Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America
By Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts (Granta Books 296pp £14.99)
Soon after arriving in Harlem in 2002, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts overheard a conversation between two white men in one of the neighbourhood’s smart new cafés. One of the men, like Rhodes-Pitts herself, had recently moved into the area, while his friend seemed to be visiting for the first time. ‘This is fabulous,’ the visitor enthused. ‘Really, you have to do something to get the word out. There need to be more people up here!’
For nearly half a century, Harlem was considered off-limits by white Americans, a morass of decay, violence, racial resentment and poverty. The same year that Rhodes-Pitts arrived, I took the subway uptown from lower Manhattan on my first visit to New York and was amazed to see all the other remaining white passengers in my carriage step off at 110th Street, Harlem’s southern verge. At that moment, the ‘invisible walls’ which the psychologist Kenneth B Clark once described as encircling Harlem seemed as thick as ever. Yet change was already afoot. Pushed by the spiralling cost of New York real estate, the adventuresome were beginning to extend the frontiers of white settlement northwards. The faded elegance of brownstone townhouses called out to these pioneers and prospectors. Such land must not lie fallow. There needed to be more people up there.
On a leaflet stuck to a lamp post on 125th Street, Rhodes-Pitts found the response of one supposed non-person. ‘Attention New Residents of Harlem,’ it commanded. ‘Please be aware that you are contributing to the active displacement of the historic Harlem community. YES gentrification which is a pretty word for modern day colonization.’ Another notice declared that ‘10,000 Black families have been evicted from Harlem in the last ten years’ as a result of landlords cashing in on their buildings or raising rents. Piles of jumbled clothes and furniture dumped on the streets lent credence to the claim. As a Texan who had recently graduated from Harvard, Rhodes-Pitts experienced her own ‘pangs of complicity’ upon moving to Harlem to research her book. She ‘asked a politically minded friend if I was a gentrifier. He firmly answered no - because I was black and poor.’ Another friend ‘laughed at the archetypal narrative of my move north and dubbed me Miss Great Migration 2002’.
This self-awareness is an endearing feature of her writing. Though the ‘journey’ of her subtitle evokes a genre which the critic Albert Murray used to call ghetto ‘safari’, Rhodes-Pitts avoids the trap of presenting herself as an indigenous tour guide to black America. Too many writers, she observes, have moved too easily from the specificities of their own lives to reductive generalities and definitive assurances that ‘Harlem is this or Harlem is that’. Instead, Harlem is Nowhere offers a sensitive, determinedly personal meditation on the neighbourhood’s past and present and, above all, its mythology and symbolism. Searching beyond its cross-streets and avenues, Rhodes-Pitts revisits the layers of literary history that have imbued Harlem with its multitude of meanings.
Growing up in Texas, the only black student in her class at a private Episcopalian high school, Rhodes-Pitts immersed herself in books by Jean Toomer, Nella Larsen, Claude McKay, Ann Petry and Ralph Ellison. Their fictional protagonists arrive in Harlem - often from the South, often fleeing some act of violence or persecution - filled with expectation. Sometimes these characters descend into shades of disillusion or despair, much as Harlem itself would sink from a hopeful black Zion into what Ellison in 1948 called ‘the scene and symbol of the Negro’s perpetual alienation in the land of his birth’. For the teenage Rhodes-Pitts, it was only the ‘outward, upward momentum’ of these fictional arrivals that had mattered, a hangover from the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s when the neighbourhood was celebrated as the ‘race capital’ of black people the world over. Then, the graceful architecture bequeathed by prosperous white families who fled the migrant influx had marked Harlem out from the ramshackle, dilapidated quarters to which blacks were confined in other American cities. Black artists, writers and professionals congregated from across the country, and bars and jazz clubs catered to wealthy white patrons in pursuit of the exotic. But the Depression of the 1930s ravaged Harlem, and the postwar return to prosperity bypassed the neighbourhood. As employment dried up and more and more migrants were crowded into the area by discriminatory landlords and housing authorities, a new image of Harlem as the archetypal black ghetto emerged.
This new image overlaid that of the vibrant race capital, but did not erase it. Hopes lingered that the black city-within-a-city would once again become a vanguard of race progress: Harlem had become, for the poet Langston Hughes, a ‘dream deferred’. Rhodes-Pitts borrows her title from Ralph Ellison’s essay of 1948, which lamented that ‘in Harlem the reply to the greeting, “How are you?” is often, “Oh, man, I’m nowhere”’. As she keenly points out, ‘nowhere’ is also the most literal meaning of ‘utopia’, and through all its bleak notoriety Harlem has remained a place of fantasies of rebirth and renewal.
To young whites faced with an impenetrable property market, Harlem once again extends the promise of ‘outward, upward momentum’. Yet developers and estate agents eager for the spoils are unsure whether to consecrate or efface Harlem’s chequered past. Some speak of ‘New Harlem’ or revert to old names such as Mount Morris Park in place of the apparently ominous Marcus Garvey Park. Their ambivalence reproduces in new forms what Rhodes-Pitts calls the ‘original conundrum’ of this stretch of upper Manhattan, which throughout the twentieth century figured as a barometer of black America’s fortunes. Harlem ‘is the result of bigotry and exclusion. It is also a proving ground of aspirations. It is a place that contracts one’s possibilities, and a place where all things are possible.’