CCNY and Columbia University: Harlem Neighbors, but Worlds Apart

Last week I visited CCNY and Columbia on the same day. Their main campuses are twenty blocks apart. Columbia keeps inching closer, but no matter how close it gets, these schools remain in separate worlds. CCNY sits high on a Harlem hill. Columbia’s main campus is on the posh Upper West Side.

Both schools have illustrious histories, but different missions: Columbia is Ivy League. City was the country’s first free university. To survive, it now charges a modest tuition, but remains “The People’s” school with few frills. Smart kids have always attended CCNY, but increasingly, those who get into Harvard, Princeton or Columbia choose CCNY because they can’t afford Ivy League tuition.

CCNY is my alma mater and I was there to have lunch with a dean. While eating, several professors in his discipline dropped by the table. They apologized for interrupting, but they clearly had an agenda. I couldn’t help overhearing that money and administrative decisions about money was their concern.

All schools have budget woes but two hours later, while at Columbia, I didn’t overhear private conversations, but I would be blind not to see that Columbia looks like it’s made of money: manicured green space, attractive winter landscaping, well tended brick footpaths, busy maintenance men, etc. Perhaps that’s how it should be, since students pay dearly to attend Columbia. Also, if you walk a few steps off campus, there are bustling businesses, inviting restaurants, expensive apartments.

Just off CCNY’s campus, on Amsterdamn, there is one adequate place to eat, a coffee shop. Nearby stores struggle, many apartments have subsidized units, although lovely townhouses sit on the North side of campus, which has an increasing population of middle and upperclass residents.

I told the dean that I was meeting with a Columbia professor who’s working on a project for Sugar Hill’s new arts and cultural center. Just as I mentioned my other meeting, it dawned on me that even though City is located on Sugar Hill (the area is also called Harlem Heights), I’d be talking with a Columbia professor about an exciting new project in this neighborhood.

I asked the dean if City and Columbia ever worked together for the betterment of Sugar Hill. Such a partnership seemed to have never occurred to him and he said, “No, not to his knowledge.”

It’s no secret that Columbia has a rocky relationship with Harlem, while City is generally beloved by the community. Without prolonging my point — and there are many I could make — some form of active engagement and collaboration between the two universities seems like a no-brainer to me.

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