Friday, September 25, 2009

What I'll Miss About New York:
#10 — Columbia University

In their Pulitzer Prize-winning book Gotham, Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace note that the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum was – in 1821 – "a rustic seventy-seven acre plot several miles north of town." By the 1890's Bloomingdale was no more and Columbia University – a school that had existed in New York since it was founded as King's College in 1754 – moved to occupy this seemingly remote location in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan.

Columbia University circa 1895, from roughly 115th & Amsterdam Avenue
Today, this spot could be considered rustic and rural relative only to Times Square, and Columbia University is seated in a neighborhood of multi-story buildings that sit shoulder-to-shoulder alongside Broadway and Amsterdam. Still, in the imagination of many New Yorkers I've met, there's a sense that this school is somehow apart from and other than the rest of Manhattan.

Columbia's too far north. For an island that extends to 220th Street, it's a little surprising when you first notice that the maps affixed to the taxi cab partitions don't extend north of 125th Street. Though Robert Moses failed to divide the island with his Lower Manhattan Expressway, Manhattanites incurious about the goings-on above Columbus Circle succeeded in creating two islands where God only created one.

It's the wrong side of the island, too far from the locales of Project Runway and Gossip Girl, north of celebrities walking their dogs or strolling their babies. I'd meet someone at a party downtown and let them know that I studied at Columbia and more often than not their reaction was something along the lines of, "Welcome back from the provinces, country cousin! Will you be in the Big City very long, or is it back to the farm with you?"

Columbia is a bookish place. A place of athletic teams that haven't been competitive since Lou Gehrig. A place that plays social second fiddle to the tragically hip university located in the beating heart of Greenwich Village.

And I miss this place, this place that is the geographic opposite of the serene and almost sleepy school where I obtained my undergraduate degree.

Columbia reminds me that there is a history to this country that I barely know. A 19th century American listener would recognize the name of this school as being a synonym for the United States and the New World, generally.

Since its erection in 1886, the Statue of Liberty has come to represent this country, personified. But before that statue's erection, this country's feminine form was Columbia. Where the Statue of Liberty evokes within us thoughts of this country as a City upon a Hill, Columbia's general evocation of progress and modernity is less of a burden for us to shoulder. Where the Statute of Liberty demands that we shine a light to illuminate the world, Columbia signifies the unrealized promise of a country that is a new arrival on the global scene.

As this country releases its hold on the mantle of global hegemon, maybe we'll see a return to the image of Columbia. The US will have to learn to live with the idea that we can't be the new colossus, unilaterally addressing the world's problems. But we can be Columbia.
What's this? After living in New York City for three years, I'm returning to California. These are the parts of my New York experience that I'll miss the most.