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Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America Hardcover – January 26, 2011
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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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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
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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.
The author combines her investigative thoroughness with a storyteller's wit to present the wonder of Harlem's magnetic life story.
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.
The book ends with the author's observation of the African American Day Parade in Harlem, which serves as a celebration of life in the neighborhood but also as an account of the tension and stress that exists there, as peaceful residents are caught between hostile city police officers and young men who seek an outlet for their passions and frustrations.
Harlem Is Nowhere does not provide a comprehensive history of the neighborhood, particularly its founding and the story of the people who lived there before the Great Migration of blacks from the South in the early 20th century, and the personal stories are limited to the sections where the author has lived and knows best. Several key aspects of Harlem life are also excluded, most notably key figures in the entertainment industries of jazz and modern dance, and the vibrant nightlife at legendary spots such as the Cotton Club and Minton's Playhouse. However, the book does serve as an appealing and interesting set of observations about the famous and every day people who have influenced and contributed to the life of Harlem over the past century.