Where Birds Could Chirp
On the people’s fight for a people’s neighborhood.
By Cole Cahill
If the city ever needs to film a promotional video espousing the benefits of community gardens, they ought to set up cameras at the Julia Gabriel People’s Garden on the northwest corner of 111th and Amsterdam. It’s a perfect oasis; local kids frolic through daffodils, neighbors catch up over croissants and coffee from Hungarian, and, on particularly beautiful days, parakeets chirp from a wire cage.
The birds belong to Marcial Lara, who moved to this block from the Dominican Republic in 1975. On days when the birds chirp, you can find him chatting in the garden with George Gabriel, who’s called 111th Street home for more than 50 years. Gabriel’s wife, Julia, spearheaded the effort to cultivate a garden here and spent much of her life tending to its plants until her death in 2010. Here, Lara and Gabriel reminisce about the grocer and barbershop that once stood just a few blocks up Amsterdam, or bemoan the bench that was delivered with a crack down the middle.
But their chats are more than typical neighborly pleasantries. They’re the products of hard-fought struggle. For decades, Gabriel and Lara banded with their neighbors to protect the garden, their apartments, and the entire neighborhood from destruction—to keep it a place where birds could chirp. Facing the goliaths of Rockefeller and Columbia-funded developers, the Episcopal Church, and the City of New York, this verdant sanctuary triumphed over powerful institutions accustomed to bulldozing over anything, and anyone, standing in their way.
In the years after World War II, Columbia thought it had a problem. Morningside Heights was changing, and not in the ways the administration wanted. Many of the apartment buildings just beyond the campus gates, once home to mostly middle-class families, had been chopped up into single-room-occupancy buildings with cheap rents. Morningside Heights, along with the rest of Manhattan’s West Side, also became a home for Black and Puerto Rican people migrating to the city; between 1950 and 1960, the neighborhood’s white population declined by 20%.
Longtime residents remember the Morningside Heights of the 1960s and ’70s as a neighborhood not dominated by Columbia and its affiliates. The community was a mixture of races, cultures, and classes nearly nonexistent in the New York of 2021. Tom Phillips, a writer who has lived on 111th Street since 1995 and the author of an oral history of the fight to save the neighborhood’s buildings, described those residents as “a very, very polymorphous bunch ... real diversity, you know? You got everything from academic snobs to Black revolutionary types.”
But where many neighbors saw diversity and integration, Columbia saw a challenge to its vision of academic utopia. In 1965, Columbia Provost Jacques Barzun testified to the city’s Board of Estimate that the neighborhood was “abnormal, sinister,” and a threat to the University’s mission. “People who study and teach,” he said, “must not be subjected to an environment that requires the perpetual qui vive of a paratrooper in enemy country.”
Columbia and its institutional affiliates had operated with this racist and paranoid mindset since the post-World War II demographic shift that made Harlem the heart of Black New York. In 1946, one of Rockefeller’s earliest efforts to construct his vision for Morningside Heights was the commission of a study that proposed so-called remediation options for “urban blight” brought about by the influx of Black and Puerto Rican people in Harlem. The primary recommendation was a 25-year urban renewal effort to construct a “buffer zone” between Morningside Heights and Harlem to cultivate “a self-sustaining Community, which is the spiritual, cultural and intellectual center of the world.” The buffer zone took the form of the cooperative and public housing complexes that stand along 125th Street today.
The University orchestrated this urban renewal through a strategic collaboration with 24 other Morningside Heights institutions with vested interests in real estate values and the racial and class makeup of their neighbors, including Union Theological Seminary, Jewish Theological Seminary, St. Luke’s Hospital, Riverside Church, and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, to form an organization called Morningside Heights Incorporated. With David Rockefeller at its helm, it aimed to “promote the improvement” of Morningside Heights as “an attractive residential, educational, and cultural area.” The coalition produced a report that served as the basis for the Morningside General Neighborhood Renewal Plan, which the city approved in 1965. Keeping with urban renewal, the plan called for the total demolition of the blocks between 110th and 123rd Streets and redevelopment of buildings serving University affiliates, other MHI institutions, and residents who were more desirable to the institutions.
One component of that plan was the construction of a high-end senior living facility on Amsterdam Avenue between 111th and 112th Streets, directly facing the Cathedral. The publicized plan for the facility, called Morningside House, was a brutalist, honeycomb-esque tower consisting of hexagonal turrets that aimed to house and care for over 300 residents. The facility was not directly affiliated with the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, but the two entities shared board members and its development was closely associated with the Episcopal Diocese. Inconveniently for the Columbia-Rockefeller-MHI industrial complex, they needed to evict at least 350 people living in eight buildings on the proposed site—many of whom were seniors themselves.
Morningside House purchased all eight apartment buildings in 1965 and demolished four without significant resistance as, according to one resident, they were mostly unoccupied. The other targeted buildings—especially 503 and 507 West 111th St.—were not just occupied, but filled with tenants ready to put up a fight. The first tenants who organized against the eviction plan were residents of 503, also known as the Blennerhasset. Don Colflesh, an artist and silver designer, wasted no time in organizing the defense of his building.
“I had just moved in, and we had just had a baby, and I liked the apartment, and I had aging, panicky neighbors, so I thought—I’d just see what would happen,” Colflesh said in his oral history interview. He contacted a housing attorney who provided the mantra that would come to define the tenants’ battle: “Don’t Move.”
Colflesh and other tenant organizers knocked on their neighbors’ doors and circulated letters with titles like “Sit Tight, Don’t Move, Don’t Panic” in response to a form letter residents received from the City Rent Office. The resistance efforts soon turned to highlighting the hypocrisy of the social-justice-oriented Cathedral of St. John the Divine orchestrating the eviction of hundreds of low-income and middle-class people. The tenants knew that the church was uneasy about the optics of the project, and they recognized how that discomfort could provide a source of leverage.
“Our whole position was that we had the moral high ground in this situation. And they did not like that. Because they were in the moral high ground business,” Colflesh said in his oral history interview.
The tenants aimed their campaign directly at the church’s morality: In a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury—the senior bishop of the Church of England, which governs the Cathedral of St. John the Divine—one organizer wrote that “our [appeal] is no more than the justice of the Commandments—Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house. If, then, we cannot appeal on charitable grounds to an organization founded by the Prince of Charity, who can we hope will hear us?”
When the Archbishop came to visit, tenants unfurled a banner from one of their buildings. Residents’ memories of the slogan are inconsistent, but whether it said “Save Our Homes,” “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house,” or “We’re Being Evicted!” the strategy was clear: forcing the church to reckon with public imagery of its work as an agent of community displacement. It was also effective; the Cathedral voluntarily changed its plan to spare the Blennerhasset from demolition. The tenants’ lawyers never even had to go to court.
That victory may have saved the Blennerhasset residents from the wrecking ball, but the Morningside House project moved ahead with a modified plan. MHI had already purchased the buildings and cleared out much of the necessary land on Amsterdam to construct the facility—just two apartment buildings on either side of the now-empty corner of 111th Street remained. Tenants in one building were ready to employ an even more radical tactic; they were ready to put their bodies on the line.
“You might think that a bunch of squatters just saw an opportunity to move in. Not true at all,” Phillips told me. On the contrary, the people who moved in were specifically occupying the structure to prevent its demolition.
“One way to fight [urban renewal] was to move people into buildings. Because even if they're squatters, you just can’t tear down the building with people in it,” Phillips said.
The forces that brought squatters into these buildings are less clear than the organized tenants’ fight to save the Blennerhassett, but the central facts are solid: The squatting was an intentional political strategy primarily carried out by Latinx people and families to physically inhibit the scheduled demolition.
In his interview for the oral history project, one resident recalled the squatters appearing just before the proposed demolition. “They just moved in and took over the entire building. But they were taking care of the building. They were fixing it up, they got the electricity on, they got everything working,” he said.
The squatters’ presence in the apartments was the primary encumbrance to the Morningside House construction plan. Once the buildings on 111th and Amsterdam were blocked from demolition, there was simply not enough space—or political will from the Cathedral and MHI—to move ahead with construction on that site. A senior living facility called Morningside House was still built by the development company, but on land they owned on Pelham Parkway in the Bronx. The apartment houses that abut the People’s Garden were spared, and, according to Lara, one of the original squatters still lives in his building.
The tenants’ success in saving their homes was extraordinary in its own right, but perhaps more extraordinary was their ability to stay in their homes even as Columbia steadily evicted the rest of the neighborhood, building by building. The University owned 182 off-campus buildings in Morningside Heights by 1968, up from just 27 in 1934. The tenants on and around 111th Street knew that they were at risk of another eviction by Columbia unless they established long-term protection against a buyout.
“Everybody used to tell us, ‘Watch Columbia, they’re going to take over your building’ … And we said, ‘Well, we’re ready to fight Columbia also if this comes up. I mean, this is something that we were ready for because we already went through it,” Lara said.
According to Lara, Morningside House sold the formerly squatter-occupied buildings to the city, which set up a co-op contract that remains in place today. Residents of the Blennerhasset achieved an even more unique arrangement to protect their homes from outside threats—buying their building from Morningside House and establishing a tenant-sponsored co-op. In a standard co-op, a building’s landlord initiates the conversion of the property from a collection of leases to a cooperative in which residents hold shares and join an occupancy agreement; today, landlords often make a significant profit from co-op conversions. The residents of the Blennerhasset directly purchased their building from their landlord, Morningside House, by raising enough to offer a price that the company accepted. In 1979, that was $71,750. The deal set up the mostly working-class residents for an almost unthinkable real estate investment; in 2016, a single unit in the Blennerhasset sold for $1.6 million.
While the co-op conversion guaranteed that the residents would stay in their homes, it was also an initial step toward the demographic transformation that the neighborhood would soon undergo. For some of the residents, buying their units was financially impossible, even at a price below the market rate for the time. For low-income people, $10,000 for an apartment was still $10,000 they did not have. Nellie Bailey, who was one of the only two Black shareholders in the building, along with her husband, acknowledged that the co-op process, despite providing myriad benefits, was also a process of displacement. “It posed a hardship for the people of color who were here. Most of the people who didn’t buy, moved out,” she said in her oral history interview. “And those were first the Latino families.”
In the end, Columbia and MHI’s vision for Morningside Heights did come to fruition—just not precisely how the original architects imagined. They could not build over the entirety of the blocks between 110th to 114th Streets, but massive swaths of the neighborhood are nonetheless occupied by Columbia students, staff, and affiliates, and few working-class Black and Latino residents remain. Even though the hexagonal honeycomb plan for Morningside House was never built as originally imagined, high-end senior living facilities were still constructed across from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, on lots demolished by MHI. The Cathedral may have backed out of the plan to evict the residents of the Blennerhasset, but it was willing to construct luxury apartments on its properties in the 2000s in the form of the Enclave and Avalon Morningside developments.
Despite all this, fixtures of the old neighborhood were not all displaced. Longtime locals like George Gabriel are well-aware of the harms and threats the University poses, but their lives in their neighborhood are largely separate from it. In a time when it can feel natural to assume that all of Morningside Heights is a collection of legally off-campus, but effectively student and affiliate apartments, the people who saved and tend to the garden stand against the school’s total domination of what is, in fact, a neighborhood in its own right—a neighborhood with its own traditions, values, and histories.
“[Columbia] is very proprietary over the whole neighborhood, except they’ve never been able to establish complete control,” Phillips told me. “And that’s because of resistance. The kind of resistance that people in my building put in.”
Columbia was unsatisfied without enacting their precise vision for campus expansion and direct institutional influence in surrounding neighborhoods; it was only a matter of time until administrators turned their attention northward, into Harlem.
“They met resistance on [the southern] side. So they went for the other flank,” Phillips said. Columbia has more ability to exert its will in Manhattanville and West Harlem, in part, because of industrial and commercial zoning in Manhattanville, but also because residents of those neighborhoods—the majority of whom are low-income and Black—have even less political capital than those living south of the campus.
From a bench in the Julia Gabriel People’s Garden, George Gabriel and Marcial Lara relay the backstories of each object adorning its grounds. The circle of stones to the right of the seating area was once a fish pond until the effort to keep it full of water was no longer worthwhile. The giant pieces of concrete masonry scattered around the gravel were once the buttresses from the Cathedral, carried across the street, according to Gabriel, by a one-legged man. Soon, the conversation shifts to the grapevine that spreads across the fence on the garden’s northern wall. It’s easy to miss at first glance, but its intricate woody tangles thick with leaves that stretch along the entire embankment of 1046 Amsterdam, the building saved by squatters, is an obvious foreigner among the garden’s Northeastern flora. Lara has taken care of the vine for decades, and calls it his signature to the garden—it bears grapes each summer that he says taste delicious. Scaffolding was installed along the streetfront when the building underwent maintenance and it has remained long enough for the grapevine to crawl up its iron posts in search of scarce Upper Manhattan sunlight. A woman sitting beside us, listening in, asks if the scaffolding is there permanently. It’s not, Lara replies.
“What’s going to happen when the scaffolding comes down?” she asks.
“Well,” Lara says, “I’m going to try to save as much as we can.”