The American Ivy League is a powerful label, a prestigious academic ‘club’ that counts household names such as Harvard, Yale and Princeton among its members. The elite label has also been known to leave the “other” universities in the shadows and one such academic underdog sits just 20 blocks from the famous Ivy-League University of Columbia in New York City. The little-known college campus of the City College of New York (CCNY) is arguably more impressive architecturally than any other institution in the city, earning its nickname over the years as “the poor man’s Harvard,”or “Harvard of the Proletariat,” and “Harvard-on-the-Hudson.” Tucked away in West Harlem, the low profile university is guarded by over a three thousand gothic gargoyles and could be considered as one of New York City’s few-remaining local secrets. A short train ride uptown and you’ll enter an alternative academic world, free of institutional pretension and high tuitions fees … because of course, CCNY is free!
Ironically, City College is frequently the school of choice for Hollywood scouts in need of an Ivy League filming location. The university’s website even has a dedicated page advertising its filming rates at $600 an hour– more economical than Princeton, but perfectly “Ivy League” in its appearance. Most recently, you might have spotted the City College of New York making an appearance in the Netflix series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, posing as the world-renowned Columbia University. The “Columbia” dormitory that appears in the series is actually the CCNY’s gymnasium.
Founded by a wealthy businessman, City College opened its doors in 1847 as a free academy to provide immigrant children and the poor with access to higher education.
Elegantly dressed students were budding American novelists and future Nobel prize-winners (the university counts ten among its alunmi), but they were also the children of immigrants and the working class, and often the first of their families to go to College. The university’s impressive list of alumni includes former Secretary of State Colin Powell (son of Jamaican immigrants) and special lecturers such as Albert Einstein himself (who gave one of his first relativity lectures right on campus, pictured below.) CCNY became one of the most diverse and highest-qualified public institutions in America– but still, it remains more of an uptown hideaway than a beacon of American higher education.
The architecture around the campus’ courtyards is reminiscent of the centuries-old scholarly institutions of England. City College’s Shepherd Hall is likely the most comprehensive gothic revival building at its scale in the United States. The stones used in the construction came from the dug-out number 1 subway line that leads right to the college to this day.
The three thousand-something gargoyles, each unlike the other, are forever watching over the student body. Rumour has it that they were inspired by professors at the university. Some are lecturing you from their tower’s crevices, others sticking out their tongues, examining butterflies under a microscope or playing a musical instrument. Seen as legendary campus mascots, each terra-cotta creature symbolises the purpose of the associated building, telling the story of City College.
Unlike its Ivy-League big brothers, City College is not an elitist community that separates itself from the local population.”The experiment is to be tried, whether the children of the people, the children of the whole people, can be educated,” said the university’s first president, “and whether an institution of the highest grade, can be successfully controlled by the popular will, not by the privileged few.” Applications of all kinds are considered here and tuition is almost free, as of this year.
Even with the physical and academic appeal of an Ivy League, it remains a little-known, affordable and down-to-earth underdog of American education. And who doesn’t love an underdog…