Longtime Morningside Heights Resident Pushes Back Against Columbia Expansion

A man in his dark plaid shirt and black pants was sitting alone at the bar in Sapps, a newly-opened Japanese restaurant between 112th Street and Broadway. He looked down to check his phone.


Dan McSweeney has been an active member of the Morningside Heights Community Coalition (MHCC), a group of local residents that advocate for affordable housing and limiting overdevelopment. This 52-year-old Columbia alumnus, ironically, says he’s also a victim of Columbia’s expansion.


“Hey! How are you!” McSweeney smiled, and a few wrinkles appeared around his eyes. On this late fall evening, he wore a black hat, with green embroidery on the front that nods to the neighborhood: “w111th.” His beard is white, and it looked as if he had not shaved that morning.


He skimmed through the menu and ordered chicken teriyaki and a dirty martini.


McSweeney has spent most of his life in Morningside Heights. Although he used to catch up with his friends every weekend, he now eats out only once a month. Nevertheless, he can still recount any changes in restaurants and stores around this neighborhood.


This place used to be different things. There was a Mexican place. A long time ago it was an Italian place,” McSweeney said. Before starting to unfold his story, he ordered his drink to be a little dirtier.


McSweeney’s love for Morningside Heights dates back to even before he was born. After coming to New York from Puerto Rico in 1963, his mother tried to find a place to live. On her way to see a friend who lived in the neighborhood, she asked a man in the subway for directions. The man later became her husband. Seven years later, Dan McSweeney was born at St. Luke’s Hospital.


“I love [the neighborhood] because my early family life, a lot of it was spent on 111th Street,” he said. “And then, I had disruptions in my family life because my dad died.” He paused. “About five years later, my sister died,” he said. He was speaking very slowly and his voice cracked.


After spending six years in the military and finishing in 2005, McSweeney returned because of an “unresolved love in this neighborhood”. He felt Morningside represented something “familiar” and “valuable” to him. He attended the School of International and Public Affairs from 2005 to 2007 while on military reserve.


Through a book by a Columbia professor, Morningside Heights: A History of Its Architecture and Development, he began to learn more about the history of the neighborhood. His eyes shone and his voice filled with passion as he recounted the history of his favorite place in the world, from the European arrival to the Colonial period, from the establishment of the country to the emergence of Columbia University. He also suggested that people check out the tunnels used for the Manhattan Project beneath the Columbia campus.


“For me, this neighborhood represents the world,” McSweeney said. “I can find everything that I am interested in here in this neighborhood.”


Unfortunately, McSweeney’s engagement with the community may face an abrupt end. He said Columbia is taking “every opportunity” to evict long-term residents like himself and expand its real estate to accommodate a growing number of students each year.


Going through a stone archway and a courtyard with windows on both sides, one could see a brown six-story apartment on W. 111th Street. This is a rent-controlled apartment McSweeney has lived for 14 years. But earlier in 2022, Columbia ordered him to leave by December 31.


Columbia enriches the neighborhood by bringing all these great students,” McSweeney said. “But on the other hand, Columbia damages the neighborhood by being so callous in the way that it treats its real estate operations.”


Columbia’s residential and campus expansion into Morningside Heights and West Harlem has hugely impacted the local real estate market. For example, the rent prices in Morningside Heights jumped 34% from 2010 to 2018, according to a report by MHCC in 2021. Luxury buildings, including the Enclave and Claremont Hall, are replacing affordable housing.


Before finishing dinner, McSweeney pulled out a green pamphlet about the rally he planned to hold a week later, on December 4, in front of Columbia’s Broadway gates.


Some 50 people – mostly elderly – gathered around Columbia’s gate for the rally. McSweeney held a microphone and shouted to let the audience hear his story of being evicted by his alma mater despite having lived at his residence for over a decade.


“Dan is a veteran, who fought for this country, who fought for this community,” said Dave Robinson, the President of MHCC. “The fact that Columbia wants to evict him is outrageous.”


“Shame!” someone from the crowd yelled. “That’s right! That’s right!” others shouted.


McSweeney reflected on the rally a few days later at Tom’s Restaurant. He said he was glad that he had this experience, as he hoped it could stir activism and awareness among students and residents.


At the cash register, McSweeney told the bartender, “Columbia is evicting me. I’m doing everything I can.”


The bartender with black curly hair shook his head firmly. “No. No. I’m telling you, you can do nothing,” he said as he proceeded with the payment. “The only thing you can negotiate is just begging them, ‘I’m giving you my apartment, but give me something different.’”


“If I win this bet…” McSweeney said.


“No. No,” said the bartender.


McSweeney finished his sentence. “If I win this bet and I get to stay, then you gotta buy me steak here.”


“You’re not gonna win. You’re never gonna win. You’ll lose time and money,” the bartender repeated and shook his head again. He recounted storefronts from W. 110th Street to W. 114th Street that have “disappeared” due to Columbia’s real estate development. “Columbia eats, eats, eats…” He repeated the word “eats” seven or eight times as his hands acted like a monster’s mouth opening and closing.


“You see? That’s his view of Columbia. They eat, eat and eat. That’s true,” McSweeney turned to me and said. “But, I’m still gonna fight.”


At the end of the nightmare tunnel of fearing displacement, McSweeney saw a light. At the end of December 2022, he got a call from his lawyer saying that Columbia decided to give him an extension for another 4.5 years.


“I want Columbia to understand that it’s not that they’re helping me out individually. I believe that what they’re doing is they’re helping the community because I can serve as a bridge,” McSweeney said.

About the author(s)

Hongyu (Nancy) Chen is an MS Visual Craft track student at Columbia Journalism School covering labor and seniors.