Remembering his move to Harlem in 1917, Jamaican poet Claude McKay recalled, "Harlem was my first positive reaction to American life. It was like entering a paradise of my own people."
But even during the storied Harlem Renaissance that began soon after McKay's arrival — and that gave America some of its greatest music and literature from the last century — Harlem also led the nation in poverty, unemployment and infant mortality.
That's just one of many contradictions explored in two new books on Harlem.
Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts' Harlem Is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America is a dazzling series of linked essays on Harlem as the living embodiment of "a yearning for the past from which our ancestors were irrevocably torn" — a place and time that might somehow mend the fractured history of African-Americans and make it whole.
Jonathan Gill's ambitious Harlem is a sprawling history of Harlem's 400 years, from its beginnings as a small Dutch village to its current gentrification.
Rhodes-Pitts takes her title from a 1948 Ralph Ellison essay, and her book is crisscrossed by a similar ambivalence toward the very idea of trying to represent what Harlem means — knowing as she does that if Harlem has been a haven for African-Americans, it has also been a ghetto.
Rhodes-Pitts never loses sight of what she describes as "the original conundrum of the place: it is the result of bigotry and exclusion" — an area into which African-Americans were pushed rather than one they freely chose.
The result is a place where, as is true of the famous Langston Hughes poem, the dream is always deferred — where the black mecca that Harlem might be is continually undone or delayed, much like the longed-for promised land that can only be glimpsed from the mountaintop.
Rhodes-Pitts honors the dreamers imagining what Harlem could be while never losing sight of how they were thwarted by the disconnect between the heaven they envisioned and the reality they lived.
Many of the names will be familiar; Rhodes-Pitts gives us wonderful, fresh readings of writers such as Hughes, Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin.
But some of her best pages focus on lesser-known or forgotten heroes, each trying to reclaim and preserve parts of African-American history in libraries and scrapbooks, wax museums and sepia photographs.
Rhodes-Pitts also introduces a man who writes chalk messages on Lenox Avenue exhorting Harlem's young to respect themselves and their community — and then watches the rain wash them away.
She lets us meet her neighbors — many of whom, like her, came to Harlem from the South — and she is refreshingly candid about how much of what they say she does not understand while underscoring how many Harlem stories never get told.
We meet political agitators of all stripes, all of whom she treats with respect, even as she recognizes how many of them have been twisted by anger and despair, isolation and poverty.
And we watch Rhodes-Pitts become an agitator herself as she joins the fight to preserve Harlem's fabled 125th Street from efforts to turn it into a corridor of luxury condominiums, necessarily resulting in the eviction of many who live and work there now.
Harlem Is Nowhere is at its most anguished in tracing this often quixotic battle to stop Realtors and politicians from making good on what James Weldon Johnson prophesied 85 years ago: African-Americans will have a hard time "holding this choice bit of Manhattan Island."
"It all comes down to a point that is as simple as it is terrible," Rhodes-Pitts writes. Even as she recalls Malcolm X's insistence that "land is the basis of all independence," she confronts the reality that "this is our land that we don't own."
Ostensibly, she is speaking here of Harlem. But her words also summarize the entire African-American experience, and 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.
It is telling that in his own account in Harlem of the fight over 125th Street, Gill asks rhetorically how one could see the new development as a bad thing.
Gill is frequently dismissive toward both the political left and race-based nationalism, taking potshots at each and therefore failing to fully grasp the appeal or significance of either.
It's frankly hard to grasp the significance of much in this long slog of a book, because Gill has never met a scrap of information he didn't love, and he doesn't wear his research lightly.
Harlem is stuffed with lists of hotels, churches, clubs and stores, all treated in the same briskly informative manner that one expects from a guidebook. As with a guidebook, there is much here that is useful in finding one's way around, particularly in those sections of the book covering earlier and less familiar periods in Harlem's history.
Gill gives Harlem's various immigrant populations their due, and when he takes time to focus on some of the hundreds of interesting Harlemites he covers — with Alexander Hamilton, James Reese Europe and Malcolm X being representative examples — he can be an entertaining storyteller.
More often, however, Gill is too concerned about leaving anyone out of his story to take the time he needs to tell us much about the people within it.
Gill is also prone to exaggeration and generalization. An early survey of Manhattan did not reshape it "almost" as much as Ice Age glaciers. It's a stretch to say that the sound of Harlem is "always audible" in Rodgers and Hammerstein; Oscar Hammerstein left Harlem when he was 6. A generalization about why Jews left Harlem and Italians didn't isn't supported. And Gill's suggestion that the poor don't like to read about their own hard lives is not only unsupported but patronizing.
Covering less ground in fewer pages, Rhodes-Pitts ultimately says far more than Gill because she heeds the advice of an old Harlem woman who befriends her and to whom she dedicates the book: She stops and she stares, really looking at what she sees and listening to what she hears.
That doesn't just mean chronicling the surrounding streets with the sharp eye of a reporter in prose, reminiscent of Joan Didion's, that manages to be both remarkably cool and distinctly elegiac. It also means taking the literal and figurative journey promised by her book's subtitle toward the Harlem that she and so many others have dreamed.
It's no accident that Rhodes-Pitts ends her book, after marching in Harlem's annual African American Day Parade, "determined to make my way home." 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.