Student Voices
May 02 2017

Lessons from Audubon Ballroom

Abbey Sussell writes that the Washington Height site of the assassination of Malcolm X tells a story of neighborhood change and community resistance.

On the corner of 166th and Broadway, people are eating barbeque. Patrons of Dallas BBQ are sipping out of fishbowl margaritas and buttering cornbread. But in 1965, no one was buying ribs, cornbread and giant margaritas here. This was the Audubon Ballroom — the same building where Malcolm X was murdered.

Malcolm X waiting for a press conference to begin on March 26, 1964Malcolm X was a prominent leader in the Civil Rights Movement, and his assassination had a devastating effect on the struggle against racism and national oppression. His death wasn’t just a loss to his family, his wife Dr. Betty Shabazz and the Harlem community, but also a loss to the global movement for Black liberation.

In the years after Malcolm X’s death, Washington Heights experienced its own racial tensions. The Washington Heights community changed dramatically. It shifted from a neighborhood primarily composed of white immigrants, who were Jewish, Irish, German, Italian and Russian, to a neighborhood of majority Dominican immigrants. Tension also existed due to the presence of Columbia University in the neighborhood. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, the University was buying up and demolishing residential buildings, in order to expand its campus. Community members were being displaced from their homes — and they were outraged.

The story of the Audubon Ballroom is a story of neighborhood change. It is a piece of the larger historical relationship between the Washington Heights and Harlem communities, and Columbia University. It is also a story of resistance — the collective resistance of community members, who banned together to oppose the Ballroom’s demolition. It is a call for continued resistance, and a call for institutions to listen to their surrounding communities.

In 1987, the city government, state government and Columbia University signed a joint agreement to build the Audubon Research Park, which would stretch from West 165th St. to West 168 th St. between Broadway and Audubon Ave. For Columbia, this was an important move to increase biomedical research and build strong ties to the private sector. Private biomedical startup companies would be able to rent space in the new facilities. The development would also help “revitalize a depressed neighborhood.”

For the city and state, this was an opportunity to bring new industry into New York City—they were willing to chip in $18 million to start construction of the first building. The first building in the path of redevelopment was the Audubon Ballroom. The plan was to demolish it.

When word got out that Columbia was going to tear down the Ballroom, people were furious. This was a community space. It had powerful historical meaning. Multiple businesses were going to be displaced. Two of the community organizations that faced eviction were a synagogue with a 250-member congregation and the Centro Educational Caribe (CEEDUCA). CEEDUCA provided English classes and other courses to Spanish-speaking immigrants. They graduated over 4,200 people from the center’s programs. With loss of community organizations, comes the loss of social support, educational services, and community networks—all of which impacts the community’s health.

It was a controversial proposal, and Columbia knew it. They had been prepared for some backlash, but the university assumed their prior work for the Black community would insulate the institution from criticism. In the early ‘80s, Columbia had met with Dr. Betty Shabazz to develop the Malcolm X Scholars Program, a scholarship that funded Black, third-year medical students at Columbia University to address health disparities in the Black community. The first scholarship was awarded in 1984, a few years before the city, state, and University signed the 1987 contract to raze the Audubon Ballroom.

Community members in Washington Heights demanded that the Ballroom be saved. People from all over the City pressured Mayor David Dinkins to stop the construction plans. Columbia was negotiating the use of the building with local Community Board No.12. After continued protests, Columbia agreed to save 40 percent of the Ballroom and the facade. But protests didn’t stop.

A coalition of community members brought the issue to the New York State Court of Appeals and tried to stop construction. Over 150 students protested at Columbia University’s Hamilton Hall. Seven students were tried in disciplinary hearings by Columbia and four were suspended. It is clear that Columbia did not favor the students who directly challenged its institutional expansion.

Ultimately, Columbia agreed to restore a portion of the Ballroom and the façade of the building. The rest of the Ballroom was gutted to make space for offices and commercial businesses. Although the students were not successful in their efforts to save the Ballroom, it was a powerful sign of solidarity with the efforts of the Washington Heights community.

A lot has changed to the block that held the Ballroom where one of America’s most important Civil Rights figures was killed. Today, there is a Dallas BBQ, a Chase Bank, a coffee shop, the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Educational Center, and offices owned by Columbia. In fact, the whole building is owned by Columbia now—it’s part of the Columbia University Audubon Research Park. It is five-acres wide and consists of five buildings with more than 600,000 square feet of research laboratory space. In total, the development covers 1 million square feet, and has cost over $400 million. While walking past the Audubon Research Park buildings, most people might not even remember what buildings used to exist there. They might not notice what’s left of the Ballroom.

As Columbia University students, we should seek to understand the history of our school and our place within it. We are part of this school; therefore, we are part of the changes that happen in Washington Heights. These neighborhood changes, whether they are an increased police presence, residential displacement, higher-priced housing or increased food security, have an effect on community members’ health. When students move into the neighborhood, it can cause rents to increase and displace longtime residents. When Columbia buildings replace community spaces, it can break apart social networks and eliminate community resources. Our presence has immense consequences for people in the Washington Heights community.

Dr. Mindy Fullilove, a former Mailman School faculty member, saw a need for students to have discussions about neighborhood gentrification, the built environment and displacement. With the help of the students in her class, Emerging Issues in Urbanism, she developed a community walk around Washington Heights. The walk was intended to help students understand how social conditions are fundamental causes of health disparities.

Next fall, Mailman students will participate in the second community walk, organized by Dr. Bob Fullilove, the Office of Diversity Culture and Inclusion (ODCI), and the Office of Student Affairs (OSA). As students, we will again seek to better understand how people’s neighborhoods and environments matter for their health.

The community walk isn’t intended to be the only time students engage with our neighborhood surroundings. Most of Columbia’s students, faculty, and staff walk through Washington Heights everyday. While we walk the neighborhood, we might pass by the skeletal facade of the Audubon Ballroom. We might see the barbeque restaurant and the Columbia offices. It should be a reminder of the neighborhood’s history; it should also be a reminder that we need to place ourselves within this history. Our presence has impact. We need to acknowledge and address our contributions to neighborhood changes. We are not bystanders.

Abbey Sussell is a second-year MPH student in the Department of Sociomedical Sciences, where she studies how structural racism, sexism, heterosexism, xenophobia, as well as other isms, determine health outcomes. As part of her Master's Thesis, she spent the past six months researching the historical relationship between Washington Heights and Columbia University.

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