When Columbia University was expanding into Morningside Park in the 1960s, a former FBI agent, Joseph A. Zuhusky, was beginning his moving and storage empire on 130th Street in West Harlem, only a train stop away. Columbia’s attempt met with outrage from the local community and students, touching off days of unrest and violence. After the bloodshed, that expansion plan died.
Nearly 50 years later, Columbia is trying again to expand. And a second generation of Zuhusky’s may be forced out of their family business.
Three years ago, Columbia announced its plan to expand its campus by razing all but three buildings in the same neighborhood of West Harlem that Zuhusky and his family have spent over 41 years. And while the university stressed that it would work with its neighbors this time around, brothers Joseph “Nick” and Peter Zuhusky are caught up in a difficult dispute with their sister, Anne Z. Whitman. They are just one poignant example of a family torn with indecision and arguments about Columbia’s expansion.
The Zuhusky family business is two blocks north of the 125th Street subway station. It is a part of West Harlem’s industrial zone, along with several auto repair, construction and supply shops- many of which have already closed down after its owners sold their property to Columbia.
Many of these buildings appear darker and grittier than the gleaming new restaurants, bars and lounges a few blocks away. They are afflicted with peeling paint, rusting metal and other signs of deterioration. But many are also family owned, some with decades of history, and contain the stories of local residents. These shops, along with their inhabitants, may soon vanish to make room for Columbia’s 17-acre glossy campus addition.
According to Robert Hornsby, the director of media relations at Columbia University, Columbia has been steadily acquiring property in the area. The university has asked the City Council to rezone a 35-acre region of West Harlem from light manufacturing to mixed use so that the institution can extend its campus onto 17 of the rezoned acres.
The university said the expansion is necessary for it to remain competitive with its Ivy League peers. “Columbia is the quintessential great urban university and the most constrained for space,” said Lee Bollinger, the school president, in 2002.
“The absence of space really had started to affect the university’s intellectual agenda,” Robert Kasdin, Columbia’s senior executive vice president, told the Village Voice. “Faculty didn’t have space for facilities to pursue research.”
As a result, Columbia has proposed to develop a 17-acre campus in West Harlem, an area larger than the site of the World Trade Center. The site will include academic buildings, labs, support services, parking garages, and graduate and faculty housing. Columbia plans to develop the parcel over the next 25 to 30 years at a projected cost of $7.4 billion, and it is supposed to create more than 6,000 jobs during construction.
On Dec. 19, the City Council approved Columbia’s rezoning proposal. While the rezoning removes the last significant hurdle in Columbia’s way, three commercial property owners, including Whitman, have refused to sell their property.
But Columbia can invoke eminent domain if it can prove an area is “blighted” or in the process of deterioration. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that eminent domain could be used by the government to seize property from one property owner and transfer it to another as long as this decision is in the public’s best interest. Most local landlords have already sold.
Columbia has hired an independent organization to determine whether the area is blighted. Joseph A. Zuhusky’s business is located at the heart of the area in question. A Georgetown university graduate with a law degree, Zuhusky joined the FBI after graduation, said Nick Zuhusky, his oldest son. But he left this dangerous position to provide for his six children, Zuhusky continued.
His business blossomed and grew until he died ten years ago. Since then, the company has been doing well. With a growing number of customers, Zuhusky’s children have split the company so that they can focus on serving a larger variety of customers.
Two of his children, brothers Nick and Peter Zuhusky, are co-presidents of Despatch Moving ‘ Storage, which focuses on helping larger businesses and institutions. A block down, sister Anne Z. Whitman operates Hudson North American, which she formed in 1992 to serve local artists and businesses. Another brother, Jim, owns Despatch of Southampton Moving ‘ Storage.
Despatch Moving ‘ Storage and Hudson North American are both in West Harlem. They stand nearly side by side, separated by Meeting With God Pentecostal Church.
They are competitors, Nick Zuhusky said with a laugh.
The siblings have always been on friendly terms, he added, and would have continued so if it weren’t for “Columbia wagging its big tail,” Zuhusky said.
Whitman is one of the last three commercial business owners adamantly against Columbia’s expansion and its use of eminent domain against property owners. Whitman declined to be interviewed at length for this story, but on Dec. 21, 2007, she told the New York Times: “No way Columbia is going to steal this property right out from underneath me. Remember that man who stood in front of the tank at Tiananmen Square? That’s me.”
On Jan. 7, when asked about her current situation and if she was still against selling, Whitman declined to comment. Instead, she replied, “I can’t be quoted, I am currently in negotiations with Columbia.”
While his sister was against selling, brothers Nick and Peter decided that the only solution was to sell their property.
In the beginning, Nick said, “We were confused and frightened.” They had bought the 10-story warehouse from their mother in 1997 after their father’s death. The warehouse originally housed a fur company while Whitman’s building was once a stable. In 2005, Hudson North American was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The brothers were against leaving the business their father worked so hard to build and the neighborhood they had spent their childhood in, but they were afraid of Columbia’s power. “We really couldn’t fight it,” Nick said. Besides, he said, Columbia’s offering price was “fair.” He declined to name the exact price, explaining that he had signed a confidentiality agreement.
His decision caused a rift in the family. It did not sit well with his sister. “After she found out we sold, she considered me a sellout,” Nick said.
“My mother also considers me a sellout,” he said. After a pause, he added, “selling my father’s grave.” Another pause: “horrible stuff.” His voice trailed off. “It was a difficult decision and we are very upset by it. But we did what was best for our family.”
Nick continued, “It’s going to be a beautiful community with a park, retail, dorms, labs and a waterfront redeveloped with piers. It will be a wonderful community but we just won’t be part of it.”