New York Book

Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America BY Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts. Little, Brown and Company. Hardcover, 304 pages. $24.

The cover of Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America

There have been many, many books published about New York City in the past twenty years, but Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts’s Harlem Is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America (2011) stands apart. It’s not a history, although it contains and embodies history, and it’s not a polemic, although a hundred arguments can be heard in it. It is something much more fundamental: an account of deep engagement with a place. Rhodes-Pitts experiences the present through the window of the past, as well as vice versa. She knows what it’s like to go to an address and stand rooted in disbelief that what transpired there seventy-five years ago is no longer happening. Sadly, her historical present is itself already gone: a Harlem of old people, sitting outside their houses, communing and watchful. Her guides—writers, intellectuals, eccentrics, regular people with sharp eyes and plenty to say—saw Harlem when it was the capital of African America, and then what happened after. And in the last years of Harlem’s particular identity she herself gets involved, trying to halt the steamroller of money, to no avail. Her elegant and ruefully lyrical book, with writing that flows across the pages like a stream, is both an account of a personal journey and an act of public witnessing: “It is a fact that closes in on itself, like the mythical serpent that devours its own tail: This is our land that we don’t own.” This is one for the permanent library.

Luc Sante’s The Other Paris will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in Fall 2015.