Images of Morningside ParkFriends of Morningside Park Logo

The New York Times

    Metropolitan Report
    Wednesday, March 2, 1983
    Neighborhood Groups Disputing The Future of Morningside Park
    By Deirdre Carmody

    The barbed-wire fence still stands around the construction site in Morningside Park where columbia University was going to build its gymnasium. now, 14 years after student riots forced the university to abandon the project, the park has again become the center of a dispute.

    On one side are the community groups that have been trying to agree among themselves for all this time how best to renovate the park. Just as everything seemed to be falling into place after years of frustration and delay, a group of preservationists has emerged to oppose the plan.

    What Morningside Park needs, they say, is not to be redesigned but to be refurbished and restored to essentially the way it was when Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed it in 1887.

    Calling themselves the Friends of Morningside Park, they are a small group made up mainly of Columbia students. They have infuriated many people in the existing coalitions by what several community leaders characterized in interviews as their "arrogance."

    "They want to chuck the history of 14 years," said Parks Commissioner Gordon J. Davis. " They do not come out of the uprisings of 1968, as most of the other groups do. They are totally unsympathetic to the history of all this."

    The students, however, have done what no one else, including the Parks Department, has done in years. They have started a large-scale cleanup in the rundown park, which is bounded on the south by 110th Street, on the north by 123rd street, on the west by Morningside Drive and the Columbia University area and on the east by Morningside Avenue and Harlem.

    The Students have lopped trees, winched stumps, lugged away more than 100 bags of garbage, cleared underbrush and cleaned a two-block area in the park between 114th and 116th Streets.

    They have planted lawns, painted benches and removed weeds from stonework. They instituted as series of "Sidewalk Saturdays" in which area residents joined in the cleanup, and then they held a celebratory brunch in the park in October that was attended by 150 people.

    "We've done more in the past 15 months than the other groups have done in the past 15 years," said Tom Kiel, director and founder of the Friends of Morningside Park, which has raised about $3,000 for its park-improvement program.

    Mr. Kiel said that since the cleanup, which was followed by an intensive Parks Department cleaning in December, the park had become safer. Drug addicts who lurked in the underbrush no longer have a place to hide, he said, and more people are coming into the park, walking their dogs and strolling through.

    " The existing plans call for drastic changes in the park - paths would be moved, trees would be destroyed, and they want to put up a monstrosity of a waterfall on the gym site," said Mr. Kiel, a former Columbia student. " There is nothing wrong with the design of the park. They are imposing a design solution on what is basically a maintenance problem."

    One of the questions raised by this activity is who really represents the Morningside Park constituency.

    The question has always been a particularly sensitive one because of its racial overtones. In 1968, when Columbia began excavation of the gymnasium site in the park on land leased from the city, battle lines appeared to be drawn between the predominantly white university on Morningside Heights and the black Harlem community in the valley.

    The plan to build the gymnasium led to riots on campus and the occupation of five buildings by students who were opposed to the gymnasium plan. Columbia abandoned the project in 1969.

    University Pledged $250,00
    " After Columbia decided not to build the gym, a group of people from Morningside Heights and Harlem emerged from the rubble with the idea of getting the park rehabilitated," said Commissioner Davis, who has resigned effective April 1.

    The university pledged $250,000 for renovation of the site and then later announced that it would try to raise an additional $250,000 for refurbishing the park. The city has also committee funds for renovation of the park. Commissioner Davis estimates that the renovation will cost upward of $5 million.

    One of the groups involved in the redesign of the park is the West Harlem Community Organization, a coalition of community groups. Another group, working closely with the West Community ORganization, is the Morningside Park Coalition, a group of residents who live around the park.

    Some of its members are residents who placed themselves in in front of bulldozers and were jailed when Columbia started to build the gymnasium.

    " It's a real eclectic group - socially, ethnically and in interests, as well," said Chris Collins, who has been working for the renovation of the park since the 1960's.

    New and Restored Playgrounds
    Plans are now being drawn up by Tim Wilson, an architect, in conjunction with the Harlem and Morningside groups and overseen by the Parks Department.

    Bronson Binger, assistant parks commissioner in charge of capital projects, said the redesign included a recirculating series of pools and water falls on the gymnasium site, a series of new and restored playgrounds, new basketball courts, the rebuilding of paths, lights, stairs and benches and a major east-west path connecting the Harlem side of the park with Morningside Drive.

    " We have all tried very hard to come up with something that was not out of the spirit of the original Olmsted plan," said Suki Ports, one of the original member of the Morningside Park Coalition. " But when Olmsted designed the park, it was farmland. Since then it has become sort of dividing line, predominantly white on the Heights, predominantly black below. Our whole idea was to develop some activities that would bring those communities together."

    " This is the problem of Morningside Park," she said. " Here is a new group of people who look at the park from the purely esthetic point of view and just don't care about the pain and anguish the Harlem community has gone through on this.

    Another factor in the equation is the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which has looked into the matter of Morningside Park because the park is the only major one designed by Olmsted in the city that has not received landmark designation.

    "Political Stalemate"
    " It is truly the most intact historical Olmsted park that we have," said Gail Travis Guillet, a preservationist and director of the Olmsted project at the Landmarks Commission.

    " But those who are anxious to see the redesign of Morningside have been very vocal in pointing out that designating Morningside as a landmark would hold up the redesign process, " she said. " There is genuine concern from their point of view, and the Landmarks Commission has said that it will not pursue designation further at this point. We are really looking at a political stalemate."

    Meanwhile, the deliberations continue, the plans are back on the drawing board and the various groups battle over the future of the park. The Parks Department is working with the groups to get a consensus before seeking formal approval from city officials.

    " I'm just so frustrated," Commissioner Davis said. " There isn't a single project that was here when I came five years ago that hasn't been done except Morningside Park."