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For residents, New York is a city of neighborhoods

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Neighborhoods have a way of changing in New York, sometimes it seems, as in the case of Columbus Avenue, almost overnight. Others spring up where there had been no neighborhood before. One of these is known as SoHo, for ''south of Houston.'' Long a district of huge, cast-iron factories, it was discovered in the 1960s by artists who rented the vast open floors and converted them into low-cost living and working spaces. Inevitably, as the word spread, shops and galleries followed. Now the artists who discovered it cannot afford it.

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In spite of the skyrocketing property values, the several-block-square area is a strange jumble of the renovated and the run-down: high-priced modern art, far-out fashions, trendy bars, and buildings still used for the manufacture of cardboard boxes.

Tourists and New Yorkers alike love SoHo, and flock to it on weekends, taking the subway to Prince or Spring Street, and the No. 5 bus to West Houston. They brunch at Tennessee Mountain and New Deal, or lunch on the fabulous salads at the SoHo Charcuterie, at Spring and Sullivan. They amble down West Broadway, the main street of this little town, gazing at the latest word in fashion, wondering at the current trends in art.

For art is what SoHo is still about. With all its flashiness, it is one of the major art centers of the world. The most powerful dealers, the most influential galleries, the work of the best contemporary artists, all come to SoHo.

And yet it is a real neighborhood. When the galleries and boutiques close and the narrow streets slowly empty, the artists and their families remain, in beautiful loft apartments they've created in the old factories. The West Village

Many of the artists who originally settled in SoHo were fleeing the high prices of Greenwich Village, a few blocks to the north. They took the paths of the writers of the '30s who made the Village a famous bohemian outpost and were followed by rebels of each succeeding generation.

They are coming yet, but much has changed. MacDougal and West Eighth Streets are tawdry and cheap. The area bordering 5th is lovely, genteel, and polite. The once-quiet streets near the Hudson River are experiencing a renaissance similar to SoHo's.

Only one small section holds on to the feeling of the real Village, and many consider it the best place to live in the city. Like the other neighborhoods, it has restaurants, galleries, and shops, but with a difference. Streets intersect at odd angles and stores are hidden in corners and basements. The houses are small, unpretentious, and very old. The pace of life is slower, and here, more than anywhere else, is it possible to escape the intensity that characterizes New York.

The West Village is bordered east and west by Seventh Avenue and Hudson Street, uptown by Jane and downtown by Morton. Within these several blocks one can wander at random and be perfectly content, but a possible starting point is West Fourth Street at the Sheridan Square subway station. Walk uptown to Bank Street, passing the lovely residential side streets, left to Bleecker with one antique shop after another, right on Christopher, another right on Hudson past the White Horse Tavern where Dylan Thomas used to hang out, and on to Abingdon Square and the uptown buses. It is a 17-block walk in the footsteps of countless Americans whose creative spirits were nurtured in these streets.

Here, then, are some of the neighborhoods of New York. There is much to see in them, but none of it obligatory. Instead, they are places to observe and enjoy the life of the city with those who live it every day.

To do so is to realize that New York is as varied as its people. Like them, it is tough and impatient. But like them also, it is creative, vibrant, and involved. It is this positive energy that many visitors miss, simply because they don't know where to look. New York's neigh