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An ode to a neighbourhood

Friday, 2 May 2014 - 6:05am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

Every Monday morning, even as the realization takes hold that one hasn't read through the enormous weekend edition of The New York Times that includes the Book Review, NYT Magazine, Metropolitan page and the Week in Review, somehow or the other, one soon bypasses all that "stuff" and reaches for the Metropolitan diary section of the Monday NYT. The Metropolitan diary gives one a sense of what exactly has been experienced by New Yorkers (and those visiting New York) that week. It is a section devoted to city encounters — some good, some bad, some recent, some really old but all that is so New York. After all, it will inevitably mention the subway, some neighbourhoods (mostly well known ones!), street music and mostly the chance encounters which only a city that is completely ruled by its subways, buses and an easily negotiable grid of streets and avenues can generate.

Even as Brooklyn has outpaced the cool and hip factor of Manhattan, the images that every visitor wants to witness are still those portrayed in films — Times Square, Empire State Building, China Town, Central Park and the horse carriage rides, Fifth Avenue and if you are a Hollywood buff, the delis like Katz and Lalos where When Harry met Sally and You've Got Mail shot key scenes — all in Manhattan. And, as a New Yorker, even while appreciating these landmarks, what you always want to share and communicate is the feel of the city through the neighbourhood you learn to discover and appreciate over time. The neighbourhood that I have experienced the most is Washington Heights — the upper tip of Manhattan from 155th st onwards. According to The New York Times, the cool restaurants are now moving up north and people apparently have started calling our neighbourhood Wa-hi — always a sign that the neighbourhood is fast changing.

Even as one observes the shifting contours of one's neighbourhood, Washington Heights still remains predominantly a Dominican area. The restaurants around are filled with yummy smells of roasted pork, chicken with cilantro sauce, beans, plantains and empanadas while the grocery stores sell vegetables which coincide easily with Oriya heaven due to the kancha kadali (raw plantains), desi alu (a kind of yam) and saru (taro) not even available in many parts of India. The fact that there are now sushi places and salad/sandwich delis in the heart of this neighbourhood perhaps reflects the changing reality but the Dominican/Caribbean food places still retain their charm and popularity among both locals and visitors.

Everyone in New York knows the city changes its character every few blocks and that's true here as elsewhere. So as one walks south on Broadway towards downtown, one comes across the place where the famous civil rights leader Malcolm X gave his last speech — the Audobon Ballroom (on 165th st) where he was shot and the Columbia Presbyterian Center (on 168th st) where he was taken and where he died. The ballroom now has been converted into the Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz museum and often has exhibitions related to the legacies of the civil rights era.

Wa-hi however changes completely once one crosses over to the other side (north) of Broadway, from 180th to 181st st because you are told that it is now Hudson Heights. Urban legend has it that the name change was initiated by the real estate folks to ensure that the neighbourhood can charge its residents more for not living in Washington Heights. The defining feature of Hudson Heights is the remarkable views of the Hudson River which are of course also visible along Washington Heights for lesser rates but the latter area is less maintained. But certainly the jewel in the crown of Hudson Heights is the Fort Tryon Park, one of the most stunning parks of New York. Located at 190th st, it was the site of the battle of Fort Washington in 1776 when George Washington stood at the height of the park to watch the British coming. The battle was lost but the fort is marked in the form of a beautiful park that thanks to the hilly nature of the terrain, with stunning views of the Hudson River and the George Washington bridge (that Le Corbusier called the most beautiful bridge in the world) is rightfully the site for the Cloisters. The Cloisters, the medieval museum of the Metropolitan (MET) museum, is meant to be in a secluded place and occupies a prominent part of the park. Overlooking the Hudson river, the Rockefellers even bought the land across the river and converted it into the Palisades State Park so that you could experience the serenity even when you look across. The unexpectedness of New York City is its chance encounters with street corner markets and festivals. This trend is exemplified in one such encounter in the Fort Tryon park during a yearly medieval festival where one witnessed large slabs of meat on sticks being enjoyed by people in medieval costumes watching an old style circus.

Meanwhile, below 181st street in Wa-hi, there are some reminders that it is really not Hudson Heights pointing to the difference a few blocks can make. The fine food stores sometimes have expired foods and the farmer markets have just a tad less fresh food than the ones below and above. The famous Riverside Drive which runs along the western part of Manhattan is a must visit place especially near the 79th st boat basin and is lovely even next to Columbia University on 116th st but near Wa-hi, it changes. Our Riverside Drive in Wa-hi can only be reached after crossing an overflowing dump on 163rd st. and often requires jumping over the trash on the sidewalks. And yet even as one notices the difference in how neighbourhoods are maintained/prioritised (or not) depending on where you live, the view of the Hudson river, the sunset, the spectacular George Washington Bridge and the Dominican food makes this neighbourhood a lovely prism through which one can experience and love the city.

The author is an associate professor in Political Science at Drew University, Madison, New Jersey

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