Manhattanville remains one of Columbia’s most controversial and visible issues, sparking tense debate on campus and in the surrounding community. Columbia justified the campus expansion as improving the Manhattanville neighborhood and its connection with the University, but many residents view Columbia’s actions as strong-armed bullying and forced gentrification.
Another divisive chapter was added to the Manhattanville saga when Juan Ruiz, a 69-year-old construction worker, was killed after the 131st Street building he was working on collapsed. Ruiz became the second man in two years to be killed in the ongoing Manhattanville project, after another construction worker suffered a heart attack and fell into an open elevator shaft in February 2010.
Both deaths occurred under the watch of Breeze National, the construction company that Columbia has contracted to do much of the work in Manhattanville. Even disregarding Breeze’s past connections with organized crime and the fact that the City of New York no longer conducts business with the firm, it has been the subject of numerous violations from the Department of Buildings, the most recent of which were issued only three weeks ago. However, the information available to us provides no clear indication as to who is responsible for this incident, and we do not wish to speculate.
Regardless, Columbia should determine what happened and hold the related parties responsible. If only as a political move, Columbia must make an effort to seek accountability. The easiest way for the University to do so would be to launch a full investigation into the contracting company, already known for its safety violations, to emphasize that Columbia values safety. If it becomes clear that Breeze National is responsible for the building collapse, then Columbia must cut ties with the contracting company, and make a stronger effort to find companies with better track records.
Although Columbia is not directly to blame for Ruiz’s death, it must carefully look into the incident. Tensions are already running high among residents of Manhattanville, and the death of Juan Ruiz will certainly not improve any perceptions of Columbia. The Manhattanville project has always been, from Columbia’s vantage point, a reconciliatory and benevolent outreach to the neighboring community. The University promises mutual benefits for the neighborhood, from creating jobs and commerce to providing a more solidified connection with the school. But without a significant gesture toward making changes in the future, the University will only further damage its relationship with the community.