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Top 6 reasons to visit Columbia's Manhattanville campus–even if you're not a student

Updated: Nov 26, 2020

You may live uptown and think, Columbia University's new campus–what's it got to do with me? It's just another extension of a behemoth school gobbling up real estate and even whole neighborhoods. (That's of course if you're not a current student, a staff member–or one of the actual people displaced by the development.)

But there is reason to pay attention to–and even visit–the new Manhattanville campus. Columbia's latest buildings right above 125th Street have little in common with the gated main campus on 116th Street.

The university is purposefully aiming for a completely different kind of vibe–one that welcomes the surrounding community. And it's not just the lack of physical barriers that the school is hoping will draw visitors in, it's also the wide outdoor spaces and a growing number of free exhibits and other attractions.

While only two new buildings have opened so far–the Jerome L. Greene Science Center and the Lenfest Center for the Arts–there are at least two more on the near horizon: the University Forum, set to open in 2018, and the business school, in 2021. As the area continues to transform, here are six reasons you should visit now:

1. The cool architecture

The University Forum in Manhattanville

If you have even the tiniest interest in modern architecture, a stroll through the Manhattanville campus is a must. The new science and art buildings (and the conference center that looks to be on track to open next year, pictured above), were designed by star architect Renzo Piano. Spend an afternoon walking in and around the buildings and you'll find all kinds of amazing views and angles to admire. Bring your camera.

2. The open spaces

Lenfest Center for the Arts

With all the construction currently going on right above 125th Street, it's not easy to see the new plaza in front of the entrance to the Lenfest Center for the Arts, but it's a short walk from Broadway and quite a nice place to sit on a bench and bask in the sun.

West Harlem Piers Park

Walk all the way west and you'll reach the manicured, river-hugging West Harlem Piers Park, which Columbia helps pay for. It's definitely one of the best open spaces in Harlem.

3. The Wallach Art Gallery

"Living in America: Frank Lloyd Wright, Harlem & Modern Housing"

Housed on the 6th floor of the Lenfest Center for the Arts (anyone can enter, you just need a visitor sticker, plus it's free), this art gallery is already on its second show–and a pretty fascinating one. Called "Living in America: Frank Lloyd Wright, Harlem & Modern Housing," the exhibit is about the famed architect's ideas for modern community living (mostly intended for white people in the suburbs).

Interwoven are plans for actual public housing (mostly for minorities) that began springing up around Harlem starting in 1936. From the Harlem River Houses in the east to the Manhattanville Houses in the west, these buildings were originally envisioned and sold to the public with the idea of clearing slums and creating affordable housing. Today our city's projects might seem like crumbling brick monstrosities, so it's surprising to discover they were designed by important modernists like William Lescaze–a star architect of his day.

4. Rock climbing at Steep Rock West

Steep Rock West

The prices might not be for everyone ($28 for a day pass, $150 for a one-month package), but it's still pretty cool to have a new rock climbing gym in the neighborhood. Have a fear of heights? Simply watch the action from the lobby or even the street.

5. Manhattanville's Milk Industry Exhibit

Manhattanville: A New York Nexus, Sheffield Farms, the Milk Industry and the Public Good

Did you know that Manhattanville was once the heart of uptown's milk industry and home to Sheffield Farms? And that Prentis Hall, a Columbia building on 125th Street, was Sheffield Farms' old bottling plant (where pasteurized milk was replacing the disease-causing city milk of old)? Or that the facade of the company's old horse stables has been moved to Washington Heights?

You'll discover that and so much more at a free exhibit called "Manhattanville: A New York Nexus | Sheffield Farms, the Milk Industry, and the Public Good" in a ground floor Columbia-owned space on W 133rd Street. The show is open to the public on Thursdays from 1-4pm and also by appointment, so it may not be the easiest to get to, but it's definitely fun and interesting.

6. The ring of food

Donburi at Jin Ramen Harlem

One day soon a restaurant will occupy the empty space on the north side of the Jerome L. Greene Science Center, but nothing has been announced yet. In the meantime, the Manhattanville campus is surrounded by a ring of great restaurants to try.

There's Harlem's Floridita, a Cuban place that moved from its nearby original location on Broadway to 12th Avenue; Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, a chain that has even attracted the Obamas; beer hall Bierstrasse; rum bar Solomon & Kuff; lunch spot Studebaker Cafe; and three Asian restaurants on opposite corners of 125th and Broadway. My favorite of those, Jin Ramen Harlem, serves excellent tonkotsu (pork bone broth) ramen and soul-warming donburi, or Japanese rice bowls (that's the braised pork belly pictured above).

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