Morningside park gym plans columbia morningside heights new york untapped cities samantha sokol
Plans for the Morningside Gym. Image via WikiCU, user Tao tan

In 1960, Columbia University proposed the construction of a new gym in Morningside Park. A way to keep students fit, beautifying the crumbling Morningside Park. A win/win, right? Not so much. The construction of this gym started a huge student protest/strike which temporarily shut down Columbia and was part of a huge chain student uprisings around the world.

So what was wrong with this gym? It had two doors: one for Harlem community residents who were predominantly black and one for students who were predominantly white. According to WikiCU, The door for community residences was in the back of the gym on a lower level, while the door made available to students was a grand entrance in the front of the gym. The policy was initiated the year of Martin Luther King Junior’s assassination, only adding to the tension already in the air.

On top of all of this, Columbia professors were heavily involved with weapon development research for the Vietnam War, a war wildly unpopular college campuses. Having this in the background upon the proposition of the segregated doors was a recipe for disaster.

Columbia Spectator cover page 1968 protest morningside heights new york untapped cities samantha sokolImage via WikiCU, user Pacman

According to Columbia 1968, a website devoted to the documentation of this uprising, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and Students for Afro-American Society (SAS) led these protests. They joined forces and held a rally, which then turned into a university-wide, week long student protest. The protest was non-violent at first, but by the end of the week police were sent to stop the demonstration. Protestors tore down the fence around the construction site and occupied four academic buildings. After negotiations to change the gym/vietnam policies failed, this protest turned into a student strike big enough to convince administrators to cancel all plans for the gym and terminate all ties with Vietnam weapon research.

We like to think now that we’re “over” the struggle for civil rights and equal opportunity. However these issues are still in existence today, even in a city as liberal and diverse as NYC. One example is that several New York City apartment buildings have separate doors for those who live in affordable housing units and the non-rent regulated apartments, including the recent controversy over the “Poor Door” at 40 Riverside Drive. Similar to the Morningside gym, these doors are being subject to political (though non-violent) backlash. Christine Quinn, for example, claimed that state law should be changed to enforce common entrances.

If you’re interested in race relations in NYC, check out this article about Race Maps of NYC, Los Angeles, and Detroit, and a Map of Stop & Frisks in NYC.