This morning I reported to work at my new office in the remodeled Studebaker building on West 131st Street near the Hudson River. It is Columbia University’s initial foray into the Manhattanville neighborhood, with plans for more expansion in years to come. As was the case in 1968, Columbia is butting heads with the Black and Latino community. The area is home to a number of small businesses, mostly gas stations, warehouses, car repair and moving joints. Columbia is trying to avoid the explosion of nearly 40 years ago through bribes and cutting deals with Black Democrats, but there is still resentment. As I passed one gas station, I noticed a big banner on the wall about the need to resist Columbia. I wish they had resisted Studebaker in fact. I much preferred working on campus since I am in the libraries 2 or 3 times a week. I also used nearby cafeterias. There is nothing near 131st Street except Chinese take-out and McDonalds.
When I got to my new desk this morning, I noticed that part of the welcoming package was a model of a 1953 Studebaker, a car exactly like the one my father drove. Studebaker went out of business in 1966. At the time, people joked that you couldn’t tell if the car was going forwards or backwards since the front and rear of the car looked so much alike.
My dad was a typical penny-pinching veteran of the Great Depression. Long after the car was burning oil, he held on to it. In 1959, my mother took me and her mother to go hear Richard Tucker at the Concord Hotel. Tucker was one of the great Jewish opera stars, who also sang religious Cantorial music. When we pulled up to the entrance of the Concord trailing smoke, I noticed one of the rich Jews who had just stepped out of a Cadillac laughing and pointing at our jalopy. It was my introduction to class society.