Volume 22, Number 30 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | December 4 - 10, 2009
Downtown Express photo (l.) by Tequila Minsky and (r.) by J.B. Nicholas
A new Fiterman Hall will be built on the site of the old building. Right: Councilmember Charles Barron shouting at CUNY trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, who was held down by B.M.C.C. president Antonio Perez.
Hopeful Fiterman groundbreaking? Try yelling & accusations
By Julie Shapiro
A shouting match between Councilmember Charles Barron and a trustee of the City University of New York disrupted an otherwise festive groundbreaking on the new Fiterman Hall Tuesday morning.
Barron sparked the dispute by calling Mayor Mike Bloomberg disrespectful, after the mayor left the ceremony early. Trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, who was sitting in the audience, shouted that Barron was the one who was being disrespectful. The two men traded insults over a minute or two, with Barron calling Wiesenfeld “a sickening racist” and Wiesenfeld calling Barron “a disgrace.”
The argument came shortly after officials put shovels into a mound of dirt where Fiterman once stood, marking the beginning of construction on a new classroom building for the Borough of Manhattan Community College. The new building on W. Broadway will rise from the foundation of the old Fiterman Hall, which was heavily damaged on 9/11 and had to be demolished.
Fiterman Hall is no stranger to divisive politics. Last year, throngs of B.M.C.C. students and staff packed a City Council hearing, led by Barron and Councilmember Alan Gerson, to push the city to pay its fair share to rebuild Fiterman Hall. After Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver also pressured Bloomberg, the mayor agreed last year to add more funding to the $325 million project. At the time, Bloomberg gave Silver the bulk of the credit for getting him to put in more money.
At Tuesday’s groundbreaking, the trouble started when Barron and Gerson arrived at the ceremonial tent on Greenwich St. with a couple hundred B.M.C.C. students and staff in tow, an echo of last year’s protests, and were told that not all of them would fit.
Barron grew more upset when the mayor started the groundbreaking without him (he was able to rush over in time), and when he found out that he and Gerson had been assigned seats in the audience, not on the speakers’ podium. Barron dragged seats to the front of the room anyway, and Gerson hesitantly joined him.
Barron said the event’s organizers agreed at the last minute to let him and Gerson speak, but only after many other speeches. Barron was not content to wait, and about 20 minutes into the program, after Bloomberg and Borough President Scott Stringer had already spoken and left, Barron stood up and prompted CUNY Vice Chancellor Jay Hershenson to introduce him.
Barron then lambasted the mayor for not mentioning the B.M.C.C. students who fought to get Fiterman rebuilt.
The mayor “doesn’t respect us enough to mention them,” Barron said.
“When was the last time you respected somebody?” called out Wiesenfeld, who was seated in the front row of the audience.
As the argument escalated and the two men began to shout over each other, B.M.C.C. President Antonio Perez left the speakers’ platform to try to calm Wiesenfeld. But the argument only simmered down when Gerson took the mic and noted that the argument was “in keeping with the free American traditions of open exchange” and joked that he felt like he was back in college — which was appropriate for the groundbreaking of a new college building.
Wiesenfeld left the ceremony about 20 minutes later. Outside, he continued to criticize Barron, calling him “a thug.”
“This individual has no civility,” Wiesenfeld said. “He has no personal decency.”
In addition to serving as a CUNY trustee since 1999, Wiesenfeld has worked for many city and state politicians, including former Gov. George Pataki and former Mayor Ed Koch. Wiesenfeld said he opposed Barron’s appointment as chairperson of the City Council’s Higher Education Committee.
After the groundbreaking ceremony ended, Barron heaped the insults on Wiesenfeld in return, calling him a “right-wing, racist, ignorant fool.” The two have met at previous events and have never gotten along, Barron said.
Aside from the argument between Barron and Wiesenfeld, the groundbreaking ceremony focused on the future, not the past. When the rebuilt Fiterman opens in 2012, it will provide 96 much-needed classrooms to B.M.C.C., whose student population has swelled by about 8,000 students in the past 10 years. The new building will also have student lounges, faculty offices and an art gallery and cafe on the ground floor.
Many speakers at Tuesday’s ceremony invoked the phoenix as a symbol for Fiterman, since the new building will rise from the ashes of the old one. Bloomberg said the construction of the new Fiterman “will heal one of the wounds Lower Manhattan suffered on 9/11.”
One of the many B.M.C.C. staff members who joined the march from the college’s Chambers St. building down to the groundbreaking was Ralph Buxton, deputy director of financial aid, who has been at the college since 1981. Although it will be three years before Fiterman begins to relieve the college’s overcrowding, Buxton said the demolition of the old building has already had a positive impact on the neighborhood and the college, both physically and emotionally.
“We’ve seen that hulk for almost 10 years standing there,” Buxton said. “I’m just amazed how nice the block looks with it gone.”