Granta, £14.99, 296pp. £13.49 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Harlem Is Nowhere: A Journey To The Mecca Of Black America, By Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts

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

Arts and Entertainment
'Banksy Does New York' Film - 2014

Art Somebody is going around telling people he's Banksy - but it isn't the street artist

Arts and Entertainment
Woody Allen and Placido Domingo will work together on Puccini's Schicchi

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
The sixteen celebrities taking part in The Jump 2015

TV

Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge has announced his departure from Blink-182

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

    Pot of gold

    Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
    10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

    From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

    While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
    Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore