Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts’ new book, Harlem Is Nowhere , resists easy classification: It’s part literary walking tour, part urban history, part memoir, and all beautiful prose. (Disclosure: Sharifa and I first met on a summer-program production of Cyrano de Bergerac when we were in elementary school and have been active soulmates for a decade-plus now.) This extended essay is a wide-ranging investigation, by its very nature incomplete, of a neighborhood that’s both myth and reality, at once a metaphor and a geographical point in space.
Rhodes-Pitts traces Harlem’s evolution from a white garden suburb that never really took off to the utopia conveyed in the book’s subtitle, “A Journey to the Heart of Black America,” to the neighborhood’s uncertain status today. Harlem is currently in the process of rapid gentrification , with a greater police presence and a profusion of $4 lattes. Some of the book’s finest passages chronicle Rhodes-Pitts’ own history in Harlem, from fantasies of living in an SRO because the building’s evocative name, Sans Souci, attracted her (“I was shooed away from its door by the security guard on duty. Do you know what kind of place this is? “) to her first, puke-green-carpeted, kitchenless apartment.
Rhodes-Pitts tells the story of Harlem past and present through the books others have written about it, the political movements that have convulsed it, her own conversations with neighbors and passersby, stray observations jotted down in her ever-present reporter’s pad, and discoveries made at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture . She analyzes the literature of Harlem as immortalized by the greatest writers of its Renaissance, and introduces us to little-known figures like Raven Chanticleer , the proprietor of the African-American Wax and History Museum.
Throughout, the difficulty of reconciling ideal with reality haunts Rhodes-Pitts, as it has so many emigrant before her. Of her own post-collegiate move to Harlem, she writes,
[I]t was not the arrival of a fugitive or refugee. That feeling-of running from something or running to something-only came later, in the very streets where I was living, and often simultaneously.
This neither-here-nor-there quality, Rhodes-Pitts’ constant shifts between belonging and observing, between participating and recording, makes for much of this book’s interest.
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.