Weekend Roam: Morningside Heights

March 14, 2013

Helen Holmes for WSN

 

When I was around six or seven, my mom and dad decided to get me and my sister a puppy. He was, and still is, an adorable ball of white fur that catapults around the house from the moment you set him down. He would careen into the trash bins and knock over all of the recycling. My sister and I loved him so much our mom had to schedule designated holding times so we wouldn’t squabble. A few weeks into our puppy bliss, my mom explained that the little ball of fluff had been neutered. When she told us what that meant, we shuddered and squealed and eventually noticed that Buzz was much calmer from then on. While still lively, much of the unpredictable puppy spunk was now lost, which brings me to the difference between the East Village and Morningside Heights.

Plunked down in the Starbucks on Broadway, the steady stream of caffeine-starved undergraduates are not wholly unlike the ravenous swarm of Washington Square Park students eager for their daily boost. The street outside was peppered with Sunday afternoon wanderers, eager to peruse the selection of a no doubt painfully organic combination of mustard shoots, maple syrup and warm challah bread. Smiles were available, too, in huge supply at the very temporary-looking street market set up flush against the gates of the Columbia University campus. I sat and observed for a while, nursing my no-whip caramel apple spice, before I chose my victim and pounced. Everyone was in midterm mode and looked just about ready to attack anyone who dared to speak to them. The friendliest person I asked for an interview still inquired ardently if it’d take long because he had a lot of work to do.

“I think it’s a very, very cultural experience because it’s not very upscale New York. And that’s what I love about New York — it’s such a mix of different cultures and different social groups,” said Columbia freshman Christopher Lin. “It’s also really fun to be here because there are so many different options for food and entertainment … it’s a cultural amalgamation.”

After subtly Googling what “amalgamation” meant after Christopher left, I realized that this statement had some truth to it. But Morningside Heights goes to great pains to make sure that its residents and students are aware of both their academic and residential otherness from the underbelly of Upper Manhattan. This attitude is almost certainly unconscious for the most part, but when my friends and I stepped off the subway in Harlem, we realized that we’d need to walk several blocks and scale the side of a huge hill before even getting close to campus. Thus, the west cliff of Morningside Heights allowed us to look across the gorgeous Harlem vista from a not-so-subtle elevated viewpoint.

“[Morningside Heights] is essentially a buffer zone between the Upper West Side and Harlem,” said Columbia freshman Hari Nef.

This makes for a campus that is, no question, positively pristine. The two libraries opposite one another on the quad are stately and proud, the grass is thoughtfully fenced off so as to not be spoiled by the pounding feet of thousands of undergrads, and an impressive dance practice is visible through the glass walls of an amazing theater complex. In stocking feet and leggings, a man and a woman are dancing a vivid tango. A few people pause to watch, but most don’t.

Compared to the verve and frenetic energy of the Lower East Side, Morningside Heights was a calming departure from the mess and clamor that defines the rest of the city.

Yet something I overheard in the Broadway Starbucks reminded me of the universality of what we’re all facing as students in the loneliest and most interesting city in the world. As two girls chatted about boys while in line for their chai teas, one of them said, “I don’t want a boyfriend. I just want a friend. That’s all.”

Amen, girl. Amen.

Helen Holmes is deputy features editor. Email her at hholmes@nyunews.com.

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