Harlem Is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America
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Harlem Is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America

by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts

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"No geographic or racial qualification guarantees a writer her subject....Only interest, knowledge, and love will do that—all of which this book displays in abundance." (Zadie Smith, Harper's)

A finalist for the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography, and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

For a century


"No geographic or racial qualification guarantees a writer her subject....Only interest, knowledge, and love will do that—all of which this book displays in abundance." (Zadie Smith, Harper's)

A finalist for the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Award in Autobiography, and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.

For a century Harlem has been celebrated as the capital of black America, a thriving center of cultural achievement and political action. At a crucial moment in Harlem's history, as gentrification encroaches, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts untangles the myth and meaning of Harlem's legacy. Examining the epic Harlem of official history and the personal Harlem that begins at her front door, Rhodes-Pitts introduces us to a wide variety of characters, past and present. At the heart of their stories, and her own, is the hope carried over many generations, hope that Harlem would be the ground from which blacks fully entered America's democracy.

Rhodes-Pitts is a brilliant new voice who, like other significant chroniclers of places-Joan Didion on California, or Jamaica Kincaid on Antigua-captures the very essence of her subject.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Rhodes-Pitts, an essayist and recipient of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer's Award, takes as her title a 1948 essay wherein Ralph Ellison describes "nowhere" as the crossroads where personal reality meets the metaphorical meanings attached to people and places. A transplant to Harlem from Texas, Rhodes-Pitts began a personal journey into the iconic neighborhood, poring over Harlem in literature and life, reading its empty lots and street scenes, its billboards and memorials for clues to what it means to inhabit a dream (that fabled sanctuary for Black Americans) and a real place (the all too material neighborhood buckling beneath relentless gentrification). Acutely conscious of the writer's simultaneous role of participant in and recorder of present and past, Rhodes-Pitts weaves a glittering living tapestry of snatches of overheard conversation, sidewalk chalk scribbles, want ads, unspoken social codes, literary analysis, studies of black slang--all if it held together with assurance and erudition. Like Zora Neale Hurston (whose contradictions she nails), she is "tour-guide and interpreter" of a Mecca cherished and feared, a place enduring and threatened that becomes home. (Jan.)
"As a teenager in Texas, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts was 'quite fascinated' with Harlem. Channeling this passion...she published Harlem Is Nowhere, an urban history and meditation on the legendary neighbourhood."
USA Today
Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts is a gifted young writer.
"A soul-scoping personal essay and a well-researched, deeply indexed, would-be-boring-if-not-written-by-a-Sista version of Harlem history. Rhodes-Pitts' work here is significant because...[it] personalizes and accurately describes the history, architecture, humanism, and depth of Harlem in a manner satisfactory to longtime borough residents, short-term visitors, and those who have never set foot there."
W. Ralph Eubanks
"By weaving the past and the present together, Rhodes-Pitts reveals, even to those who may have never ventured into Harlem, why it is a place of dreams and why it endures. And most important, she pushes her readers to explore the books and writers that made Harlem such a place of imagination and memory. For a reader like me, it just doesn't get any better."
Greg Tate
"Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts has crafted a Harlem book that fluently and lyrically assays the geography, mythography, ethnography, and dream books of the fabled Black Mecca. It is also a record of her own insightful wanderings about uptown's still mean, mirthful, romantic, but now highly marketable streets. What Rhodes-Pitts contributes to the Harlem chronicles that others have only vaguely glimpsed is how eloquently, extravagantly, and defiantly the people rooted there take ownership of Harlem storytelling every damn day."
Rachel Cohen
"In this beautiful and inventive book, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts finds--in a stray photograph, the corridors of a library, a wax museum, or a sidewalk chalk tract--pathways that lead us through and around another Harlem, interior to the ones we have known, and unforgettable. Written in the visionary documentary tradition of James Agee, Walter Benjamin, and Ralph Ellison, Harlem Is Nowhere is a work of great imagination and quiet splendor."
Ian Buruma
"Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts has written a beautiful account of Harlem that tells us as much about the author, her life, her tastes, her politics, and her unique sensibility as it does about this extraordinary part of Manhattan. As a result, Harlem Is Nowhere is much more than a work of urban history; it is a work of literature."
Darryl Pinckney
"Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts has written a very striking meditation on Harlem as a place and a symbol, and at a time when Harlem is changing profoundly. She is a brilliant addition to the literature on Harlem that reaches back to James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, to Langston Hughes and James Weldon Johnson. But hers is most definitely a fresh, new voice. There is a certain graceful cool, an unfailing aptness of tone, in her writing. Harlem Is Nowhere tells you things that you didn't know you didn't know about Harlem."
Vanessa Bush
"Rhodes-Pitts compares and contrasts her own experience of moving from Texas to Harlem with accounts from literature of the Harlem Renaissance and other cultural glories, and news reports of gentrification....Settling into her own place in Harlem, she offers vivid portraits of the residents, who straddle the past and present of the storied neighbourhood, many wondering themselves about their futures and the future of Harlem."
David Kennedy Jones
"Harlem, once walled off by geography, then closed again by the dark will of the country, opens like a light to take its proper place at the center of the American spirit. Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts...has given us a guidebook for this kind of remembrance. Her book is not so much a history of Harlem as a kind of memoir of history. In its account of one person's ascent up the imposing hill of centuries of Harlem's stories, we have an example of how to read ourselves into the neighborhood, of how to think and how to believe when we rise out of the 125th Street Station and into the bright heart of Black America."
Laura Moser
"Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts's new book resists easy classification: It's part literary walking tour, part urban history, part memoir, and all beautiful prose....As Ralph Ellison, from whose 1948 essay Rhodes-Pitts borrows her book's title, wrote in Invisible Man: 'This really was Harlem, and now all the stories which I had heard of the city-within-a-city leaped alive in my mind...This was not a city of realities but of dreams.' Reading Harlem Is Nowhere, we're also watching Rhodes-Pitts chase this dream, and it's impossible to look away."
Zadie Smith
"For the book's author, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, Harlem is a notional place, an idea threatened by a reality, existing most concretely in the minds of those who have loved and defended it. Rhodes-Pitts is one such, and her account of this stretch of land that may or may not begin at 110th Street and end at 168th is fittingly idiosyncratic, as much meditation as history....Like [Virginia] Woolf, Rhodes-Pitts is bookish and devoted, interested in everyday matters: how people walk and talk, dress, go about their day....Here individual experience is honored, and judgment reserved....this is a lovely book about the romance--and dangers--of bibliophily....No geographic or racial qualification guarantees a writer her subject....Only interest, knowledge, and love will do that--all of which this book displays in abundance."
Julia Vitullo-Martin
"Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts give a marvellous tour through decades of iconic writings on Harlem....She commands a deep knowledge of the literature and applies it to individual buildings and streets--a unique and useful contribution. She quotes and intends to live by Alain Locke's 'The New Negro,' which warned, 'History must restore what slavery took away.' This is an admirable sentiment."
Sean Carman

"A tender historical memoir....Throughout her studious love letter to her adopted home, Rhodes-Pitts is singing the Harlem Blues."

Ron Wynn
"Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts's enlightening Harlem Is Nowhere takes a new approach in her look at the venerable community. Rather than crafting a detached, straightforward account, Rhodes-Pitts makes it personal...An inspiration memoir."
Antonia Jedrzejczak
"Starting as a solitary Texas transplant in a kitchenless apartment on One-hundred-twentieth Street, Rhodes-Pitts uses photographs, books, and stories of lifetime locals to consider her own place as an observer an inhabitant of what is in many ways the symbolic epicentre of black America."
Walton Muyumba
"An expression of Harlem's wondrous complexities...Rhodes-Pitts' ambivalence-her deeply rooted participation in Harlem life and her distant, reportorial observation and documentation of the Harlem world-is the book's core. The author-protagonist's negotiation of these conflicting roles produce the work's most searing, intelligent passages."
Adam Bradley
"Rhodes-Pitts offers a stirring exploration of Harlem's geography, actual and imagined....She crafts a compelling narrative voice that is bracingly intimate yet capable of dilating to encompass a chorus of voice and opinions not her own."
"Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts is a gifted young writer."
Library Journal
The author reflects on her own Harlem, as well as the Harlem of its iconic storytellers.
Kirkus Reviews

One woman's quest to discover the heart of Harlem.

In her debut, Rhodes-Pitts alternates between the personal and the scholarly in an attempt to define the importance of the place, both for African-Americans and the country at large.It is a complicated tale with a "loathsome history of neglect and destruction stretching back to the beginning of black settlement in Harlem and its corollary, white flight." Yet Harlem is more than a neighborhood with racial roots, which the author proves by focusing primarily on its cultural contributions. Rhodes-Pitts relies heavily on Harlem's famed writers to tell its history, yet the words of Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Nella Larsen do little more than create a shoddy patchwork of familiar terrain. The author also explores Harlem through visuals—descriptions of statues, advertisements, signage, even funeral portraiture—yet photographs are her staple, particularly the work of James VanDerZee, whose photos depict "provided an antidote to the destitute, shell-shocked image then attached to the neighborhood, forming a new iconography of its best days." For Rhodes-Pitts, these photos served as portals to an earlier time, escorting "the viewer halfway into the interior life of Harlem." Unfortunately, readers may never feel connected to the other half. The author's most successful attempts at a complete view of Harlem are the personal stories from the people themselves, yet even this strategy is employed with varying success. The book's primary shortfall is the author's genre-indecisiveness. Part memoir, part scholarly prose, the result is a peculiar hybrid incapable of fully capitalizing on the merits of either genre. Further, the author's overreliance on quotations leaves little room for her own insights and expertise on the subject.

A highly informative though rarely analytical take on one of America's most thriving cultural communities. See Jonathan Gill's upcoming Harlem (2011) for more comprehensive coverage.

Kaiama L. Glover
…enchanting…[Rhodes-Pitts's] happily disparate text blends the historical and the personal, the exceptional and the ordinary, adroitly communicating the multiplicity of Harlem itself.
—The New York Times Book Review
Dwight Garner
…reads…as if Ms. Rhodes-Pitts had taken W. E. B. Du Bois's Souls of Black Folk and Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and spliced them together and remixed them, adding bass, Auto-Tuned vocals, acoustic breaks, samples (street sounds, newsreel snippets, her own whispered confessions) and had rapped over the whole flickering collage. It makes a startling and alive sound, one you cock your head at an angle to hear.
—The New York Times
Thomas Chatterton Williams
A fine debut...Like a young Joan Didion, Rhodes-Pitts stands in the corner with her notebook out...And, as with Didion, the thread keeping these disparate scraps together is her singular voice.
The American Scholar
Kaiama Glover
Enchanting...Rhodes-Pitts's Harlem is a place worth fighting for.
New York Times Book Review
--W. Ralph Eubanks - National Public Radio
"Rhodes-Pitts reveals, even to those who may have never ventured into Harlem, why it is a place of dreams and why it endures."
Thomas Chatterton Williams - The American Scholar
"A fine debut...Like a young Joan Didion, Rhodes-Pitts stands in the corner with her notebook out...And, as with Didion, the thread keeping these disparate scraps together is her singular voice."
Kaiama Glover - New York Times Book Review
"Enchanting...Rhodes-Pitts's Harlem is a place worth fighting for."
Boyd Tonkin
Dazzling riffs on the cultural citadel of Black America.
"Best Books of the Year," Independent
Boyd Tonkin - "Best Books of the Year
"Dazzling riffs on the cultural citadel of Black America."
Jane Ciabattari
"Harlem Is Nowhere is...a pilgrimage, a celebration and a cautionary note. It also heralds the arrival of a writer whose voice fits right in with the literary forebears she reveres."
Joseph P. Williams JR.
"An elegant writer...Rhodes-Pitts unearths gems from Harlem's rich history."
Laura Miller
"Rhodes-Pitts is one of that rare breed of writer who, on the strength of her hypnotic voice and idiosyncratic thinking, can turn every sentence into a crooked finger, impossible to resist."
Mike Fischer
"Rhodes-Pitts honors the dreamers imagining what Harlem could be, while never losing sight of how each of them was thwarted by the disconnect between the heaven they envisioned and the reality they lived."
From the Publisher
"An elegant writer...Rhodes-Pitts unearths gems from Harlem's rich history."—Joseph P. Williams JR., The Minneapolis Star Tribune"

Harlem Is Nowhere is...a pilgrimage, a celebration and a cautionary note. It also heralds the arrival of a writer whose voice fits right in with the literary forebears she reveres."—Jane Ciabattari, NPR.com"

This book's alive...it's intoxicating."—Dwight Garner, The New York Times"

Rhodes-Pitts is one of that rare breed of writer who, on the strength of her hypnotic voice and idiosyncratic thinking, can turn every sentence into a crooked finger, impossible to resist."—Laura Miller, Salon"

Rhodes-Pitts honors the dreamers imagining what Harlem could be, while never losing sight of how each of them was thwarted by the disconnect between the heaven they envisioned and the reality they lived."—Mike Fischer, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Dazzling riffs on the cultural citadel of Black America."—Boyd Tonkin, "Best Books of the Year," Independent"

Rhodes-Pitts reveals, even to those who may have never ventured into Harlem, why it is a place of dreams and why it endures."——W. Ralph Eubanks, National Public Radio"

A fine debut...Like a young Joan Didion, Rhodes-Pitts stands in the corner with her notebook out...And, as with Didion, the thread keeping these disparate scraps together is her singular voice."—Thomas Chatterton Williams, The American Scholar"

Enchanting...Rhodes-Pitts's Harlem is a place worth fighting for."—Kaiama Glover, New York Times Book Review

Product Details

Little, Brown and Company
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)

Read an Excerpt

Harlem is Nowhere

A Journey to the Mecca of Black America
By Rhodes-Pitts, Sharifa

Little, Brown and Company

Copyright © 2011 Rhodes-Pitts, Sharifa
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780316017237


A Colony of Their Own

I HAD ALREADY put the key into the door of my building on Lenox Avenue when the question came at my back. In one movement I withdrew the key and turned to face my inquisitor. He stood waiting for my reply and then asked again: Do you think you’ll ever go home?

It was one of the neighborhood men who stand outside the front door during the day, sentinels keeping a vigilant watch. When I first moved here they were almost invisible to me; we did not speak and exchanged only the occasional nod. Neither I nor the men were being standoffish. There seemed to be an unspoken rule—perhaps a universal prudence for any strange girl arriving in any strange place—that I should come to know the women first. After I had been accepted by the women, the men began to make themselves known. By that point, the women had warned me about which men to avoid, I’d learned to discriminate between geezer flirtation and jive, and I could hold my own with the biggest jive talkers. Soon, I was drawn into a form of protection. My new friends declared this adoption at unexpected moments—one or another of the neighbors would introduce me as their daughter. If I was stranded in the midst of an unwanted conversation with a persistent sidewalk suitor, one of the sentinels would swoop in to see him off. But if I came home accompanied by a man of my own choosing, I was later expected to give an account of his intentions, employment, and character.

Home, he said again to my puzzled stare. Down South. Do you think you’ll ever go back home?

It was a time when I was often in and out of the city. During phone conversations with friends, if I said I was at home they’d always ask, Where? But on this day, the man’s question came out of nowhere. As I’d approached the stoop he’d remarked, Cold enough for you? on what was a relatively warm day a few weeks before the start of spring. I’d responded, Not bad, not bad at all, noting how easily that banality passed my lips—approximating the tones of a northerner, feigning comprehension of their seasons. Maybe he sensed the falseness of my reply. Maybe that’s why he asked that question, presuming a desire I was not in contact with on that particular morning.

I answered cheerfully. Home to Texas? But I go back all the time… This sent him scattering into an apologetic retreat, as if he suddenly had a sense of invading my privacy. Oh, he said, and Oh, he repeated, as if the problem of my dislocation had suddenly been made right.

I did not ask him if he ever went home. I did not think of it until I was already in the narrow corridor that leads to the staircase that leads to my apartment, and now, in the act of recording it, this passing forgetfulness that he was also far from home strikes me as a failure of empathy. The yearning may have been more his than my own.

It was odd that he should think of me, even as I crossed my own threshold, as a stranger—someone on the verge of departure, highly susceptible to the mere mention of flight. (I might at that moment have turned around and gone; I might just then have been thinking of it.) But it says much about the impermanent status of my residence here. My neighbors were accustomed to seeing me leave with luggage in the earliest part of the morning. I had maintained an innocence of city politics and refused certain hallmarks of the committed citizen of New York, like a red or black wire rolling cart for groceries, or a tabloid newspaper selected on the basis of the best horoscopes. I should not have been surprised that some of my neighbors on Lenox Avenue were still trying to understand my presence in their midst. On a different occasion, a different man from outside my door had asked where I was from. He was surprised—pleased, even—to hear I was from Texas. Oh, he’d said. I thought you were a foreigner.

One restless, idle hour, I sat at the library on 135th Street and consulted The Columbia-Lippincott Gazetteer of the World, copying out the following entry, as if to gain my bearings:

Harlem: A residential and business district of N Manhattan borough of New York City, SE N.Y., bounded approximately by Central Park and 110th St. (S), East R. (E), Harlem R. (NE), 168th St (W). Largest Negro community (pop. More than 400,000) in U.S. grew up here after 1910; one of the most congested districts in U.S., Harlem also has large colonies of Puerto Rican, Italian, and Latin American background. The Du. Settlement of Nieuw Haarlem was est. here 1658 by Peter Stuyvesant; in the Revolution, Continental forces stopped the British advance up Manhattan in battle (Sept., 1776) of Harlem Heights. Area remained virtually rural until improvement in 19th cent. of transportation links with lower Manhattan. Public-housing projects (begun in 1930s) and other attempts to relieve unfavorable conditions there have been made.

At first it seems to give an all-encompassing view—complete with official borders, colonial heroics, and important urban planning highlights. Yet it manages to say nothing at all. In search of further detail I seized upon another definition, from the pages of The Handbook of Geographical Nicknames. This volume reveals that a city called Hankow is “The Pittsburgh of China”; that “The Happy Valley” refers to war-torn Kashmir and to the riverine gorge cut by the Tennessee; and that the Harz Mountains of Germany, the location of the silver mines where Leibniz once toiled, is now or once was “The Stronghold of Paganism.” Situated near these is Harlem, whose nickname, “The Capital of the Negro Population of the United States,” was not nearly as catchy or evocative as I’d expected. Though the phrase lacks poetry, it retains an accidental precision: the outdated term “Negro” (already antique when the book was published, in 1980) fixes our attention on the past.

At the library I found another source of coordinates. Harlem is blocked in by the high ridges of Morningside Heights and St. Nicholas Terrace, by the East and Harlem rivers, and by Central Park. Those declared boundaries did not tell me anything new. More important was the action of those physical frontiers: Harlem is blocked in. Geography is destiny. The WPA Guide to New York City, first published in 1939, goes on to describe who and what is blocked in by those ridges, those rivers, and that pastoral fiction of a park:

Negro Harlem, into which are crowded more than a quarter of a million Negroes from southern states, the West Indies, and Africa, has many different aspects. To whites seeking amusement, it is an exuberant, original, and unconventional entertainment center; to Negro college graduates it is an opportunity to practice a profession among their own people; to those aspiring to racial leadership it is a domain where they may advocate their theories unmolested; to artists, writers, and sociologists it is a mine of rich material; to the mass of Negro people it is the spiritual capital of Black America.

I went on a tour of Harlem, thinking it would be useful to know what the packs of visitors were being told. We met at the corner of 135th Street and Lenox, in front of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, just two blocks from my building. The tour guide, a young white woman, began by asking the group to shout out whatever came to mind when they heard the word Harlem. Some said music, others said riots. Those who didn’t say music or riots said Bill Clinton and soul food.

After that exercise in free association, the guide led us on a brief circuit covering a radius no larger than five blocks. As we began, she gave a condensed history of what happened when blacks first moved into Harlem. With a call-and-response style reminiscent of kindergarten, she asked what happened next. The chorus of mostly white tourists shouted out: The white people leave!

The guide had a habit of calling Lenox Avenue, Fifth Avenue. As we passed through one block of brownstone houses, I overheard a couple marveling at the architecture, noting the little pointy tops of a cluster of homes. The man asked his wife, had they seen them before? Like the mansard roofs in France? Did she remember they were named after a guy called Mansard? A woman came out of one house and asked if anyone in the group knew someone to rent her top two floors. When one tourist asked the price of brownstones these days, the guide, a young graduate student in history, asserted somewhat huffily that she was not a real estate broker. One woman repeatedly interrupted the tour to ask how far away the famous Sylvia’s soul-food restaurant was.

Often, I fell away from the group, trailing behind. I was familiar with most of the history being discussed. For me, the biggest revelation had come at the beginning of the tour. As we stood at the meeting point, the corner of 135th and Lenox, in the shadow of the Schomburg Center, the guide had passed around a photo. It was a picture of the street that crosses my corner of Lenox Avenue. The caption on the back read West 133rd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. 1880–1881. Today, standing at the corner of 133rd Street looking east across Lenox Avenue (formerly Sixth Avenue), one sees the six towers of the Lenox Terrace apartment complex. The picture showed that same area, but in 1880 it resembled a moonscape. The terrain is utterly flat and is covered by a rough sod. In the foreground stands a group of three attached brick town houses. Their windows form an orderly grid, and the steps leading up to each building look bright white, untrodden. Most important, these three houses don’t connect to any others. They stand isolated, with empty space on each side. After about twenty yards, a second cluster of three attached houses is seen to the right of the first group. They are also flanked by open space. Beyond that group, after another twenty yards or so, are yet another bank of houses. Across the gaps they seem to reach toward each other. The groups of houses are built parallel to each other, in a line, respecting the logic of an invisible map. But the houses do not quite form a street. They form the beginning of a street, the intention of a street, the merest suggestion of a street.

In the far distance, visible through the gap between the first two sets of homes, there is a fourth detached set of buildings. It is the dream of another street. Toward the vanishing point, flanked by nothing at all, is a solitary tree, a remnant of what was there before this idea of a neighborhood was imposed on the landscape. The picture preserves a moment when the idea was not yet accomplished, it hangs between dream and reality. This is a prehistoric Harlem—nothing that counts for History has happened there yet. There is sky, open space, and very little shelter. Without the caption, it would be hard to know if this was the beginning or end of a civilization—a place just being built, or recently destroyed.

This is Harlem, barely inhabited—at the very beginning of its settlement in the 1880s. The buildings are only a few years old, the vast blank spaces between them are evidence of how this land—a farming suburb—was haphazardly annexed by the metropolis. The houses were built as speculative enterprises, each group of three representing a gamble by some intrepid pioneer. The bourgeois commuter society that grew up here is not yet established, nor are the other houses that would eventually complete this and other streets.

The houses in the picture all face south, toward settled Manhattan, expectantly oriented toward the people who would arrive from downtown. But there are no people in the photograph. And though the buildings themselves suggest the presence of people, the arrangement of those structures in that space and the utter quietude of the landscape collide with the clamor we know should accompany buildings like those. Curtains hang in a few windows of the first group of buildings. One window, on the top floor of the middle house, is slightly ajar. Someone is there. Or, someone has been there and just left. Or, someone is about to arrive.

Here, blank spaces—possibilities—prevail. This picture shows what is about to be built, and also what is now already gone. In the 1950s the houses and tenements and even the very streets from 132nd to 135th between Lenox and Fifth Avenues were razed in a slum-clearance program, to build the high-rise middle-class housing complex of Lenox Terrace. A single row house remains, hidden in the midst of the towers. Nuns live in that house. There is some empty space on either side, and it no longer lines any street.

I used to stare into similar wide, open spaces as a child. I grew up in a city where the combined meaning of the words urban and planning was imprecise. To reach the side of town where we lived, you took a highway from the city center that crossed vast stretches of undeveloped land. From the window of our car, I stared into these spaces. I sought evidence of activity in the deep distance—perhaps a figure dashing across the field—from which I could invent a story. Typically, the only figures in those fields were small herds of undernourished horses or cattle. This brittle land was used as a makeshift pasture—livestock foraged for nourishment among the dry brush between oil pumps and electric towers. I looked out the windows of our car to see how far into the horizon my eyes could carry me, watching for something I hadn’t noticed before. But that landscape never changed. It was twenty years before new housing was built along that highway. When I was a child, those fields were always marked with faded billboards offering the acreage for development, perpetually in search of a willing taker.

When I came to live in Harlem, the fenced-off, overgrown empty lots here also attracted my eye. At first, they were evidence: I had indeed arrived in the place I’d heard of. The empty lots held some significance; it was similar to the feeling I’d had when, riding from the airport in New Delhi, I first saw cows in the road. Yes, this is the place I have heard about, I’d thought. There are cows all over the road exactly as they were in the guidebook pictures. The empty lots in Harlem had the same verifying quality. Later, those empty lots provided something beyond veracity. They were a place for the eyes to rest. This was not some romance for ruins. These blank, disavowed spaces had been labeled as blight, but they provided a visual and mental break from the clamor of the buildings and people. There was a hint of the horizon.

Here was solace from the crowded landscape—both the physical crowdedness of buildings and people and the crowd of stories and histories. A friend of mine describes certain cities as being full—too much has happened there, you cannot move. Paris, he says, is the quintessentially full city. I suspect he’d say Harlem is another place that is too full—though its crowdedness and overpopulation have been discussed in other terms. In the empty lots, my mind escaped history.

Later I understood that these empty fields were indeed the setting of a history, the loathsome history of neglect and destruction stretching back to the beginning of black settlement in Harlem and its corollary, white flight. But at first, as in Texas, those spaces where my thoughts played were just settings for scenes and fancies whose significance was fleeting. I admired the wild patches of Queen Anne’s lace that grew up in summer. Independent businessmen used some lots as locations for unofficial open-air markets, selling used furniture or vintage clothes.

Many of these places are now occupied by new condominiums. One is now a Mormon church. As the empty lots disappeared, I became more interested in what was there before. In some places it is possible to see what was there: the foundation of a building remains; a front stoop rises up from the sidewalk but leads to nothing. Such things recede into the background, part of the natural history of this place, as if they had always been like that. But this is the evidence of an unnatural history—it was not always this way, it came to be that way for a reason.

There are new empty lots different from those I noticed upon first arriving. Returning after a year’s absence, I found an empty lot at the southwestern corner of Lenox Avenue and 125th Street. It was covered with fresh gravel, to stop its reversion to a wild field. When I first saw the lot something sank inside of me—the sensation mocked the feeling of a demolition, a building brought to its knees. This new empty lot opened a new horizon: from 125th Street you could see clear through the block to 124th Street. But the view was not one that gave rest or inspired the eye and mind. There was only the instantaneous, frantic search for something that once was there and was there no longer.

It was a grand old apartment house whose facade hugged the corner, making the intersection look like a stately plaza. It might have been a candidate for landmark status, but its windows were sealed up with cement bricks. Soon after I arrived in Harlem, the few tenants remaining in the building’s storefronts—a decrepit Chinese restaurant, a flamboyant haberdashery, a store specializing in women’s undergarments, and a shoe shine and repair service—had all closed up shop.

The building stayed in place long after those stores had gone. For a few years it brought revenue as the background for various athletic-wear billboards; for several seasons a heroic image of Muhammad Ali, having just knocked out an opponent, loomed over Lenox Avenue. I heard a rumor that the building had not been demolished because a family lived inside and that they’d defiantly refused to leave when the other tenants cleared out. This seemed impossible with all of the windows bricked over, and I never saw anyone enter or exit the building. But I did always see—through a small window in a battered door on Lenox Avenue—a light illuminating the vestibule.

There used to be an empty lot near my house, on Seventh Avenue just south of 133rd Street. One day in summer, I saw through its chain-link fence a pile of watermelon rinds at the rear of the lot. There was an open pit in the ground nearby, where someone was burying the waste. Later, the pile disappeared and the open pit was covered by recently turned earth. Soon, construction began on that site. It was only a matter of weeks before the frame of a new building rose up on the lot. A security guard was now stationed there each night to guard the property. He didn’t wear a uniform, and like many of the men (and sometimes women) who work security jobs at construction sites in Harlem, he was an immigrant from West Africa.

Later, when construction was nearly completed but the premises were not yet occupied, I passed again one night and saw through the building’s glass doors the outline of a man sitting in the condominium entry. He kept watch in near darkness, visible only by the light of a nearby street lamp. Whenever I passed the spot, I looked to see if anyone was inside. Sometimes the guard was there, slumped in his seat, sleeping through his shift out of exhaustion or boredom. Other times, there was only an empty chair. A few times, the watchman waved hello. Once, the figure beckoned me inside.

I didn’t accept the invitation. The building still looked unoccupied, but a large sign now hung from its facade. The building is called the Ellison. To advertise the property, the sign shows a photograph of a handsome, clean-cut young black man in a suit. He is shown in regal profile, his eyes are closed, his chin is lifted toward the sky. Change your state of mind, begins the sales pitch for the new condominiums. The man on the sign looks lost in contemplation, on the brink of transcendence, about to receive some celestial enlightenment. Or maybe he has just thrown back his head and is about to unleash a howling laugh.

That picture from 1880 shows the beginning of what was, essentially, a failed settlement. More buildings were constructed so the isolated housing blocks eventually formed complete streets. As people moved in, Harlem became, according to one observer in 1905, a haven for the clerks and small merchants, the family man and the newly married couple and the young professional man, who all flocked thither. But the real estate speculation behind the Harlem housing boom had not anticipated the city’s delay in extending transportation to the area. Many town houses and apartment buildings were empty or partially empty. Around 1900 the situation attracted the interest of African American businessman Philip A. Payton Jr., an associate of Booker T. Washington. Payton proposed to several landlords that he act as a broker, renting their vacant properties to black tenants. He began quietly, with a few houses on 134th Street east of Lenox Avenue (the same area shown in that photo of prehistoric Harlem). According to James Weldon Johnson,

The whites paid little attention to the movement until it began to spread west of Lenox Avenue; they then took steps to check it. They proposed through a financial organization, the Hudson Realty Company, to buy in all properties occupied by colored people and evict the tenants.

Another group, Shaw & Company, pursued the same tactics, as did the Harlem Property Owners’ Improvement Association. But Payton was equal to the challenge. When the Hudson Realty Company started buying property and evicting blacks, Payton combined with other black businessmen to launch the Afro-American Realty Company, which bought property and evicted whites. A December 17, 1905, article from the New York Times reported the furor with the tone of an urgent telegram: Real Estate Race War Is Started in Harlem; Dispossessed White Men Ask Negroes to be Allowed to Stay; Colored Folks Retaliated; They Were Dispossessed First—Then Formed a Real Estate Company to Buy Tenements. Payton and the Afro-American Realty Company are accurately credited with the invention of black Harlem. The strategy was not merely to secure rental housing or buy individual property, but to harness the collective economic power of well-to-do blacks, toward the general empowerment of the race.

The New York Herald described the unfolding controversy on December 24, 1905, under the headline Negroes Move into Harlem.

An untoward circumstance has been injected into the private-dwelling market in the vicinity of 133rd and 134th Streets. During the last three years the flats in 134th between Lenox and Seventh Avenues, that were occupied entirely by white folks, have been captured for occupation by a Negro population. Its presence there has tended also to lend much color to conditions in 133rd and 135th Streets between Lenox and Seventh Avenues.

One Hundred and Thirty-third Street still shows some signs of resistance to the blending of colors in that street, but between Lenox and Seventh Avenues has practically succumbed to the ingress of colored tenants. Nearly all the old dwellings in 134th Street to midway in the block west from Seventh Avenue are occupied by colored tenants and real estate brokers predict that it is only a matter of time when the entire block, to Eighth Avenue, will be a stronghold of the Negro population.

As a result of the extension of this African colony, dwellings in 133rd Street between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, and in 132nd Street from Lenox to Eighth Avenue have depreciated from fifteen to twenty per cent in value, especially in the sides of those streets nearest to 134th Street. The cause of the colored influx is inexplicable.

After a few years of this untoward circumstance, the good citizens of Harlem resolved to erect a twenty-four-foot fence on 136th Street, a battlement to defend their besieged city. The New York Indicator, a real estate publication, summarized popular opinion:

Their presence is undesirable among us… they should not only be disenfranchised, but also segregated in some colony in the outskirts of the city, where their transportation and other problems will not inflict injustice and disgust on worthy citizens.

As white Harlem gathered its forces, a spokesperson for a group of outraged citizens offered a self-serving prophecy, masked as philanthropy: We believe… that real friends of Negroes will eventually convince them that they should buy large tracts of unimproved land near the city and there build up colonies of their own.

Only two decades had passed when the prophecy was borne out under slightly altered circumstances. A Negro colony spread from the concentrated area around Philip Payton’s original buildings on 134th Street, until it became an onslaught no wall could contain. White New Yorkers quit Harlem. Some sold their property at a loss, others abandoned houses and apartment buildings, preferring to board them up rather than rent or sell to black people. Eventually, the move of blacks into Harlem reached the physical limits of the ridges, the rivers, and 110th Street. Alain Locke, writing in the introduction to his 1925 anthology The New Negro, found that the concentration of black New Yorkers crowding into that physical space mirrored a metaphysical force then gaining strength.

In Harlem, Negro life is seizing upon its first chances for group expression and self-determination. That is why our comparison is taken with those nascent centers of folk-expression and self-determination which are playing a creative part in the world today. Without pretense to their political significance, Harlem has the same role to play for the New Negro as Dublin has had for the New Ireland or Prague for the New Czechoslovakia.

Locke was among the first to define Harlem as a race capital, a physical center that focuses a people. It was the stage of the pageant of contemporary Negro life on which would unfold the resurgence of a race. Locke invokes two young European republics whose people had rejected imperialism through nationalism. But he did not aspire to self-determination by means of actual political sovereignty or a separate nation for blacks. Locke believed that Harlem would be a place of cultural and social uplift. This, in time, would lead to equality for blacks within the wider American scene. In 1925, Locke asserted that Harlem represents the Negro’s latest thrust towards Democracy.

Others tried to add their own pronouncements to Locke’s prophecy. The New Negro anthology includes Charles S. Johnson reaching for Locke’s gravitas, while waxing nostalgic about events still in progress: And there was New York City with its polite personal service and its Harlem—the Mecca of the Negroes the country over. Delightful Harlem of the effete East! Old families, brownstone mansions, a step from wonderful Broadway, the end of the rainbow.

In 1928, Wallace Thurman’s Negro Life in New York’s Harlem noted that the neighborhood—known as The Mecca of the New Negro, the center of black America’s cultural renaissance, Nigger Heaven, Pickaninny Paradise, Capital of Black America, among other monikers—had been surveyed and interpreted, explored and exploited. But Thurman launches his own survey and interpretation, producing a lively picture of a popular and interesting section that reads like a travel guide, with chapters on social life, night life, amusement, house rent parties, the numbers, the church, and newspapers. The resulting vision of Harlem is a great deal less than the sum of its parts.

Langston Hughes riffs on Harlem in his contribution to a 1963 special Harlem issue of Freedomways magazine. Hughes mixes sentimentality with a dose of his typically biting wit, in the following incantation:

Harlem, like a Picasso painting in his cubistic period. Harlem—Southern Harlem—the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida—looking for the Promised Land—dressed in rhythmic words, painted in bright pictures, dancing to jazz—and ending up in the subway at morning rush time—headed downtown. West Indian Harlem—warm rambunctious sassy remembering Marcus Garvey, Haitian Harlem, Cuban Harlem, little pockets of tropical dreams in alien tongues. Magnet Harlem, pulling an Arthur Schomburg from Puerto Rico, pulling an Arna Bontemps all the way from California, a Nora Holt from way out West, an E. Simms Campbell from St. Louis, likewise a Josephine Baker, a Charles S. Johnson from Virginia, an A. Phillip Randolph from Florida, a Roy Wilkins from Minnesota, an Alta Douglas from Kansas. Melting pot Harlem—Harlem of honey and chocolate and caramel and rum and vinegar and lemon and lime and gall. Dusky dream Harlem rumbling into a nightmare tunnel where the subway from the Bronx keeps right on downtown, where the jazz is drained to Broadway whence Josephine [Baker] goes to Paris, Robeson to London, Jean Toomer to a Quaker Meeting House, Garvey to Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, and Wallace Thurman to his grave; but Duke Ellington to fame and fortune, Lena Horne to Broadway, and Buck Clayton to China.

The business of defining Harlem has already been perfected. You have heard them all before: Harlem is a ruin, it is the home of the Negro’s Zionism; it is a third world country; an East Berlin whose Wall is 110th Street. This is hyperbolic Harlem, the cultural capital of black America or its epicenter (likening the place to a natural disaster). There is Harlem as Mecca—a city of sanctuary, a place that merges devotion and duty.

In The New Negro Alain Locke declared: Harlem, I grant you, isn’t typical—but it is significant, it is prophetic. No sane observer, however sympathetic to the new trend, would contend that the great masses are articulate as yet, but they stir, they move, they are more than physically restless.

But in another essay included in the 1925 anthology, James Weldon Johnson offered a different kind of prophecy. In the tradition of the best oracles, it comes in the form of a riddle:

The question naturally arises, “Are the Negroes going to be able to hold Harlem?” If they have been steadily driven northward for the past hundred years and out of less desirable sections, can they hold this choice bit of Manhattan Island? It is hardly probable that Negroes will hold Harlem indefinitely, but when they are forced out it will not be for the same reasons that forced them out of former quarters in New York City. The situation is entirely different and without precedent. When colored people do leave Harlem, their homes, their churches, their investments and their businesses, it will be because the land has become so valuable they can no longer afford to live on it. But the date of another move northward is very far in the future.

Johnson suspected that Locke’s restless masses would be forced—as before in New York, but compelled by a different propulsion—to move yet again. But he did not dwell much on the possibility, or divulge a spell to stop events from coming to pass.


Excerpted from Harlem is Nowhere by Rhodes-Pitts, Sharifa Copyright © 2011 by Rhodes-Pitts, Sharifa. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.


Meet the Author

Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts's articles have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, New York Times Book Review, The Nation, Boston Globe, Transition, and Times Literary Supplement. She has received a Lannan Foundation fellowship and the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers' Award, and was a Fulbright Scholar in 2007. Rhodes-Pitts was born in Texas and educated at Harvard University.

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