Sunday, September 26, 2010

Semiotic Topographies

“What we call ideology only achieves consistency by intervening in social space and its production, and by thus taking on body therein. Ideology per se might well be said to consist primarily in a discourse upon social space (Lefebvre, 1974: 44).”
An almost daily reminder of this discourse is my walk up through Morningside Park to Columbia’s campus. The significance of the park itself has been contested for many years, and I’ve always found the position of the University in relation to the poorer neighborhoods below to be especially striking. The University relocated to its current campus in 1896, joining St. Luke’s Hospital and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. It has often been suggested that gathering such institutions in their locale atop a cliff was meant to recall the Athenian Acropolis. Topographical extremities seem to have been a signifier since the emergence of the first permanent settlements and though the heights no longer serve practical measures as such, they have retained their inherent symbolism as a bastion of relative power and wealth, in this case magnified by the placement of the Park. The characteristics of the topography in this case create the signifier.
The decision to situate a park between one hundred tenth and one hundred twenty-third streets was made at the request of the city's comptroller, who thought that the 'severe topography' of the area would make the extension of the street grid prohibitively expensive. First proposed in 1867, the park was conceived long before the racial and economic divide between Harlem and the Heights. However, Morningside Park has since had the effect of distancing Harlem from the academic community that, geographically, is only blocks away. While this may have aided Harlem in establishing a unique identity as a community, it has also led to a degree of disengagement by the University from the nearby community that has sometimes resulted in hostility.
From the parapet along Morningside Drive, one is able to survey the buildings of Harlem, and beyond them. It is a natural vantage point to gaze upon the urban landscape below. To reach Harlem, one must descend multiple flights of steps and continue walking downhill along a path, only reaching the neighborhood of Harlem itself after passing through an open gate in a cast-iron fence that contrasts sharply with the grandeur of the west entrances. The difference in perspective from above as one passes through the gate is striking. There is no vista now, only the immediate urban environment. Passing through the Park back to Morningside Heights requires a more strenuous walk, as one must wind one's way back up the path and the stairs, confronted by hill, cliff, and wall. If a wrong turn is taken, it will shortly be discovered that not all paths lead directly to the streets above, many instead meandering back down into the park.
An interesting dialogue over this function of the park's location can be observed in the material culture of the park itself. An elegant pond in the park is the remnant of a controversial attempt by Columbia University to build an athletic center in the park in the 1960's. Although the center was to have featured a facility for the use of Harlem residents, it was regarded by the emerging civil rights movement as an attempt at segregation. The administration denied this, stating that the athletic center would benefit both communities. However, student protests in 1968 halted construction of the new building. Whether there was any true racial bias inherent in the plan is not as relevant as is the observable paradigm shift to an active attempt at integration. Interestingly, there is also a statue at the one hundred sixteenth 'Morningside entrance' of Carl Schurz “A Defender of Liberty and a friend of Human Rights.” It is explained that Schurz was an advocate for abolition and was active on behalf of Native Americans at the bureau of Indian affairs.
Pedestrians are able to learn that the area was inhabited by a succession of Native Americans, and Dutch and English settlers. The immediate vicinity can be connected to both the American Revolution and the War of 1812. The attempt by Columbia to build an athletic center is noted and contextualized within the larger civil rights movement as a moment of solidarity between the student body and the population of Harlem. The presence on the Harlem Plain of Native American and Dutch settlements, eventually appropriated by the English settlers is noted in the same perfunctory way as the controversy over the athletic center, on a placard at the Morningside entrance to the park. The statues and friezes that act as a monument to people and ideas attempt to weave a multicultural history into the fabric of the park.


Katie M. Caljean said...

Without hearing a word or reading any text, one immediately recognizes the apparent boundary that has been created between Columbia's campus and the neighborhood of Harlem. Yes, natural topography does play a role in the sloping decline of the landscape; yet, descending down the meandering man-made staircases into Morningside Park evoke feelings of uncertainty and unfamiliarity. The sheer fact that one must descend from Columbia's campus down into Harlem is revealing on a subconscious level of the socio-economic disparity that exists between these two abutting localities in NYC.

Andrea Fabiola Vazquez said...

I have only crossed Morninside park once or twice, and I certainly agree that there is indeed a sense of crossing the boarder when ascending or descending the steps. Alternately, as I used to live at 137th and Broadway, I have often walked to Harlem via Broadway and Amsterdam, which has a very different feeling. Without the park, the transition from Morningside Hts to Harlem is less sudden, but not less clear. I can't say exactly where the boarder crossing is on Broadway, but I know that I crossed it every time I walked to class. Topography is not everything. Columbia and Harlem are separated by a lot more than a strip of grass.

center for archaeology said...

It might be interesting to compare the experience of traversing Morningside Park to that of crossing Riverside Park, on the other side of campus. Does this have a similar sense of transition or is it somehow more integrated into the space of Columbia?

Andrea Fabiola Vazquez said...

A comparison with St. Nicholas park could also be interesting. St. Nicholas park is about the same size and shape as Morningside park, is also on a hill, and creates a boundary between City College in West Harlem and Central Harlem below. Although there is not such a difference in wealth between these two neighborhoods, there is a certainly a difference in ethnicity and language! St. Nicholas park runs from W 127th to W 141st.