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Hanging in Harlem


Kate Monahan is a New Zealander living and working in New York.

The rain is pouring in sheets on the streets of Harlem, but people are celebrating. It's the weekend of the Puerto Rican parade and red, white and blue flags cover every visible surface, draped out of windows, hanging off fire escapes, wrapped around necks like capes.

Dan on the streets

I'm visiting Daniel Armstrong, 26, a young Kiwi from Wellington, who is living in Spanish Harlem, the rough Hispanic neighborhood that crawls up the East River from 96th Street to 125th Street. We are walking along the crowded street in front of his walk-up apartment on 118th street, going to buy a snack from stalls selling everything from tacos to grilled corn. Everyone around us is speaking Spanish, and the summer rain is soaking our shoes.

Daniel is a lawyer in mid-town, but likes living uptown in "El Barrio," which means "the neighborhood" in Spanish, where the rent is cheaper. "This area sometimes gets a bad rap," he tells me. "People are afraid to come back here to visit. There was a triple homicide in the apartment opposite when I first moved in." Yet he is happy living here, among this eclectic neighborhood, with his roommates - Mick an Aussie, and David an American (who just got signed for the TV soap "All My Children").

The colorful sweep of Manhattan life is more comfortable than life in New Zealand. "I feel more at home here, I never really fit in in New Zealand," Dan confides. And Dan's friend Rob Clarke, 26, an old Wellington College mate who is visiting from LA agrees. "There are so many different people living in New York and everyone's anonymous, so noone really gives a shit who you are or what you do."

The colour of Harlem

Spanish Harlem is a colorful neighborhood - abandoned buildings mixed up with bustling 99-cent stores and bodega corner-stores. The population is also a colorful melting pot - mostly Puerto Rican, Mexican, and Black. Multicultural neighborhoods are typical of the diversity of New York City, and increasingly the total US population, where 1 in 5 young Americans will be of Hispanic origin by 2010, according to latest US Census predictions. Spanish Harlem is at the forefront of a changing America, which is be saying "hola" just as often as "hello" as the 21st century moves ahead.

Daniel himself is a personification of the melting pot phenomenon, which explains his passion for travel and living abroad. He is the son of a Vietnamese mother and a Kiwi father, born in Japan, and raised in Tokyo, Wellington, Canberra and New York. However, he still considers Wellington his "only hometown in the world." But he can't live there right now - "there is not really an international feeling in New Zealand. I'm stimulated to live here because it's bigger and more exciting than being in little old Wellington."

Dan and Rob

New York life keeps Daniel busy. He is up and out the door before 9am, and subways to work on the downtown 6 train. A consummate multi-tasker, he puts on his shirt and tie at work, and has a supplement drink in a can for breakfast. He works at a small Manhattan law firm - a job that sponsors him, which he got through family connections and his internship results from Simpson Grierson in Wellington. "The best part about my job is knowing that I made it here and am working as an attorney in the most competitive legal market in the world." To work off the stress he'll go to the gym or after work finishes at 9pm, he'll "head out and party with a view to being in bed by 2am if drinking, by 4am if sober. The ratio of those two outcomes used to be about 2-5, now it's about 50-50." Work hard, and play hard - it's the New York way.

With the rain still pouring down, we decide to explore more of Dan's neighborhood and head to a local sports bar to escape the torrents. Julio, a shuffling 60-something year old Dominican in a Hawaiian shirt who has lived in New York for more than 20 years, serves us some beers, and with Rob chatting in decent Spanish, we have soon made a new friend and its tequila shots all round, and its only 2pm in the afternoon. New York can indeed be a friendly place, like New Zealand. And we start writing a list of the things that we miss most about Aotearoa, relative to living in the States.

"Harlem, Stand Up!!"

"I like the ease of live in New Zealand, the lack of red tape," Daniel laments. "In New Zealand, when you call a company, you can get an actual live person on the line, here its impossible." Rob and Dan also confer that Kiwis are go out of their way to sort things out for you, and are so friendly. "New Zealanders are so easy to talk to, you just instantly click, you are on the same wave length," says Dan. "Sometimes Americans just don't get our sense of humor, our sarcasm," adds Rob. As for dating, Rob says that "New York women are a tough crowd." Dan isn't doing too shabbily on the romance front - his American girlfriend is moving in - "although I always thought I'd end up with a Kiwi girl," he adds.

Dan looks set to stay in New York for a while, dependent on how his job at the law firm progresses, which he admits can be a little "slow". But although he misses home at times, Daniel is happy in Manhattan. His favorite thing to do is "to jump the 6-train up to Yankee stadium and go sit in the sun with a beer and watch the game." And although its still pouring buckets outside, this little pub in Spanish Harlem isn't too bad either, as we settle in for another beer, especially when you are hanging out with Kiwis. In a small dive bar in a small uptown neighborhood, New York doesn't seem like such a big unfriendly place after all.


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