October 31, 1999 NEW YORK TIMES

Suddenly Hot: Uptown Has Its SoHa


Under a canopy of honey locusts and magnolia trees in an amber Sunday evening glow, a bevy of young women in long skirts and sensible shoes gather for a roundup of the weekend's events. This collegial scene, so familiar on the Barnard College and Columbia University campuses for decades, is now transposed against a new one down the hill past the stately campus gates.

For a change, there is life on the streets.

People are strolling, eating at French restaurants spilling out onto the sidewalk, lounging in cafes a few steps down from street level, climbing to rooftops to sip beer or joining friends at a pub. An area that was once thought of as a night-life wasteland has become, if not exactly hip, at least pretty lively.

"There's definitely a lot more people out on the streets, just hanging out," said Jessica A. Casey, 27, a Columbia student, whose curly blond hair fell over her organic chemistry textbook on a recent evening as she sipped a soda at Nussbaum & Wu Bakery, on Broadway at 113th Street. "It seems a lot nicer and cleaner, and more conducive to student life."

In the last few years, the 10 blocks south of the Columbia and Barnard campuses -- from 116th to 106th Streets, between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue -- have undergone a transformation. At least a dozen new restaurants and bars have opened in the last two years alone, some of them designed to attract undergraduates, but many catering to an older, more sophisticated crowd of Upper West Siders ambling north for their nights out. As a result, there's a dynamic convergence of baby strollers and textbook-toting teen-agers, longtime residents and bespectacled graduate students, all making their way to a once-desolate stretch of town.

The neighborhood, comprising a chunk of Morningside Heights, even has a new nickname: SoHa, for South of Harlem. It's an obvious echo of SoHo, intended to evoke hip downtown areas, but it's also somewhat tongue-in-cheek, said Andrew Lapitsky, the owner of Nacho Mamma's, a nouveau Mexican restaurant on Broadway near 112th Street, with large glass doors, hip-hop and disco on the sound system and an impressive selection of micro-brews.

Lapitsky and his business partner, Joshua Mandel, who own a nightclub in SoHo called 23 Watts (formerly Chaos), opened Nacho Mamma's in May at the request of Columbia University, their landlord, which asked them to give the restaurant a distinctly downtown feel. (The original Nacho Mamma's, a few blocks farther south on Broadway, burned down a few years ago.)

Columbia has ushered in many of the neighborhood's changes by selecting new businesses for the many buildings it owns on the basis of the character they would impart. Several new restaurants -- Nussbaum & Wu; Nacho Mamma's; Le Monde, a classical, spacious French restaurant with sidewalk seating, and Deluxe, a diner with a retro esthetic -- were handpicked by college officials.

"No, we're not trying to make it a college town," said Bill Scott, the deputy vice president for institutional real estate for Columbia. "We're trying to anchor it very much in the Upper West Side of New York. We're trying to keep it along the lines of what it was, just make it livelier."

The name SoHa was originally used for just one thing: a bar, SoHa, which opened in October 1997 on Amsterdam Avenue near 108th Street and was one of the first indicators of change. The Goth-inspired décor, including chandeliers, floppy couches on split levels and a red pool table perpetually surrounded by men in goatees, is a striking counterpoint to the brightly lighted sports bars that have long been a mainstay of the neighborhood.

SoHa is one of several businesses along Amsterdam Avenue between 108th and 110th Streets that have been opened in the last two years by Matt Olds, an entrepreneur from the Upper East Side. Among his holdings are Sophia's Bistro, serving inexpensive Italian fare; Saints, an elegant gay and lesbian bar with booths and couches, and Desperados, a takeout burrito stand painted in robust primary colors.

His latest venture, Dalia's, is a Spanish tapas restaurant with warm décor and soft lighting. In a review in The New York Times last month, Eric Asimov described it as the type of bohemian refuge that the neighborhood has lacked.

"We're trying to create a hip alternative to downtown," said Susanne Cipolla, who manages all of Olds's establishments. "Casual, hip, young, downtown-type places."

Some are unconvinced by the change.

"There are good places to go if I want to unwind," said Gregory W. Alm, 27, a graduate student at Teacher's College at Columbia, who was sipping a Guinness at SoHa on a recent Sunday night. "But if I was earnestly intent on going out and having fun, I'd still go downtown."

Although many neighborhood residents share this sentiment, many also concede that the array of options for their nights in is impressive. And some of the new establishments have taken advantage of the more homebound, erudite impulses of the uptown set. Global Inc., a three-month-old periodical store on Broadway near 113th Street that boasts more than 5,000 magazine titles and 250 newspapers, is one example.

Across the street, Caffé Taci, a trattoria open for almost five years, offers an open-mike opera night three times a week. Opera students from neighboring music schools sing over the din of the espresso machine and academic chatter. On a recent Wednesday night, Scott Bearden, 32, a graduate of the Manhattan School of Music, sang an aria from Verdi's "Rigoletto." Bearden, a baritone, has lived in the neighborhood for four years. "It used to be that Morningside Heights was a little sketchy," he said. "But now, it's kind of like this part of town has been accepted."

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