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Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America Hardcover – January 26, 2011

3.8 out of 5 stars 12 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. 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.)
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From Booklist

Harlem is firmly enshrined at the very center of African American culture and has been much celebrated and chronicled since the growing numbers of blacks coming to New York were met with housing discrimination that forced them into the neighborhood in the late 1800s. 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. She recalls characters from Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and other writers who struggled to find a place for themselves in Harlem even as she listens in on tour-guide lectures and reads contemporary accounts of the changing real-estate and cultural landscape of Harlem that signify a very different future than the one imagined by the fiction writers. Settling into her own place in Harlem, she offers vivid portraits of the residents, who straddle the past and present of the storied neighborhood, many wondering themselves about their futures and the future of Harlem. --Vanessa Bush

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company; 1 edition (January 26, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 031601723X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316017237
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 8.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,208,284 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
I was amazed to learn Harlem's iconographic identity only surged into existence around the beginning of the 20th century when African-Americans from many parts of the country and world showed up in large numbers. They were some of the best and brightest and most determined people of their day, determined to make an impact.

In the 1900's Harlem seemed to have no center but was made up of a vast number of cultures and traditions all blending and hitting against themselves. At its core it was dynamically creative; that was its commonality. These few blocks carved out of the Manhattan Island gave birth to scads of writers, all types of artists, political thinkers. The people were created by their environment just as much as they designed their neighborhood. Maybe in some ways neither people nor place created the other. The place and the people allowed one another to create them(it)self. Place, time and humanity exploded and Harlem as a place and as an idea was born. And we're all the better for it.

As a young writer Rhodes-Pitts moves north from her home state of Texas and begins to absorb Harlem. She does her research but finds more questions than answers, she goes to political meetings and becomes overwhelmed with all the divergent thinking and causes, she stands on the streets watching the many parades, demonstrations, the neighborhood's ever changing spew of notices, sidewalk graffiti, etc. She talks to the residents both the long and short term ones, she goes to funerals, she talks with the unique street people that only Harlem could have. I love how she doesn't come to any hard conclusions but let's herself be awash in the mythology of this place.
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Format: Hardcover
Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, a native Texan who graduated from Harvard in 2000, moved to Harlem two years later to pursue professional opportunities in New York City. In 2004 she wrote an article about her experiences living there, and was encouraged to write this book, which is named after a 1948 essay by Ralph Ellison about the psychological and existential aspects of life in Harlem.

Rhodes-Pitts introduces us to several of her older neighbors, who have experienced the dramatic changes of this now resurgent section of Manhattan that counts Bill Clinton and other whites as new residents. Despite these recent changes, a culture of respect and camaraderie, based on mores of African Americans who migrated to New York from the Jim Crow South decades ago, still exists. We also learn about past residents of Harlem, including familiar ones such as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Marcus Garvey and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and less well known but no less important figures, including George Young, whose bookstore was known as the "Mecca of Literature Pertaining to Colored People", and Victoria Earle Matthews, the founder of the White Rose Home, which aided female emigrants establish a foothold and learn basic skills necessary to survive in a metropolis that existed beyond the imagination of the daughters of slaves and sharecroppers.

The book is divided into thematic chapters, which include the literature of Harlem, the neighborhood as a place of refuge, written signs and messages with overt and hidden meanings, and past and current efforts to keep the neighborhood from becoming gentrified or unduly commercialized.
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Format: Hardcover
In a time of reality shows it is great to get a chance to read about a real place that is well know but well misunderstood. I loved reading the descriptive backdrop of Sharifa Rodes-Pitts' Harlem and all the unscripted drama or happening of life. It was also inspiring to read about the former organizations that existed at the height of Harlem's hay day as well as to morn their ceasing to exist. Always great to have a guide that is invested heart and mind. A wonderful read. Call to the artist and activist of the day to create and build community by being aware and understanding their surroundings.
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Format: Hardcover
Although this book suffers a bit from a lack of concrete direction, it is still an enjoyable journey through the past and present of Harlem. Pitts explores both the romantic notions and realities of the place, as well as the effects of the ongoing gentrification of the area. Pitts is a wonderful writer, but as a person who rhapsodized about the place before she got there, she is also the perfect observer and reporter of the truth of it. Definitely worth the read.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
As a history buff, I was looking forward to reading this book. The author certainly provides a good deal of information however, she seems to rely heavily on quoting other people. Perhaps this seems more evident in the Kindle format, but after a while I was wishing that she rely less on the words of others. The book seemed to be a cross between a history of Harlem and a doctoral thesis on Harlem.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts has written an important book on a most important community...Harlem, NY. Long considered the cultural capitol of black America, Harlem in recent years has been undergoing yet another significant shift in its evolution. This evolution has been constant, and Rhodes-Pitts skillfully and insightfully notes each, from the founding of the village of Haarlem to it rapidly gentrifying present. What makes this book so compelling is that Rhodes-Pitts is not afraid to inject her own subjectivities into our understanding of the evolution of this community, pointing out how race and class have been ever present shapers of Harlem's fate and history. She places herself at the center of this evolving narrative by becoming a resident of this storied community herself. From the vantage point of community member she comes to see how increasingly Harlem's fate is being determined by an ever encroaching city bureaucracy in concert with real estate interests anxious to expand their gentrifying reach to upper Manhattan.

This book will stand as the definitive one for those who want to know how Harlem, NY got to its present state of million dollar condos and multimillion dollar brownstones. Both the upside and the problematics of these recent developments are fully explored in these pages. This is an important book by an important new writer.
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