Columbia Planning Six-Story Arts Center with $30M Gift

Philanthropists H.F. and Marguerite Lenfest have pledged $30 million to build the Lenfest Arts Center on West 125th Street in West Harlem. (Columbia University)

HARLEM—Columbia University is planning a six-story, 53,000 square-foot arts center on West 125th Street as part of it’s $6.4 billion campus expansion into West Harlem.

The university is using a $30 million pledge from Philadelphia philanthropist H.F. Lenfest, for whom the building will be named, to fund the facility.

One of the goals of the Lenfest Arts Center, to be located on a plaza between Broadway and 12th Avenue, will be to connect with Harlem’s vibrant arts and cultural scene. It is the university’s largest ever gift associated with the arts.

The structure will be designed by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop and will contain performance space and presentation space for readings and seminars, and a state-of-the-art film screening room. It will also serve as a facility for Columbia’s School of the Arts, said Columbia University President Lee Bollinger.

The building will be located west of the Jerome L. Greene Science Center, which will house the University’s Mind Brain Behavior neuroscience facility.

“As Columbia develops a new campus, it is great to think that the arts will play a central role, and that a beautiful new building by Renzo Piano will welcome audiences across New York City, and make new partnerships possible,” Lenfest said in a statement.

Lenfest announced the gift Thursday night when he was honored at Columbia College’s Alexander Hamilton Dinner.

“This latest gift not only reflects the extraordinary leadership in the arts that he and Marguerite have long demonstrated in their home city of Philadelphia, it ensures that our thriving School of the Arts will finally have a facility that matches its astonishing creativity and the university will have a vital new space for engagement in the robust cultural life of Harlem,” Bollinger said in a statement.

It is not Lenfest’s first gift to the university. A 1958 graduate of Columbia University’s Law School, Lenfest and his wife Marguerite have pledged over $100 million to endow professorships, build a residence hall for the law school and a professorship for the Earth Institute.

The most recent $30 million pledge places the Lenfests among Columbia’s most generous donors. The Lenfests have pledged to give away the majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes.

News of the arts center was welcomed in Harlem.

Barbara Askins, president and CEO of the 125th Street Business Improvement District, said the center will fill a gaping hole for the arts on the west side of Harlem.

“One of our goals is to use culture as an economic driver across 125th Street but right now the west side is disconnected. You have the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Apollo Theater but nothing to lead people to continue walking through the district,” said Askins. “This will be a destination.”

Kim George, associate director of the Harlem Arts Alliance, agreed.”With the redevelopment of the waterfront, a facility like this will be a healthy addition,” she said. “This state-of-the art venue will help local arts and culture which is Harlem’s lifeblood.”

Hamilton Heights Residents Work to Reclaim Montefiore Park

Michael Palma and Barbara Nikonorow, co-leaders of the Montefiore Park Neighborhood Association, say they want the pending park redesign to make the area more useful to the community. (DNAinfo/Jeff Mays)

HARLEM — During the day Montefiore Park, located next to the 137th Street subway stop on Broadway, is mostly used a corridor for City College students heading to campus. At night, the park and dimly lit side street becomes a stomping grounds for the homeless, marijuana smokers, beer-drinkers and their waste.

“The smell of urination is so powerful that it is not serving the community as a park, a place of peaceable enjoyment for people that want to enjoy nature,” said Barbara Nikonorow, one of the leaders of the Montefiore Park Neighborhood Association.

All of the grass is surrounded by gates and senior citizens bring their own chairs to the park.

But the Hamilton Heights park wasn’t always an afterthought. The park was created in 1906 and named after Sir Moses Haim Montefiore, a wealthy Italian-Jewish businessman turned Jewish advocate. Before the city removed all the benches and put gates around the grass to deter drug activity, old-timers remember people playing dominoes at the park and parents with kids in tow chatting there.

“It was an important part of daily life before the whole neighborhood went into a state of disrepair and depression with the onslaught of the crack epidemic,” said Micheal Palma, a co-leader of the Montefiore Park Neighborhood Association, which his mother founded.

“Now, it’s like a zoo for grass. You can look at the grass from behind the gates but you can’t use or touch it,” he said.

But in 2008, the park, bounded by Broadway and Hamilton Place from West 136th to West 138th Streets, was placed in the Department of Transportation’s Plaza Program and designated for a redesign. By closing Hamilton Place from 136th to 138th streets, the size of the park will be doubled.

The $6.4 million project is scheduled to begin construction in 2014 and be completed in 2015.

In advance of the changes, the Montefiore Park Neighborhood Association is hosting a series of visioning workshops.

Starting Saturday, they will host events where Hamilton Place is closed to give the public a sense of the change to come. A monthly cleanup session will be combined with turning Hamilton Place into a play street. A farmer’s market launched at the park in July and runs every Tuesday through to November.

Palma said the group is being proactive in an effort to make sure their wishes for redesigning the park are incorporated. Heritage Health and Housing, the Harlem Community Development Corporation and City College’s Architectural Center are also partners in the effort.

“What we are trying to do is do is demonstrate to the DOT and Parks Department that this is a big deal to the community. We have definititive ideas. We don’t want to see speckled sand and some tables and then say: ‘We are finished.’ We want to totally redesign the park,” Palma said.

At a meeting Wednesday, area residents and business owners endorsed the idea of closing the two block stretch of Hamilton Place twice per week, said Thomas Lunke, director of planning and development for the Harlem Community Development Corporation.

Residents said they want to see festivals return to the park, along with street games such as dominoes and chess tables. They also want the park to be used for fitness, and also for food vendors and vegetable sellers to occupy the expanded space.

Palma also said they wanted more social services directed to help some of the homeless and drug-using population that currently occupies the area.

“We want to make it more of a community living room rather than a passageway for students going to City College. We want it to be a place where the community can engage one another,” said Lunke.

Other benefits would include a smoother traffic pattern along Broadway and Hamilton Place, which is closed off after 138th Street because the rest of the short street is one-way running south.

The park has the potential to be an economic draw for the area, said Nikonorow. It is close to a transportion hub and young families are moving to the neighborhood. The senior population and City College and public school students are natural park users.
“It’s strange that no one thought until recently that the best way to keep this park from drug dealers is to make it a really useful place,” said Palma.

Movement to Name Street After George Carlin Gains Momentum

George Carlin during a 2003 appearance with Jay Leno. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS — The comedian who railed against the establishment could now be honored with his own street.

Close to 3,000 people have signed an online petition asking Community Board 9 and the City Council to name the 500 block of West 121st Street after George Carlin, the ground-breaking performer who shocked audiences with a routine about seven dirty words that can’t be uttered aloud on television.

Carlin was arrested decades ago for performing the routine after the U.S. Supreme Court deemed it “indecent.”

Carlin, who died in 2008 at age 71, lived and went to school on the Morningside Heights block between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue. He drew from his experiences there for his bits, said Kevin Bartini, the stand-up comic who started the street-naming movement earlier this summer.

“I can’t imagine what Carlin would have been without growing up in Morningside Heights,” said Bartini. “The melting pot of different cultures — the black section of Harlem with the Spanish section and the Jewish people — he seemed to absorb their cultures and their sound, and that came out on his first two albums.”

On the 1973 album “Occupation Foole,” Carlin said he and his friends called their neighborhood “White Harlem” because it sounded tougher than Morningside Heights.

Bartini, 32, who warms up audiences for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” said he’s been overwhelmed with positive responses about the street naming. Bartini lives nearby, on West 113th Street and Manhattan Avenue, and spent several weekends this summer collecting paper-and-ink signatures.

The campaign picked up momentum when it went online, garnering 2,500 signatures within a day. Bartini said he first sought permission from Carlin’s daughter, who gave the idea her blessing.

Community Board 9 officials couldn’t be reached for comment immediately on Thursday.

Community Board 9 District Manager Eutha Prince told the New York Post she’d never heard of Carlin, but if locals could make a compelling case for naming a street after him, the block could be christened in “the next 12 to 18 months.”

Bartini said even people who may not be fans of Carlin’s politics or his views on religion — he thought it was “bulls–t” — could find a reason to support honoring him.

“He was an amazing presence over the last century,” Barini said. “He was a champion of the First Amendment, a lover of the English language and a lover of New York City. He was a revolutionary who changed the way we thought.”

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