The World’s Biggest College Town

The church’s decline affects us all. For nearly a century, religious institutions stood between many New Yorkers and desperation. “The church was extremely important in helping in the rebuilding of New York City,” said former mayor Ed Koch, who recognized early on in his political career the importance of reaching out to Catholic voters, especially the so-called white ethnic ones in the outer boroughs. “And it remains extremely important in delivering services. The Catholic Church is No. 1 in the delivery of social services, better than what the civil service can do.”  

As N.Y.U. and Columbia rise to dominance, will their presence be as benign?

The universities have both embarked on their biggest expansion plans in over 100 years, and their respective neighborhoods’ opposition has been closely chronicled. N.Y.U plans to grow its campus by more than 40 percent, adding 3 million-plus square feet in Greenwich Village, an engineering school in Brooklyn and a satellite campus on Governors Island. The main campus of the school-at more than 22,000 undergraduates, the largest private college in the U.S.-is already situated in one of the most densely populated areas of the city.
Stone churches once rose a couple of stories above their neighbors; N.Y.U. plans to build space equaling the Empire State Building in Greenwich Village, which critics say will dwarf its surroundings.

Columbia has also announced a $6.3 billion expansion plan that will add 6.8 million square feet of additional classrooms and other facilities, including the 17-acre West Harlem campus. The new campus will almost certainly drive up property values and make it more difficult for members of the working-class neighborhood to continue living there. Some clergy have raised objections that the plans do not include affordable housing on the site of the campus.

Even as Columbia grows and the church’s influence wanes, it is hardly a neatly plotted story of the university triumphing at the expense of the church. It’s more like two stories running parallel in the same setting. Columbia even met with local clergy when beginning its expansion efforts nearly a decade ago, but it did not go well: Some clergy stopped attending. “The situation has been compared to David and Goliath,” said the Rev. Earl Kooperkamp of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on 126th Street and Amsterdam. “All David had to do was take Goliath off the field. … How do you get Goliath to sit down, make peace and be a good neighbor?”

New Yorkers will have to make peace with the new Goliaths rising in their midst. Universities and colleges already control more than 22 percent of office space in New York City, according to Cassidy Turley, including 72 million square feet in Manhattan. Columbia’s holdings totaled 19.6 million square feet, and N.Y.U. owns 15 million feet, according to the report. “These universities have become powerhouses financially,” Mr. Moses, the journalism professor at Brooklyn College, said. “The churches don’t seem to command that kind of influence. They’re begging foundations to keep their schools alive.

“You are talking about money,” he added. “Universities have lots of money and the churches don’t.”

The question remains: Can universities step in to fill the gap left by a declining church, providing education, hospitals and a sense of community, given the relentless hustle in this city?

“Universities help add to the city’s quality of life,” Mr. Moss, of N.Y.U., said. “Within the university, you have seminars, theater groups, lectures. They become an important part of the city’s fabric.”

Much like the role the Catholic Church once filled? “Yes, exactly like that.”

But when The Observer floated the same idea to the Rev. Thomas Shelley, a professor of Catholic history at Fordham, he laughed gently. “The main business of the church is religion,” he said. “Universities don’t do that and aren’t expected to do it.”  

lkusisto@observer.com