NYU University Heights, “The jewel of undergraduate training at New York University”
Sidney Borowitz, NYU Dean and Professor of Physics
My all-time favorite Broadway show is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights,” his Tony Award-winning musical before “Hamilton.” I am what is called a groupie. I’ve seen stage versions six times (including literally traveling cross country to some), the movie version three times, and have listened to the original cast album dozens of times. In January 2011, I even got to go back stage to meet the Broadway cast when the show closed, arranged by Lin’s father after a request made by Nancy as a surprise for me.
That Broadway day was truly memorable. It started with a matinee performance of the also soon-to-close show “Next To Normal,” a rollicking rock musical about extreme family dysfunction, depression and suicide. It was definitely not your grandma’s “Oklahoma.” Next was an amazing Cuban meal at Havana Central on 46th Street off of Times Square.
Then, “In the Heights” where I was immersed in an audience of fellow groupies at the pre-closing-night performance. It was great fun to participate in animated debates, like which of the rotating lead actresses was the best Nina. ANSWER: They were all fantastic but I was partial to Ariel Jacobs.
When the show was over, I met up with my VIP escort who took me to the stage in the now empty theater where the cast and other visitors were gathered. I casually chatted with cast members, including Lin, Ariel Jacobs and Christopher Jackson as if it were no big deal. I lamented to Lin that the show was closing. He said “it’s fine, it will live on in local community theater productions all over the country and there might even be a movie.” At one point I chatted with another visitor and proudly boasted that I had seen the show four times by that point. He replied, “That’s so sweet. I’ve seen it 40 times.” I had encountered an uber groupie. When I finally left the theater, I passed Lin exiting the stage door surrounded by a hundred or more adoring fans waving Playbills for him to autograph. I felt like a VIP.
Too exhausted with joy for the train ride back to my daughter’s New Jersey house, I spent the night in a “micro hotel” near Times Square. Micro hotel is a euphemism for broom closet with a cot-sized bed and a spittoon for a sink. There are two of you? No problem. There’s a bunk cot. I don’t recommend a micro hotel unless you’re desperate or need to sober up. But for me, ending my special day, it was perfect.
Back stage at “In the Heights” at the Richard Rogers theater after the show.
Left: Lin-Manuel (Usnave) and me. Right: Ariel Jacobs (Nina) and me.
That day was one of the best of my life as suggested by the shit-eating grin I couldn’t remove from my face if I tried when I met the cast after the show.
But “the Heights” had significance for me decades before the show. It was the name of the New York University (NYU) University Heights campus (aka The Heights) in the Bronx. The Heights was the remote stepchild of the well-known Washington Square main campus in Greenwich Village.
And therein lies a tale.
In my senior year of high school, I had been accepted into the NYU School of Engineering at The Heights. So in the summer of 1960 when I was 17, mom, dad and I visited The Heights to check it out. It was situated on rocky cliffs high above the Harlem River, across from upper Manhattan. I had been accepted through a rather tortuous process. (Read about it in The Phone Call That Changed My Life.) But would I actually go there? That was TBD.
The Heights definitely did not look like the institutional prison-like high school building from which I had recently graduated. The central quadrangle had three stately older buildings on the right side of the Quad from where we stood. The right center building was the domed Gould Library. Impressive-looking brick buildings stood in front of us. And on the left of the Quad, opposite the Gould Library was the newer Student Center. The entire campus was a beautiful oasis in the midst of the tumult of old Bronx neighborhoods with crowded apartment buildings lining most of the streets.
Wandering around the campus, we three were in a strange new land, gawking like tourists who had just left the farm as we bumped into summer students while we absentmindedly took in the surroundings. The campus looked unreal to me, like a movie set from “Good News,” the 1947 MGM musical. To say I was impressed would be an understatement—and that’s saying a lot for this kid who had finely honed his nothing-phases-me 1950s beatnik persona. For the first time in a long time, I allowed a glimmer of genuine excitement to radiate through me. The three of us slowly strolled around the campus, gaping at the sights, mostly in awestruck silence.
We meandered along the Hall of Fame of Great Americans, a 630-foot long colonnade behind the Gould Library. It was lined with bronze busts of famous Americans, the first such hall of fame in the country. It sported the busts of the honorees, including Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Einstein and scores of others famous Americans.
We explored the Quad with its green grass, long criss-crossing walkways and central fountain. At one point, mom and I stood by the fountain as dad drifted off to the side and slowly turned around taking it all in. Mom leaned over and whispered to me, “Your father would have loved to go here.” Dad was a natural scholar, and The Heights campus screamed scholarship and higher education. Dad’s own experience of college was very different from what we were now seeing.
Like Father, Unlike Son
The first son of immigrant parents from Russia, dad went to The Cooper Union at night in the heart of Manhattan while working during the day as a draftsman during the Great Depression.
Dad loved reading. At home after work and on weekends, he mostly sat in his cushy easy chair in solitude lost in one book or another or, as a mechanical engineer, devouring his highly anticipated “Heating, Ventilating and Air Conditioning” magazine. I, on the other hand, was stumbling through adolescence having clearly not inherited the family’s scholar gene for love of reading and study.
I was a rebel who rarely read books unless forced to in school. And when it came to the classics like Shakespeare? C’mon, give me a break. I didn’t get it, and I had better things to do.
Dad and I once had a knock down, drag out argument when, in utter desperation, he screamed at me, “Why don’t you read a damn book?” Just let it be said that I did not take his question well, and all hell broke loose. There were strong words, lots of them, but no physical contact. We were both non-violent at our cores. Unfortunately, I don’t think things were ever the same between us after that.
I Was Partial to the Illustrated Classics
What dad didn’t appreciate was that I actually did have a reading gene but it expressed itself in a bizarre and non-traditional way: for years I was an avid reader—of comic books. I had a huge comic book collection of illustrated classics like Hopalong Cassidy; Little Lulu; Superman, Superman, Superman (couldn’t get enough of Superman); Captain Marvel; and some Batman, to name a few. (I actually thought Batman was a wimpy excuse of a superhero. What use is a super hero who can’t fly, and had no special super powers?) I should probably be embarrassed to admit that I also read Disney comics way into my teens.
My taste in comics was on the lighter side. When I was about six, a friend gave me a comic I had never seen before. I opened the cover very enthusiastically only to see in cell one of page two a severed bloody human head rolling out of a cardboard box onto the floor. I promptly dropped the comic book and threw up in the street. I had nightmares for many days afterwards. After that I steered away from what I then discovered was the horror genre.
Comic books suited me because most of the time as a child and teen I daydreamed. I can still hear the shouts of my teachers saying, “Stop daydreaming and pay attention!” I daydreamed about living in the comic universes as a super hero, or at least as a super hero’s sidekick. And when I wasn’t flying, I was riding the Old West on my Palomino.
I had a very active and creative imagination. I also had a highly evolved talent for putting my creative daydreaming to absolutely no productive use.
But my non-scholar comic book days were waning by the time we did our Heights visit. And our tour would soon culminate in a decisive and consequential moment.
The Moment of Truth
Continuing our stroll around the campus, we eventually wound up on a gigantic athletic field behind the Student Center. A passing student told us it was Ohio Field, the football field. But there was no stadium, no telltale yard markers, or goal posts to suggest that football was played there.
Click a photo to enlarge. Use the Esc key or browser Back to return.
Left: Ohio Field ca. 1900 with Gould Library behind it.
Right: Ohio Field where we had “the conversation.”
Some history: Going back to 1873, NYU had a varsity football team. It played against the big boys like Columbia, Penn, Yale, Harvard, etc. But things started changing in 1942 when Time magazine dissed the team calling it “mostly lean.” That shameful and embarrassing slight followed a 1940 2,000-student protest against a game with the University of Missouri. Missouri had requested a “gentleman’s agreement” to exclude African American athletes from the game. By the end of the 1940s, the administration had had enough, and they permanently ended varsity football once and for all in 1953. They tore down the stadium, leaving just the field.
Seventeen years after the team’s demise, we stood there in the middle of Ohio Field. Although we were all impressed with The Heights, mom and dad hadn’t yet committed to my going there. It was expensive, $2,000 a year or about $20,000 in current dollars. That may seem cheap compared to today’s astronomical tuitions but it was an awful lot for mom and dad who couldn’t even afford to buy a house with their meager savings, relegated to living in rented apartments their entire lives. In some respects, the suburban post-war housing boom left us behind.
So standing on the field, mom, dad, and I had “the conversation”: Mom looked at me and asked,
“Do you want to go here?”
Mom turned to dad and said,
“I don’t see how we can afford it.”
“We’ll find a way.”
The End of Childhood
That tuition commitment was definitely odd coming from dad. He was usually concerned about every penny spent unless it was something he thought was important, like buying one of the first TVs in the Bronx in 1948. At that time the main programming was just Howdy Doody and test patterns. But dad thought this new technology might have a future. (I seem to have also inherited that frugality trait except for “important“ things. In some respects, it’s served me well as an adult but at the expense of often pissing off my wife.) Lucky for me, sending me to a college that dad would have also loved to go to was important to him.
So standing on Ohio Field, the decision and financial commitment was made. And for the next four years, they sacrificed a lot to pay my tuition—borrowing money, keeping their old rusting out Plymouth till it could barely run, foregoing vacations, foregoing new clothes, and saving pennies wherever they could. Dad was determined, and mom was just fine with it.
At that Ohio Field decision moment, their commitment made, I knew I could not let them down. I think that was the moment I stopped being a kid.
I had great years at The Heights but, regretfully, it’s just now that I’m expressing how grateful I am for my parents’ sacrifices that enabled that experience. And also gratitude for their not giving up on me. But my gratitude comes way too late. I never told them when they were alive, “Thank you for what you did for me.” And I wonder with sadness—why is it that some of us don’t acquire the awareness and some measure of wisdom until it is way too late?
I also regret not being able to do exactly the same and completely cover my kids’ college expenses, although I did my best. By the time they were going to college I was divorced, remarried, and paying more than half of my income to monthly alimony and child support. I took out loans and tapped into my meager retirement savings but still couldn’t cover full college expenses. So unlike me, my kids had to assume college loan debt to make up for the shortfall. If it were not for my wife (their stepmother) Nancy’s extremely generous financial contributions, their loan burden would have had to be even greater.
The times and circumstances were different from my college era. But nonetheless, I feel as though I let them all down, which I deeply regret. And I take this opportunity to apologize to them.
Postscript: A Different Kind of Learner
Throughout grammar school, my parents were told by teachers “Steve has so much potential if only he’d apply himself” and “He’s performing above grade level; we could skip him a grade but we’re not going to, he’s not mature enough.” And I never really did become much of a reader.
But apparently there are different perception and learning types, for example, reading/writing, visual, auditory, and kinesthetic/experiential. Turns out that maybe all along my natural learning style was everything BUT reading.
Later in life I realized that one of my learning styles is auditory when I started listening to audio books on long commutes, and then continued spontaneously devouring scores of audio books that ran the gamut from Anna Karenina to the history of Judaism to a biography of Ulysses S. Grant. (Fun fact: Grant got the S initial due a clerical error at West Point which stuck.) And maybe my natural kinesthethic/experiental learning style had something to do with my becoming an experimental atomic and molecular physicist with a Yale PhD.
But decades ago, learning styles were not taken into account in the one-size-fits-all grammar and high schools of the 1940s and 1950s. Maybe that’s still true to this day. I don’t know.
Thankfully, none of this impeded my four-year “In The Heights” experience or, eventually my years as a research physicist. Maybe, as I said, my natural learning styles even contributed to it.
Postscript #2: Gone from Memory
If you read today’s NYU brochures, there’s no mention of the University Heights Campus. In the early 1970s, NYU was in deep financial debt and on the verge of collapse. By then, The Heights campus was also in a high crime area with declining enrollments. In 1973, NYU sold the Heights campus to the City University of New York. CUNY made it into the Bronx Community College. And The Heights Liberal Arts program was merged with the NYU Washington Square campus in Greenwich Village. The School of Engineering where I was enrolled years earlier became part of Brooklyn Polytechnic University.
Today few are aware that The University Heights campus of NYU in the Bronx ever existed. But the history of The Heights is memorialized on a website here.