Exhibit written and curated by Simon Purdue


The very nature of universities in the modern United States necessitates almost perpetual expansion. As higher education opens itself to an increasingly global market, research opportunities broaden and investment increases, institutions necessarily increase their physical footprint and expand at an almost uncontrollable pace.[i] For large campus universities outside of major cities- like the University of Connecticut’s 206 acre Farmington location- this often presents little difficulty, but in the case of urban universities expansion more often than not comes at the expense of local communities.[ii] Furthermore, due to the nature of urban development and the gentrification that accompanies the rise of these institutions, the displacement that results from this phenomenon often has a racial element, disproportionally affecting poorer communities of color. This essay will explore the recent and planned future expansion of two major urban university campuses- namely Northeastern University in Boston and Columbia University’s Manhattanville campus in New York City- asking how their expansion has affected black communities in Lower Roxbury and West Harlem respectively. The exhibit will explore the question of agency in these communities, asking how and to what extent the communities are able to challenge expansion projects and resist relocation and gentrification. Finally, the exhibit will ask how institutions seek to ease their transition into these areas, exploring the efforts made by the universities to appease and integrate with the community, looking specifically at Northeastern’s “Northeastern Crossing” project and questioning the extent to which projects like this legitimize their expansion in the eyes of the community they encroach upon.

The Expansion of Northeastern University

As a recent digital mapping project has demonstrated, Northeastern University has been spreading almost exponentially since its initial move out of the Huntington Avenue YMCA building in the late 1920s.[iii] The university acted as a commuter campus for residents of the greater Boston area for the majority of the twentieth century, utilizing most of the land it owned as parking facilities for staff and students. Only the current core of the campus, situated between Gainsborough and Forsyth Streets, was home to any major institutional buildings up until the late 1980s. Throughout the 70s and 80s however, the university continued to buy up land in the Fenway and Kenmore area, spreading its sphere of influence beyond the Fens Parkway. Some of the purchased land was used for further parking facilities while the majority was used for early student accommodation. Local community groups resisted strongly, opposed to the ever-increasing student population in the area and the impact that this was having on housing prices as well as the reputation of the neighborhood. The agency and resistance of these community groups were enough to halt the university’s development and spark discussions at the institutional level.

Since the 1990s, Northeastern’s official policy has then been to halt development in the Fenway and Kenmore neighborhoods, submitting to the will of the community activists who had strongly opposed further institutional growth in the area. Rather, the focus of Northeastern’s long-term development plan shifted to the Lower Roxbury area and the Southwest Corridor, where it was perceived that less resistance would be encountered.[iv] Northeastern’s plans for their Roxbury expansion, conceived in the early nineties, were initially much broader and more invasive than what they had initially planned for Fenway, and were even more expansive than the development that has actually taken place in recent years. Including plans for a 15,000 seat stadium along Columbus Avenue, a sports medical center, and multiple multi-level car-parking facilities, ‘Parcel 22A+’- a land package stretching between Whittier and New Dudley Streets- was seen as the prize goal for the university.

The plan was part of a larger move by the institution to develop from a commuter campus to an international research university, and was accompanied by large-scale development on the existing campus, which up to this point had been dominated by parking lots and empty space. Although the plans for the stadium and sports medicine center fell through with the dissolution of the school’s football program in 2009, the new millennium did bring significant development beyond the Roxbury town line. The purchase of the building now known as Renaissance Park from the City of Boston in 2000- followed by the later development of International Village and the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex- marked the beginning of Northeastern’s expansion towards Tremont Street and into Roxbury, and has caused consternation among community groups who see the growth of the university as a cause of gentrification. With more students now living in the Roxbury area, housing prices are rising and local communities are being priced out of the neighborhood which many have called home for years.

However, this concern is not necessarily a recent phenomenon. While the 1990s saw a definite shift in the direction of Roxbury on the part of Northeastern, residents of the neighborhood had been conscious of Northeastern’s encroachment into the area from as early as 1976, as noted in the December 1st issue of The Onyx- a student newspaper which styled itself as “the black student voice of Northeastern.”  An article entitled ”Northeastern has contracted Urban Paranoia” argued that the university was pursuing racist policies both in its day to day workings and in its expansion policies, noting that the institution was “spread(ing) across the black community occupying valuable land, which could be used for community purposes or housing.”[v] From this early stage there was a very definite awareness of the racial element of Northeastern’s expansion in Roxbury, and the Onyx’s categorization of the development of the university as a zero-sum game with the interests of the local community is consistent with the fears voiced by the residents of Fenway two decades later. However, the ability of the predominantly white Fenway-Kenmore community groups to successfully challenge and halt Northeastern’s expansion, when compared to the relative inability of Roxbury residents to achieve the same goal, is indicative of the racial biases and ingrained discriminatory policies that have plagued African-American urban communities throughout the twentieth century. In line with redlining, urban renewal programs, relocation and clearance, the spread of institutions into black communities demonstrates the continuing ways in which society has deprived these groups of their agency.

YMCA building on Huntington Avenue beside the quadrangle of Northeastern University, 1943. Courtesy of the Northeastern University Archives.

Design Sketch of Proposed Football Stadium on Columbus Avenue. Courtesy of the Northeastern University Archives.
Northeastern's Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering Complex. Warren Jagger Photography, "ISEC," The Boston Globe, 18 August 2017.

Morningside-Manhattanville, New York City. Courtesy of the Digital Public Library of America.
Jerome L. Greene Science Center, Columbia Expansion 2017. Photo courtesy of archdaily.com

Columbia University’s “Manhattanville”

A similar situation can be seen in New York City where local residents fell victim to the spread of Columbia University into West Harlem despite vocal opposition from community groups. Approved by the New York City Planning Commission in 2007 and opened for business in 2017, Columbia’s Manhattanville Campus is an imposing seventeen-acre site on once residential land, and is definitive proof of the priority given to institutions over people in cities with such limited space as New York. Using the power of eminent domain, the university was able to move into the site with relative ease, displacing the communities that once lived there and, as is the case with Roxbury, likely increasing property values and rental costs in coming years to the point of pricing out long-standing local residents.[vi]

Prior to the encroachment of Columbia into the area, approximately 400 residents called the “gritty neighborhood” their home while 1,600 people worked in buildings directly affected- primarily in ‘auto-repair shops… and small manufacturers’.[vii] In order for the university’s plans to come to fruition, a large scale bulldozing of the area was necessary, with residents being forced out of their homes with minimal compensation packages. Furthermore, the campus is situated directly between a community and the park that they “fought for years” to get commissioned, isolating them from the fruits of their effort and trampling on one of the few visible examples of successful community agency in the area.[viii] The use of eminent domain is a particularly concerning move on the part of the university, echoing decades of forced urban renewal and “negro removal” in the United States.[ix] Columbia’s acquisition is just one chapter in a line of recent expansions to the concept of “public use,” which opens the door to further compulsory purchase and the continued dislocation of primarily black communities in favor of businesses and institutions.  The project’s emphasis on revitalization, found on their website, is worryingly reminiscent of the renewal craze of the twentieth century. Mayor Bloomberg’s quote that without the use of eminent domain “every big city would have all construction come to a screeching halt” begs the question of whether the tactic would ever be used in an affluent white area, and adds further fuel to the suggestion that poorer black communities are still seen as expendable or even legitimate targets for steamrolling.[x] Solidifying this thesis further, the university hopes to locate a lab on the site which will specialize in research on dangerous substances such as anthrax, which understandably has created anxieties within the community.

Impact on Local Communities

Both universities are aware of their impact on their local community, however, and have made at least some effort to assimilate with local communities and allow their voices to be heard. The new “Northeastern Crossing” project on the Northeastern campus immediately adjacent to Lower Roxbury, opened to the public in September 2015, is one such attempt to ease the transition of a major institution into local communities. The mission statement of the project, which can be found on their website, claims that its primary goals are to:

“Elevate the voices and visibility of Boston’s neighborhoods, particularly Roxbury, Mission Hill, Fenway, and the South End, provide greater access to resources at Northeastern University for Boston residents, and be a platform where Boston residents and the Northeastern University community can convene, interact, and learn from each other.”[xi]

The statement emphasizes the importance of the voice of neighbors in community relations, and aims to offer further co-operation and agency to community groups. This forum for co-operation will seek to offer space for compromise, hopefully opening an avenue for discussion about future development plans and how they will impact upon the Roxbury community. Furthermore, the project hopes to better integrate Northeastern with its neighbors, providing economic opportunity and framing the spread of the university as a net positive to these communities. The project’s website claims that the university is aiming to hire at least 51% “Boston Resident” workers and 35% “Minority” workers in the near future. As of June 2014, the numbers employed in each of these groups were 29.9% and 34% respectively, showing that while minority groups are well represented and that the target has nearly been met, local residents are still highly under-represented.[xii] The lack of updated figures would suggest that little improvement has been made in this area. However, the goal is a positive move by the university to offer constructive reparations for the grievances of the local community who feel encroached upon by a seemingly alien and opaque institution.

This is further evidenced by the offer of free educational programs to local residents and the opening of a wide array of university resources to the general public, a move which likewise seeks to build a bridge between the once alienated community and the university, promoting an “open door” reputation that removes suspicion and hostility and instead fosters a sense of unity and co-operation.[xiii] The mission to build skills and offer employment to the community goes some way to challenging the impacts of systemic racism and the lack of social mobility experienced by black populations in American cities. The push for transparency on the part of Northeastern is evidence of their desire to integrate and assimilate with the local community, and suggests a move to change the reputation of the institution among residents. The practical efficacy of the program is yet to be seen, however, and the project does little to counter the associated gentrification process that is perhaps the most damaging result of the university’s expansion, increasing property values and driving many residents further from amenities, transport, and jobs.

This is a factor which Columbia has also conveniently gleaned over amidst their positive rhetoric about the benefits of the Manhattanville development. The project’s design is supposedly built around community engagement and integration, “opening” Columbia to the public in a more visible but notably less tangible way than the Northeastern Crossing project. The new campus is built with supposedly “benevolent aims” (ironically echoing rhetoric familiar to scholars of Imperialism), aiming to act as an “open, welcoming place” for the local community.[xiv] The architectural design of the site was constructed with a vision to rid the university of its gated and exclusive reputation, instead creating a vision of an urban university for modern urban life and to make it accessible to “West Harlem neighbors and the general public.”[xv] More tangible for the displaced community, however, is the Community Benefits Agreement signed by the university, which promises to pay “$20 million to the city's affordable housing fund, $18 million for maintenance of the West Harlem Piers Park and $4 million for housing legal assistance, as well as (offering) dedicated scholarships and internships for community residents.”[xvi] These attempts at reparation for the displaced are a step in the right direction, but do little to face the challenges presented by gentrification. The fear of the community that remains is that, like the residents of Roxbury, they will soon be unable to afford to live in an area populated by students and researchers, and will be forced out of this part of Manhattan and into cheaper areas that are significantly less accessible and offer fewer opportunities for economic or social advancement. The “benevolent” aims and unobtrusive architecture of the campus mean very little to the families that have called the neighborhood home for generations and may now be forced to relocate.

While both Northeastern and Columbia have made attempts to limit their impact on local communities, it is clear that very little can be done to adequately face the worst impacts of institutional expansion. While investment in local people and a benevolent attitude might, on the surface, ease the transition of these universities into the local communities, the impacts of gentrification are too far reaching and deep-seated to be stopped. The forced relocation of people and businesses, the out-pricing of local families and the sacrifice of long fought-for community gains are just a fraction of the negative impacts that university expansion has on local populations, and it is no coincidence that black communities are disproportionately affected. The rise of modern city universities presents a continuation of the deeply discriminatory urban planning policy that has so plagued African-American populations throughout the twentieth century, and must be addressed as such.

Works Cited

[i] P. Balaram, ‘Higher Education: Globalization and Expansion’, Current Science, Vol. 94, No. 10 (25 May 2008), pp. 1229-1230.

[ii] Jordan Otero Sisson, ‘Hospital Tower Ushers In New Era At UConn Health’, The Hartford Courant, 10 April 2016, http://www.courant.com/business/hc-farmington-uconn-health-hospital-tower-20160409-story.html, accessed 04/18/2017.

[iii] Simon Purdue, Brittany Costello, Ian King and Rachel Schrottman, Northeastern and its Neighbors http://omeka.dighist16.benschmidt.org/Northeastern_Neighborhood/exhibits/show/neighborhood.

[iv] Northeastern Development Plans, Office of Physical Planning and Design Records, Northeastern University Archives.

[v] C. F. Kennedy, ‘Northeastern has contracted ‘Urban Paranoia’’, The Northeastern Onyx, Dec. 1, 1976, p. 11.

[vi] Sarah Hayley Barrett, ‘After Years of Opposition, Columbia University Comes to Manhattanville’, WNYC News, Oct. 24th 2016, http://www.wnyc.org/story/columbia-university-begins-move-manhattanville-campus/.

[vii] Daphne Eviatar, ‘The Manhattanville Project’, New York Times Magazine, May 21st 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/21/magazine/21wwln.essay.html.

[viii] Eviatar, ‘The Manhattanville Project’.

[ix] Eviatar, ‘The Manhattanville Project’.

[x] Eviatar, ‘The Manhattanville Project’.

[xi] Northeastern Crossing Mission Statement, https://www.northeastern.edu/crossing/about/mission-purpose/, accessed 04/19/2017.

[xii] Northeastern Crossing, Procurement Policy, https://www.northeastern.edu/crossing/at-northeastern/procurement/, accessed 04/20/2017.

[xiii] 2016 Northeastern University IMP Community Benefits Annual Report, Jan 12th, 2017.

[xiv] Eviatar, ‘The Manhattanville Project’; Columbia Manhattanville Campus Website, http://manhattanville.columbia.edu/campus.

[xv] http://manhattanville.columbia.edu/campus.

[xvi] Barrett, ‘Columbia Comes to Manhattanville’, http://www.wnyc.org/story/columbia-university-begins-move-manhattanville-campus/.