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How Columbia Students Petitioned the New York City Government to Improve the Safety of the 116th Street–Broadway Subway Station
Chauncey Olinger
Graduate School of Arts and Sciences 1971

During the 1963–64 academic year, the students of Columbia University joined together in a successful petition campaign to replace the hazardous subway kiosk (entrance building) that had stood in the middle of Broadway at 116th Street since the early days of the century. The story of this effort is one of the most positive stories about student life at Columbia.

It is a wonderful story because it is so rare when thousands of students, who as individuals are primarily concerned with the demands of their academic work, join in a common effort for any purpose. Beyond that, it is a story that illustrates how students understood that they could use one of the long-accepted devices of the American political tradition to rectify a public hazard that threatened their lives.

As president of the Columbia University Student Council in 1963–64, it was my special privilege to join with many thousands of Columbia students to use the petition process to influence the powers that be in the mayor's office and the Board of Estimate.

The background of this effort was that by the early 1960s, it was fairly widely known among members of the Columbia community that a number of people had been injured and killed getting back and forth to the IRT subway kiosk at Broadway and 116th Street, which was located in the middle of the street. Because of the deaths and injuries, the Columbia administration had, for a number of years, requested the New York City Board of Estimate, which determined the city's budget, to provide funds for the replacement of the kiosk with sidewalk entrances on either side of Broadway. These efforts had not succeeded, and it was generally believed that the main reason was that Columbia in the 1950s and 1960s was perceived as a threat to the Morningside community.

The danger associated with the location of the subway kiosk had been talked about at Columbia University Student Council meetings for several years. Finally, at the meeting on November 6, 1963, the following motion was passed:

"Due to the extreme hazard presented to the lives and safety of Columbia University students at the subway entrance structure at 116th Street and Broadway, that CUSC goes on record as favoring the removal of this structure and the construction of sidewalk entrances as soon as practicable. The Executive Committee is authorized to effect implementation of this motion as is feasible."

In December, a letter was sent to the Board of Estimate urging funds for the replacement of the kiosk. The president of CUSC appeared before the City Planning Commission, requesting the same thing. But when the proposed capital budget for 1964–65 was sent by the City Planning Commission to Mayor Robert Wagner on Jan. 3, 1964, 600,000 dollars for the replacement of the kiosk with sidewalk entrances was not included.

At this point, the University Student Council decided that a stronger effort needed to be made. It was decided to seek signatures on a petition to the mayor and Board of Estimate, calling for the appropriation of the needed funds. To collect the signatures, council members manned card tables filled with blank petition forms during registration for the spring semester of 1963–64 in the long corridor in the basement of Kent Hall.

On Feb. 24, 1964, the president of CUSC read a letter to the mayor and the Board of Estimate at City Hall and presented boxes full of the almost 7,000 signed petitions. In mid-March, the Board of Estimate approved the funds for the kiosk replacement and sent the capital budget on to the mayor, who had previously indicated his approval.

Despite the fact that the funds were approved for the 1964–65 capital budget, work was still underway on the new entrances during the spring of 1968, which was the time of the violent protest against American involvement in the Vietnam War and other issues.

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