Harlem Is Nowhere
Photo: Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company
When Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts moved to New York City from sprawling Texas, she never imagined she would find the very definition of happiness in the hideous green walls and matching carpet of a Harlem brownstone with no kitchen.
My arrival in Harlem was not the arrival of a fugitive or a refugee. I had come to New York for a visit, with the faintest unresolved notion of making a move. I bought the Amsterdam News on a Thursday, when the apartment listings would be new, and called up the cheapest spots. I saved the paper, so I can tell you that the listing described as Harlem 1 bedroom / Renovated, locked doors / No fee. By Owner, for $775 with a minimum income of $40,000 that I did not have, was already taken when I called. The one bedroom for $775 with hardwood floors and new appliances in an elevator bldg and quiet neighborhood must also have gone quickly.

That would have left the studio apartment on Edgecombe Avenue for $675, which was not actually an option. A previous bad experience of cramped studio living had taught me the true nature of my Texan sense of space. At the top of the page I found the ad for 3 Rms. Floor-thru apt. No Kit. Clean, Non-smoker. Ref ’s req’ d, $750/mo. When I called the number the owner said the apartment wasn’t taken. In the margin of the now-creased and aged newsprint are the directions I quickly scrawled. I went uptown at once.

Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts
Photo: Francois Halard
The apartment was located in the very last house on the block of 120th Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues. I met the landlady on the garden level and followed her up three flights of decrepit stairs. We entered the available apartment on the top floor. Its green-painted hallways and matching green carpet were hideous, but there was light streaming in from the front and back windows and a skylight presiding over the entryway and landing. To cross from the front to back required a short stroll. It was, even without a kitchen, the very definition of happiness. I wrote a check for the first and last months’ rent, then went downtown to collect my things.

At the time, the miraculous location of a floor-through brownstone apartment—even a floor-through brownstone apartment without a kitchen and with a lamentable green hallway complemented by ugly green wall-to-wall carpeting—held a certain sense of destiny. It was somehow meant to be. The notion that an apartment without a kitchen was ever anyone’s destiny has to do with the general desperation of real estate in New York City, but it is a good indicator of how I saw the world then. I needed providence as an escort on my own ascent from the subway station into Harlem. I, too, was going to meet a place I had already filled with so many expectations. I, too, would have to match the pictures in my mind—the ones I’d invented and the ones I’d seen in books—with the world that was now my own.

Reprinted from Harlem Is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America, copyright 2011, by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, with the permission of Little, Brown and Company.

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Reprinted from Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America, copyright 2011, by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, with the permission of Little, Brown and Company.


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