The World’s Biggest College Town

On a gray Friday in January, a largely empty church on 121st Street and Broadway was immaculate in the way

On a gray Friday in January, a largely empty church on 121st Street and Broadway was immaculate in the way of a rarely used living room. Even on a slushy winter morning, Corpus Christi’s floors gleamed.

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At noon sharp, in the rectory next door, the Rev. Raymond Rafferty, the church’s pastor, leaned forward, checked his watch and told The Observer gently, “Now, I really have to go.” He had to prepare for the 12:10 Mass. The church holds services at least once daily during the week, and four times on Sunday. But the nave, which holds 400 people, is rarely full.

Once, Corpus Christi would have towered over the neighboring apartment buildings. But now it sits literally in the shadows of Columbia’s Teachers’ College across 121st Street, yet another totem of the university’s swallowing of its upper Manhattan neighborhood.

Columbia, in fact, owns every building on both sides of the street, save for one co-op and the church. And several blocks to the northwest, the university is undertaking a massive 17-acre expansion into West Harlem that will inevitably mean years of demolitions and noisy construction. When it’s finished, Columbia will have transformed an area once filled with auto mechanics and small manufacturers into a modern day “piazza,” as its architect, the Italian Renzo Piano, describes it.

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According to the most recent tax assessment rolls, provided by the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance and analyzed by The Observer, Columbia and N.Y.U. have amassed valuable properties rivaling the Catholic Church’s long-held portfolio. The market value of city property owned by each of the three institutions appears to hover around $1.5 billion, based on the assessment rolls. The Catholic Church still claims a slight lead, but N.Y.U. and Columbia trail by only a couple of hundred million dollars each, and will almost certainly eclipse the church soon.

Though exact numbers are impossible to attain (the universities and the church own numerous properties under different registered names, and there are in total more than 11,000 registered property owners in the city), they clearly show that the gap has narrowed. Moreover, given the downward trends for membership in major religious organizations in the United States, time is on the universities’ side.

New York City, which even a decade ago boasted a strong (and strongly religious) manufacturing working class, has rapidly become a wonkhub of nearly 600,000 post-high school students, according to the last census. The academic expansion in the city has come at the same time that the Catholic Church-once New York’s largest private landlord and community presence-has confronted decline. In neighborhoods like Father Rafferty’s, the role reversal is startling, with colleges starting to elbow out the church for space and influence. “New York is an intellectual city,” said Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban planning at New York University (and an Observer contributor). “People want to study in New York. You have to recognize how much this has really changed.”

While the Catholic Church, like other major religious organizations, struggles with declining resources and attendance, universities are scrambling to find room to grow. Father Rafferty, who before Corpus Christi was a New York University chaplain for almost a decade, smiles kindly when he talks about Columbia’s reign over the neighborhood. “I understand the need for expansion,” he said. “But you also need to think about the community you’re expanding into.”

He does not blame the university for any decline in church membership. “It’s not their direct intention to cause that,” Father Rafferty said. “Some of this is driven by society changing, and the failure of churches to evangelize, welcome newcomers, and scandals within the church.”

For decades, Corpus Christi has, in fact, enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with its Ivy League neighbor. While a student at Columbia in the 1930s, for instance, Thomas Merton, later to become one of the 20th century’s most famous Catholics as an author and lecturer, was baptized there, and young people still approach Father Rafferty asking to be christened after reading Merton’s memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain. But starting in the ’60s and ’70s, partly because of its neighbor’s growing population of students and faculty, Corpus Christi watched its membership drop (though it has climbed slightly in the past decade). Apartment buildings once filled with strongly Catholic Irish and Hispanic immigrants have become housing for undergrads and their TAs, who may or may not see the need for Catholic theology or organized religion in general.

The World’s Biggest College Town