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Revisiting The Renaissance In 'Harlem Is Nowhere'

Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts has had Harlem on her mind since she was a high school student in Houston reading the work of Jean Toomer, Ann Petry, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and others. In 2002, a recent Harvard graduate, she moved into an apartment without a kitchen on 130th near Lenox. Her first book, Harlem Is Nowhere, is a tender, improvisational memoir of several years spent exploring the myths of this capital of African America and the realities of its 21st-century incarnation.

Rhodes-Pitts spends hours in a branch library on 135th Street, reading of the beginnings of Harlem as a farm suburb settled in the 1880s, its transformation in 1905 when the black migrations from the South began to fill its borders, and the point in 1925 when Alain Locke defined Harlem as a physical center that "focuses a people," and set the stage for the Harlem Renaissance. She goes on a walking tour with tourists, attends community meetings about rezoning and muses on African street vendors, empty lots, chalk messages scribbled on sidewalks and relics of times past, like James Van Der Zee's formal Depression-era photographs and the overstuffed scrapbooks of the early 20th-century eccentric Alexander Gumby.

From an older woman named Ms. Minnie, who lives in her building, she learns how to be a caring neighbor. Ms. Minnie is from a black town in South Carolina and at one point confides that her maiden name was Sojourner. "She looked me squarely in the eye before continuing," Rhodes-Pitts writes. "That's not a slave name."

The author borrows her title from Ralph Ellison's essay about post World War II Harlem as a metaphoric space in which "the major energy of the imagination goes not into creating works of art, but to overcome the frustration of social discrimination."

The question of whether or not this metaphoric space remains, and what the future will bring, hovers over these graceful meditative essays. Rhodes-Pitts gives no easy answers. Harlem Is Nowhere is a pilgrimage, a celebration and a cautionary note. It also heralds the arrival of a writer whose voice fits right in with the literary forebears she reveres.

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Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short-story collections Stealing The Fireand California Tales. Her reviews, interviews, and cultural reporting have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Daily Beast, the Paris Review, the Boston Globe, The Guardian, Bookforum, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and BBC.comamong others. She is a current vice president/online and former president of the National Book Critics Circle.