NYTimes.com Article: A Site of Battles, a Piece of Paradise
- Subject: [cg] NYTimes.com Article: A Site of Battles, a Piece of Paradise
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- Date: Mon, 21 Apr 2003 14:04:28 -0400 (EDT)
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Many of you may have not been alive in 1968, but those of you who were and walked through Morningside Park near Columbia University during the ACGA convention last July should find this interesting - how local Harlem residents and University students killed a major encroachment in a park and helped create a flower lined pond instead. A feel good story for a rough day.
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A Site of Battles, a Piece of Paradise
April 20, 2003
By ANEMONA HARTOCOLLIS
A VISITOR stumbling through Morningside Park on a gorgeous
spring day might mistake the scene for the entrance to
paradise. In the center of the park, water trickles over a
rocky amphitheater into a pond ringed with weeping willows
and yellow daffodils.
The pond teems with ducks, goldfish and a colony of
red-eared sliders, the kind of turtles that people buy in
Chinatown and then look for a place to leave them. They are
On the bluffs above, at Morningside Drive and 113th Street,
stand the saints and turrets of St. John the Divine and the
smooth stone face of St. Luke's Hospital. The brownstone
streets of Harlem, now with a Dumpster on every block,
stretch out below.
"I'm thinking how nice it would be if we got to swim in
that pond and you could catch turtles," a little girl said
to a little boy as they squatted next to the water. They
managed to stay dry.
In the late 1960's, the picture could not have been more
different. The park was overgrown with weeds. This
newspaper called it "a haven for muggers and a paradise for
purse snatchers." As Peter Kirchheimer, Columbia class of
'68, recalled, the park was a physical and metaphysical
barrier between the university above and Harlem below.
Columbia University's president, Grayson Kirk, had signed a
100-year lease for two acres of the park at 113th Street, a
deal initiated in the 50's by Robert Moses, the powerful
parks commissioner and slum clearer. With the consent of
the state and city, Columbia wanted to build a gymnasium in
the middle of the park, with a back door for Harlem
Thirty-five years ago this Wednesday, Columbia students
took over the campus. They were protesting the gym,
Columbia's sponsorship of war research, what they saw as
the highhandedness of the academy. They stopped the gym, if
not the war.
The pond that looks so natural - as if it were part of the
original design by Olmsted and Vaux - was built where
Columbia had dynamited the natural rocks for the gym
foundation. Christiane Collins, who was a faculty wife
then, remembers the booms. Mr. Kirchheimer, now a Legal Aid
lawyer, was arrested on the spot in 1968. An unsung hero of
the uprising was Thomas Hoving, the former parks
commissioner. He said Columbia was getting "an
extraordinary deal" at the expense of Harlem. The
university, he suggested, would never dare build a gym in
Central Park at 72nd Street, where he lived.
By 1968, Mr. Hoving was no longer commissioner, but a
Columbia trustee bitterly fingered him as the one who
planted "the germ" of the student uprising.
"Yes, I am responsible for instigating the thing against
Columbia University," Mr. Hoving said cheerfully last week.
He gleefully recounted how he and Percy Sutton, then the
Manhattan borough president, had done a Christo, stringing
toilet paper around the perimeter of the gym site, so
people could see how huge it was.
Some felt Mr. Hoving had betrayed his social class by
opposing the gym, he said. "My father was the owner of
Tiffany,'' he explained. "They felt I was Mr. Club Man.''
Mr. Hoving later served as director of the Metropolitan
Museum of Art.
Maybe it's coincidence, or maybe history is repeating
itself. The other day, Adrian Benepe, the current parks
commissioner, toured Van Cortlandt Park with a group of
concerned Bronx citizens. The Bloomberg administration
wants state permission to use 23 acres of parkland for an
underground water filtration plant. Christopher O. Ward,
the city environmental commissioner, said most of the land
would be restored after construction, and water bonds would
be sold to improve Bronx parks. Similarly, in 1968,
Columbia said Harlem would benefit from refurbished
athletic fields. But whatever the merits of the Van
Cortlandt plan, and as Mr. Hoving said long ago, it is hard
to imagine the city confiscating parkland where it would
disturb the interests of people living on 72nd Street.
Maggie Lee, who lives across the street from Morningside
Park, remembers what it was like to fight to preserve the
sanctity of city parkland. After 1968, she said, the park
was almost as dead as the gym. "We didn't have any flowers
or anything," she said. The weeds were five feet high. She
and her neighbors started a flower club.
Now, the Parks Department hacks weeds and plants flowers.
Columbia students help out. New arrivals, like Doug
Robinson, a systems analyst, organize double-Dutch
"I was there yesterday, watching my grandkids on the
sliding boards," Ms. Lee said. "I feel the park is for
everyone to enjoy. My kids have enjoyed it; now my
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