With regard to the disquiet at Columbia University, the administration of that august institution managed earlier in that same year to embroil itself in a vexatious controversy concerning its intention of constructing a university gymnasium on public land in Morningside Park, and near the imposing Cathedral of St. John the Divine. To make matters worse, the property in question had originally been considered for a low cost housing project within the neighbourhood. Consequently, there was considerable resistance from within Harlem at the prospect of losing part of its invaluable parkland for the athletic delight of outside students. In addition, only two months earlier, “Students for a Democratic Society” (SDS) had unearthed documentation linking the university to the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), a weapons research think-tank affiliated with the American Department of Defense, and an active supporter of the war in Vietnam.
There were confrontations with the authorities throughout the spring, summer, and early fall of 1968, one of the worst of which took place on May 17 and 18 and at which, with camera in hand, I assisted. Numerous police and students were injured in the fracas which took place in a partially vacant apartment building owned by the university and scheduled for conversion for their purposes. There were 113 individuals arrested, according to newspaper articles of the time.
Throughout 1968 (which, as readers know, was a rather volatile and turbulent year around much of the world), the situation continued to deteriorate at Columbia until the university ultimately threw in the towel: It abandoned its gymnasium project in Morningside Park and disaffiliated itself from the IDA.
As a personal aside to this tale, I must add that it was while frequenting the unfortunate events at Columbia University that I came ( I was told ) the closest to danger during my stay that spring in New York City. Early one evening, while alighting an IND line 8th Avenue train at the 123rd Street stop, I sought out a short cut through that very Morningside Park in order to get more quickly to the scene of the unrest. My feet had no sooner entered the green, when I heard a voice calling out. It was that of a very young black child who proceeded to caution me, in a singularly unique dialect, about the dangers of setting foot in that park in darkness. “Ah wouldn’t do that if I was you, Mista,” he said ingenuously. To this day, I am, not surprisingly, perpetually grateful for the young lad’s advice!