Few urban districts in the world trail such a rich train of associations as Harlem in New York. Described as a City of Refuge, the Cultural Capital of Black America and the epicentre of the Jazz Age, the area has also been characterised as a ruin, a prison and a ghetto devoid of hope. In her remarkable and beautifully written debut, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts navigates these complex and contradictory histories. Moving – or dancing – between memoir, folklore, literary criticism and psychogeography, she hymns this city within a city, a place at least as populated with utopian aspirations and abandoned dreams as with people.
If Harlem's original immigrants came in search of sanctuary, a place where they could walk tall, free of oppression, the author has her own journey to make. As the only black pupil in an Episcopalian high school in Texas, she avidly reads Harlem through the writers who got there before her – Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin – and lands, after a stint at Harvard, with a literary map of upper Manhattan implanted in her brain.
She soon encounters less canonical but no less perceptive guides. The old man who stands, one of the "guardians" on her stoop, a repository of mumbled knowledge refracted through a speech impediment, each pronouncement imbued with the quality of myth. "Watch the walking, not the dead," he tells her, inexplicably; "the ones who are walking not the ones lying down". She leans in to catch his fragmentary discourse, only to find that a story he is relating "seemed to deliver a great, unspoken parable, whose lesson I could not determine".
Another man, whom she christens The Messenger, writes exhortations to the youth of the neighbourhood on the sidewalk in coloured chalk, because he believes they have "an emptiness inside". Such modern mystics and outsiders blend seamlessly with equally colourful historical figures that have made Harlem their base down the years. Arthur Schomburg, the scholar and "book fiend" whose collection became the basis of the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture; Raven Chanticleer, the founder of the African American Wax and History Museum; Marcus Garvey, whose messianic crusade to lead his people back to Africa came to nothing in his lifetime but survives among a wide Diaspora, transmuted into a metaphysical yearning and source of song.
Rhodes-Pitts's method reveals a multiplicity of Harlems, historical, metaphorical and symbolic. Speculators first marketed the district's handsome brownstones to young professionals in the latter third of the 19th century. The lack of public transport depressed prices, allowing African American landlords and developers to gain a foothold at just the time thousands of migrants were arriving in New York from the newly liberated Southern states.
At first this influx was resisted; white developers purchased properties and forcibly evicted black tenants in an attempt to ethnically cleanse the district. There was even talk of erecting a 24-foot fence on 136th Street. In response, The African-American Realty Company bought real estate themselves, this time evicting sitting white tenants.
Eventually a tipping-point was reached and whites abandoned Harlem. This is the first of many turf wars the author chronicles, with slum clearances, housing projects, re-zoning laws, the expansion of Columbia University and collusion between city authorities and developers all playing their part. Ironically, Rhodes-Pitts believes it is the groundswell of gentrification that intensified when Bill Clinton moved his office uptown in 2001 that may finally drive out the neighbourhood's long-established residents and change its character forever. She serves time on picket lines and at community meetings, all the while feeling a typical author's anxiety: how long does one have to live in a place to have the right to write about it?
At the funeral of a dearly loved neighbour, she is aware of an internal struggle. "I was trying to stop myself taking note of what was happening," she tells us, taking note instead of her own mental state. "I was trying not to be an observer but a participant". She need not have worried; readers and residents alike coming to this book will salute her achievement. Simultaneously celebratory and elegiac, acute and poetic, scholarly and rooted in the everyday, Harlem is Nowhere has earned its place in the canon of literature inspired by the endlessly fascinating city of New York.
James Attlee's 'Nocturne: a journey in search of moonlight' is published by Hamiah Hamilton