Dreams And Reality Forever Intertwined In 'Harlem'

The title of Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts book, Harlem Is Nowhere, was inspired by a Ralph Ellison essay. i i

hide captionThe title of Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts book, Harlem Is Nowhere, was inspired by a Ralph Ellison essay.

Francois Halard
The title of Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts book, Harlem Is Nowhere, was inspired by a Ralph Ellison essay.

The title of Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts book, Harlem Is Nowhere, was inspired by a Ralph Ellison essay.

Francois Halard

Harlem has served as an incubator both for African-American optimism and for ongoing racial conflict. In her first book, Harlem Is Nowhere, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts writes of a Harlem where legacies of triumph and misfortune in America still duel. The reality, she finds, is somewhere in between.

Growing up in Texas, Rhodes-Pitts visited the packed tenements and smoky jazz clubs of Harlem through books, with Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston and many others as her guides.

She first remembers coming across Harlem in an essay by Alice Walker from her collection, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens. "She mentions Zora Neale Hurston and Jean Toomer," Rhodes-Pitts tells NPR's Neal Conan. "That mention would have sent me to the library, trying to figure out who are these writers she spoke of so highly, and what was this place that they wrote about, and where they lived?"

After college, she went to the neighborhood she calls the "mecca of black America," to take in the collection at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

"Even before I moved to New York," she says, it "was a place that drew me, where I felt like I could answer any question I had about the whole history of black people around the world."

Cover of 'Harlem Is Nowhere'
Little, Brown & Company
Harlem Is Nowhere: A Journey To The Mecca Of Black America
By Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts
Hardcover, 304 pages
Little, Brown & Company
List price: $24.99

Read An Excerpt

Harlem has long been considered a refuge for black Americans, she learned. "It was a place that if one person left from a town down South, they would send a note back and tell them about what was going on, and to come up, and that there was work and places to live that were unlike any place that someone who grew up down South would have known."

But even in the 1920s, "the dream and the vision of Harlem often collided with the reality once people arrived there." And Harlem attracted black Americans from around the country, and from all parts of the African diaspora, including the Caribbean.

"I think this is part of what made Harlem so fantastically unique," Rhodes-Pitts says. "The combination of people from so many different walks of life and so many different places who are all united by a certain current."

One of the unique features Rhodes-Pitts loves is the neighborliness. When she first moved to Harlem, neighbors would just nod. But soon she breached the initial distance, and she was "adopted immediately. And my neighbors referred to me as their daughter, and there was a sense of protection." She credits their warmth toward her to the Southern heritage of a lot of the people who live in Harlem. And soon, her everyday life became entwined with the lives of those on her block.

In her research, Rhodes-Pitts was especially moved by an organization that met young women moving to New York from the South — there to greet them, take them to Harlem and show them the ropes. The White Rose Home, located in Harlem as of the 1920s, provided women with a bed and training for employment.

But women at the White Rose Home also had access to a library with the classics of black history and literature, music lessons and company. "There was this combination of just plain shelter," Rhodes-Pitts says, "but also sort of a shelter for the soul."

"There's just something so wonderful about the mission of these women, who based on their own experience and their own vulnerability and the perils they had seen other women fall into, opening up a place where the next generation could be sheltered," says Rhodes-Pitts.

That sense of responsibility, she says, is part of Harlem's history. "It's not just a neighborhood, but that by living there, you're a part of a history, and that there's a need to perpetuate, to protect, and to strive for everyone's mutual uplift."

Excerpt: 'Harlem Is Nowhere'

'Harlem Is Nowhere'
Little, Brown & Company
Harlem Is Nowhere: A Journey To The Mecca Of Black America
By Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts
Hardcover, 304 pages
Little, Brown & Company
List price: $24.99

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.

From Harlem Is Nowhere by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts. Copyright 2011 by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown & Company.

Books Featured In This Story

Harlem Is Nowhere
Harlem Is Nowhere

A Journey to the Mecca of Black America

by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts

Hardcover, 296 pages | purchase

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