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'Hola' in the 'hood

The neighbourhood that I live in is called Morningside Heights, although we also call it "Soha", because New Yorkers like to abbreviate things. It stands for "South of Harlem", just like "Soho" stands for "South of Houston St" or "Nolita" stands for "North of Little Italy" or "Tribeca" stands for "Triangle below Canal Street." Morningside Heights used to be a BAD neighbourhood, with the highest murder rate in all of New York, so I heard, and overrun with crack-dealers and guns. My local pub, The Ding Dong Lounge, was an abandoned store front and former crack den before the new owners moved in and swept up. Since the Giuliani administration increased the number of cops on the streets in the 1990s, and clamped down on petty crime, neighbourhoods like mine have cleaned up pretty good. Gradually, over the past five years, crime has dropped and new business has moved in, replacing the dives with reputable business. Unfortunately, the gentrification of the neighbourhood has increased the price of rent, forcing some Hispanic and Black residents to move elsewhere.

Morningside Heights is a diverse neighbourhood. Stretching about 20 blocks, from 106th street to 123rd street on the Upper West Side, it mixes all cultures, races and backgrounds. There is the funky, edginess of nearby Harlem, combined with the bookish sophistication of Columbia University, a prestigious Ivy League College on 120th Street that is attended by our own Anna Paquin. The population of Soha is 25% White, 48% Black and 22% Hispanic. Although the area above 110th street is an architectural marvel of ornate pre-war apartment buildings, and the giant gothic cathedral of Saint John of the Divine, the streets below 110th, where I live, are dirty, grimy, edgy and non-white. Crossing the border from north to south at 110th is like travelling to another country, specifically to the Dominican Republic or Mexico. And thats great by me.

The few blocks that I live in around 106th street and Columbus Avenue is a Spanish-speaking bubble in Manhattan, one of many ethnically concentrated neighbourhoods filled with first and second-generation immigrant families. It is vibrant and noisy. The local bodega, like a neighbourhood dairy or corner store, blasts out jangly up-tempo tunes salsa and merengue, that always puts a smile on my face. The old men sit on the stoops outside in summer, and the women wander in and out of the many hair and nail salons that dot the street. Kids play ball on the sidewalk. It is a friendly, social atmosphere, and, almost an anomaly in New York, everyone seems to know each other and greets you with a friendly "hola!"

The corner bodega sells Dominican treats like dried green plantains (like banana chips) and sweet coconut ices, and lots of beans. There is a whole shelf of all different kinds of beans white pinto beans, black beans, red beans, faba beans. Like many Latino cuisines, legumes make up a key content of the local diet, as do pollo (chicken) and rice, and my neighbourhood is the place to get it. A huge meal of rice, beans and half a chicken at Flor de Mayo costs as little as US$6.95 (NZ$13). If you are in the market for different food, there is everything from Ethiopian to supersize pizza at Korenets on Broadway and 110th, where the slices are so big, you have to fold them in half to eat them. Another famous and cheap local haunt is Toms Diner, on 111th, an old-fashioned Greek-run diner that looks like something out of the 50s TV show "Happy Days", with its red vinyl booths, giant plastic menus and grumpy waitresses. Toms Diner is famous for the Suzanne Vega song of the same name, and also as the scene where Seinfeld and the gang used to meet and eat.

When I first moved to the neighbourhood I found it a little intimidating, especially at night. Sounds of rats scuffling in the garbage cans or a car alarm made me jump, but now Im getting used to it. In fact, the old rumors of crack dealers and guns dont scare me at all, since Ive never seen a hint of them, but the rats do. For some reason, old Hispanic men like to dump breadcrumbs and rice on the sidewalk for the pigeons maybe its good luck for them to have the coo-cooing around but of course that only cultivates the real neighbourhood menace, which by the way are the size of cats and can fly between trash cans like Evil Kenivel. But I dont see rats that often, so it doesnt bother me. I take it as a negative among the many positives of living in Manhattan. At times I feel really homesick for the peace and greenery of New Zealand, and the awesome friendly people. But living in Morningside Heights is a fun enclave of friendliness and hospitality in a tough city, and I am gradually feeling at home. At first, I didnt know how to respond to a Spanish "hello" ("hola"), and I felt like I needed a language dictionary at the a laundromat or the Mexican takeaway. But the guys at Riveras Bodega have taught me a thing or two in the year and a half since Ive been living in Morningside Heights. Im down with the lingo. Como estas is how are you doing? And bien is good. Its not much, but its a start, and it makes me feel a little more at home in my new neighbourhood. Im learning how to cook like the locals, and can make a mean quesadilla. Its not New Zealand, but for now, this diverse and vibrant neighbourhood is my little slice of home in the big apple.