By Kate Prengel
Civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel [of the New York Civil Liberties Union] announced Friday that he will represent a group of West Harlem business owners concerned about Columbia's plan to expand into their area. Siegel spoke at a meeting organized by the Coalition to Preserve Community, at St. Mary's Church on West 126th Street. He urged the large audience of residents and businesspeople to stay united and involved in what he called a "David and Goliath-style struggle" between the University and small business owners.
"Black, brown, red, yellow and white together, we will overcome," he told the crowd.
The West Harlem Business Group, which began speaking with Siegel in mid-August, is an alliance of six family businesses located in the area that Columbia is targeting for expansion, from 125th to 133rd Street and from Broadway to 12th Avenue.
Siegel and his clients predict that Columbia, faced with some landlords who do not want to sell their property, may resort to the legal process known as eminent domain in order to get the land. Siegel wants Columbia to guarantee that they will not use this process.
The process of eminent domain allows the public or, in some cases, private groups to acquire land that the owners do not want to sell. Historically, the government has used eminent domain to acquire land for public works, as in the construction of the transcontinental railroads. Private corporations like General Motors have also used eminent domain to acquire land for their own projects.
The University has never said that they are considering eminent domain proceedings. However, Siegel says that Columbia may already be encouraging New York State to condemn the area from 125th to 133rd Street.
The New York City Economic Development Corporation, a non-profit group under contract to the city of New York, has initiated a blight study on West Harlem, Siegel said. Declaring a neighborhood to be "economically blighted" is one of the first steps to having it condemned. If the state condemns the area, then it will be eligible for eminent domain proceedings.
"Columbia has to understand that it cannot use eminent domain as a gun that it holds to people's head," Siegel said later.
He emphasized the need for Columbia to be "forthright" with the people of West Harlem, a concern shared with CPC members who spoke at the meeting.
"The more meetings Columbia holds, the more misinformation and lies they give out," said Nellie Bailey, a CPC member.
To enthusiastic applause, she urged Columbia to "speak plainly to the people. Because in that plainness there is truth, and you will recognize it."
Many of the residents who attended the meeting said they felt encouraged by Siegel's presence and by a sense of community togetherness.
"I'm always happy when I'm reminded of how people can work together," said Ishmael Wallace, a local musician.
He said the expansion plan confused him, but that he was beginning to understand it better thanks to the night's meeting.
"It's slowly becoming more clear," he said.
Columbia Daily Spectator: www.columbiaspectator.com