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A National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist and New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Harlem Is Nowhere brilliantly captures the essence of Harlem at a crucial moment in the neighborhood's history. 

For a century Harlem has been celebrated as the capital of black America, a thriving center of cultural achievement and political action. As gentrification encroaches, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts untangles the myth and meaning of Harlem's legacy. Examining the epic Harlem of official history and the personal Harlem that begins at her front door, Rhodes-Pitts introduces us to a wide variety of characters, past and present. At the heart of their stories, and her own, is the hope carried over many generations, hope that Harlem would be the ground from which blacks fully entered America's democracy.

Rhodes-Pitts is a brilliant new voice who, like other significant chroniclers of places — Joan Didion on California, or Jamaica Kincaid on Antigua — captures the very essence of her subject.

"No geographic or racial qualification guarantees a writer her subject . . . Only interest, knowledge, and love will do that — all of which this book displays in abundance." — Zadie Smith, Harper's

What's Inside

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Reader Reviews

Praise

"An elegant writer...Rhodes-Pitts unearths gems from Harlem's rich history."
Joseph P. Williams JR., The Minneapolis Star Tribune
"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."—Jane Ciabattari, NPR.com
"This book's alive...it's intoxicating."
Dwight Garner, The New York Times
"Rhodes-Pitts is one of that rare breed of writer who, on the strength of her hypnotic voice and idiosyncratic thinking, can turn every sentence into a crooked finger, impossible to resist."
Laura Miller, Salon
"Rhodes-Pitts honors the dreamers imagining what Harlem could be, while never losing sight of how each of them was thwarted by the disconnect between the heaven they envisioned and the reality they lived."
Mike Fischer, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"Dazzling riffs on the cultural citadel of Black America."
Boyd Tonkin, "Best Books of the Year," Independent
"Rhodes-Pitts reveals, even to those who may have never ventured into Harlem, why it is a place of dreams and why it endures."
--W. Ralph Eubanks, National Public Radio
"A fine debut...Like a young Joan Didion, Rhodes-Pitts stands in the corner with her notebook out...And, as with Didion, the thread keeping these disparate scraps together is her singular voice."
Thomas Chatterton Williams, The American Scholar
"Enchanting...Rhodes-Pitts's Harlem is a place worth fighting for."
Kaiama Glover, New York Times Book Review
"Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts give a marvellous tour through decades of iconic writings on Harlem....She commands a deep knowledge of the literature and applies it to individual buildings and streets--a unique and useful contribution. She quotes and intends to live by Alain Locke's 'The New Negro,' which warned, 'History must restore what slavery took away.' This is an admirable sentiment."
Julia Vitullo-Martin, New York Post
"An elegant, scholarly writer...Rhodes-Pitts unearths gems from Harlem's rich history, including the White Rose Society, a 1920s benevolent organization for young black girls migrating to the city; Raven Chanticler, a sharecropper's son who became a legendary dance and founder of black history wax museum, and I.S. Alexander Gumby, a turn-of-the-century intellectual who catalogued black history in a series of scrapbooks."
Joseph P. Williams JR., The Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Starting as a solitary Texas transplant in a kitchenless apartment on One-hundred-twentieth Street, Rhodes-Pitts uses photographs, books, and stories of lifetime locals to consider her own place as an observer an inhabitant of what is in many ways the symbolic epicentre of black America."
Antonia Jedrzejczak, Vogue
"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....It 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."—Jane Ciabattari, NPR.com
"Ms. Rhodes-Pitts's is a voice you'll want to hear again, to recapture the scratchy buzz she's put into your head....Ms. Rhodes-Pitts drops us inside her wide-scanning cranium as she searches for her own version of Harlem...She seems most at home when she's flipping, pointedly, through the work of writers like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin and Ellison himself. She has interesting, complicated things to say about each of them....She can be just as excellent--funny and endearing--about her own way of being in the world....This book's alive...It's intoxicating."
Dwight Garner, The New York Times
"Any neighborhood worthy of the name is a kind of shared dream, and no neighborhood in America better illustrates this principle than Harlem....it also has Rhodes-Pitts to account for its dream life, for what almost happened there but didn't and for what did happen but is only half-remembered, for what its people longed for and never got and for what they loved but could not hold onto....Rhodes-Pitts is one of that rare breed of writer who, on the strength of her hypnotic voice and idiosyncratic thinking, can turn every sentence into a crooked finger, impossible to resist....She is almost always willing to stop and listen and take notes before it's all gone forever....In a way Harlem Is Nowhere is a ghost story, whispering to the world that the Harlem of its dreams is going, going, gone and the Harlem that's now here (as opposed to 'nowhere') will likely soon follow. Catch it while you can."—Laura Miller, Salon
"Rhodes-Pitts offers a stirring exploration of Harlem's geography, actual and imagined....She crafts a compelling narrative voice that is bracingly intimate yet capable of dilating to encompass a chorus of voice and opinions not her own."
Adam Bradley, The Barnes & Noble Review
"Harlem, once walled off by geography, then closed again by the dark will of the country, opens like a light to take its proper place at the center of the American spirit. Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts...has given us a guidebook for this kind of remembrance. Her book is not so much a history of Harlem as a kind of memoir of history. In its account of one person's ascent up the imposing hill of centuries of Harlem's stories, we have an example of how to read ourselves into the neighborhood, of how to think and how to believe when we rise out of the 125th Street Station and into the bright heart of Black America."—David Kennedy Jones, The New York Times
"Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts's new book resists easy classification: It's part literary walking tour, part urban history, part memoir, and all beautiful prose....As Ralph Ellison, from whose 1948 essay Rhodes-Pitts borrows her book's title, wrote in Invisible Man: 'This really was Harlem, and now all the stories which I had heard of the city-within-a-city leaped alive in my mind...This was not a city of realities but of dreams.' Reading Harlem Is Nowhere, we're also watching Rhodes-Pitts chase this dream, and it's impossible to look away."—Laura Moser, "Double X," Slate
"Harlem Is Nowhere...is a dazzling series of linked essays on Harlem as the living embodiment of...a place and time that might somehow mend the fractured history of African Americans and make it whole....Rhodes-Pitts honors the dreamers imagining what Harlem could be, while never losing sight of how each of them was thwarted by the disconnect between the heaven they envisioned and the reality they lived....We meet political agitators of all stripes, all of whom she treats with respect....It is her ability to not only see Harlem on its own terms but also grasp why Harlem matters that makes this book so exceptional....[Rhodes-Pitts has] the sharp eye of a reporter in prose, reminiscent of Joan Didion, that manages to be both remarkably cool and distinctly elegiac....She is walking toward a destination she has sought from the beginning--brave enough to seek it, and honest enough to tell us that she may never arrive."—Mike Fischer, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"Boldly original cultural-studies sleuthing....A personal and poetic work, as the author attempts to reconcile her own street-level observances with the dreamlike utopian vision of Harlem."
Michael Sandlin, Time Out New York
"For the book's author, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, Harlem is a notional place, an idea threatened by a reality, existing most concretely in the minds of those who have loved and defended it. Rhodes-Pitts is one such, and her account of this stretch of land that may or may not begin at 110th Street and end at 168th is fittingly idiosyncratic, as much meditation as history....Like [Virginia] Woolf, Rhodes-Pitts is bookish and devoted, interested in everyday matters: how people walk and talk, dress, go about their day....Here individual experience is honored, and judgment reserved....this is a lovely book about the romance--and dangers--of bibliophily....No geographic or racial qualification guarantees a writer her subject....Only interest, knowledge, and love will do that--all of which this book displays in abundance."—Zadie Smith, Harper's
"By weaving the past and the present together, Rhodes-Pitts reveals, even to those who may have never ventured into Harlem, why it is a place of dreams and why it endures. And most important, she pushes her readers to explore the books and writers that made Harlem such a place of imagination and memory. For a reader like me, it just doesn't get any better."
W. Ralph Eubanks, National Public Radio
"Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts is a gifted young writer."
USA TODAY
"An expression of Harlem's wondrous complexities...Rhodes-Pitts' ambivalence-her deeply rooted participation in Harlem life and her distant, reportorial observation and documentation of the Harlem world-is the book's core. The author-protagonist's negotiation of these conflicting roles produce the work's most searing, intelligent passages."
Walton Muyumba, Dallas Morning News
"A soul-scoping personal essay and a well-researched, deeply indexed, would-be-boring-if-not-written-by-a-Sista version of Harlem history. Rhodes-Pitts' work here is significant because...[it] personalizes and accurately describes the history, architecture, humanism, and depth of Harlem in a manner satisfactory to longtime borough residents, short-term visitors, and those who have never set foot there."
Ebony
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