on August 4, 2012, Money Ave members gathered to honor Recc Sumter in Morningside Park. After commemorating their fallen comrade, a group of thirty walked north to the Grant Houses with a loaded gun and shot the first male individual they encountered. A member later explained that “It Was Recc Day…Its Only Right…We Was Sauced And Smacked.” Two members changed shirts after the shooting to avoid being picked up by police officers.
Premeditation was rare, and the plans there were often seemed more spurred by boredom than material gain. West Harlem was engulfed by a culture of revenge, as Tephanie Holston, the mother of the slain Tayshana Murphy, told her son Taylonn that “them two niggas from the ‘ville have got to go.” Police crackdowns were only counterproductive in this respect: a Money Ave member believed that a loss of guns in a recent bust left the gang vulnerable, meaning they needed to strike 3 Staccs quickly before they were themselves attacked.
The frequent arrests of high-ranking members of both gangs created two related problems. First, as older members spent more and more time locked up on Rikers Island, younger members—more confident yet more inexperienced—took on greater responsibilities, generating more risk for both sides. Because of this, the leaders in jail called their lieutenants over the recorded lines of the New York City Department of Correction, inadvertently handing more information to prosecutors. As in the case of social media, the indictment indicates that some members knew the phone calls were taped, but still admitted to, or ordered, crimes via telephone.
Fears about younger members stepping in to fill the roles of older ones were more pronounced after the June arrests, which took a large portion of the young men out of the neighborhood. In an attempt to slow down the succession, Police Service Area 6 (which is responsible for policing housing projects in Upper Manhattan) organized a pickup basketball game for children from the Grant and Manhattanville projects. “When you have 103 young men that have been arrested and removed from the community, it causes a void,” PSA 6 deputy inspector Luis Despaigne told the Daily News.
Columbia, the neighboring institution with an $8.2 billion endowment, has effectively stayed out of the fray. Though, the day after the raids on the Grant and Manhattanville houses, Vice President for Public Safety James F. McShane sent an email to all Columbia students, faculty, and staff, touting the arrests as a move to “make our city and community safer.” McShane’s email made it clear that Columbia, like the NYPD, would be addressing the crime wave with a show of increased visibility—more officers on the streets, more fixed posts (like the “Sky Watch” booth outside the Grant Houses), and more patrol cars through Manhattanville.
Currently, Columbia functions as a self-contained system: 110th Street to 123rd Street in Morningside Heights is clearly dominated by the university, and while some students do reside in West Harlem or in other parts of New York, the university’s “sphere of influence” does not extend outside of the neighborhood. Part of the reason why Manhattanville was chosen as the location of expansion (as opposed to the Donald Trump plan of a new campus west of Lincoln Center) was because Manhattanville could be contiguously connected to Morningside Heights. In fact though, any connection between the campuses will have to be made on a small strip of Broadway that runs adjacent to the Grant and Manhattanville houses.
Columbia, at least in the last twenty years, has not had to assert much force to maintain their image as a “safe urban university.” This may change once its students are taking classes a block away from some of the hottest crime zones in West Harlem. And to the extent that Columbia shows a tougher face, the hope that the Manhattanville campus could be an “urban academic environment…woven into the fabric of the surrounding community,” as the Columbia-administered Manhattanville website states, will be a fantasy. So long as Columbia takes seriously its role as a kind of safety zone, it’s hard to see how its relationship with the neighborhood could be anything but managerial.