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The first time I moved to New York, I was a college student and tried to make Harlem my home. I had a lot to learn. As a Californian, I thought Chucks were shoes for the whole year; I even wore them in the snow, letting my toes stiffen on late-night walks from the library or the 116th Street train station to my dorm. By my second year, however, I knew the most important things: where Malcolm XI could find the shea butter I needed to keep my skin from going ashy in the winter, the barbershop where I could get a decent fade and the grocery store where I could buy Red Rooster hot sauce.
Passionate about literature, I studied at Columbia because I wanted to be a writer, which meant being like the writers I read in high school – Larsen, Hughes, Hurston. And that meant being in Harlem. So I often found myself at Minton’s Playhouse on 118th, or hanging out at St. Nicholas Park, or soaking up history through osmosis at the Studio Museum. I wanted to be part of Harlem’s long cultural heritage and the steady stream of arrivals that had come to New York to transform into who they were meant to be.
Last winter, as I faced the prospect of returning to New York after a decade in California’s Bay Area, I knew I wanted Harlem to be my home again. If I was hoping for a return to the charming literary whimsy that sustained me as a student, I’ve been out of luck. As I began my home search, a broker described the rental market as the worst he had seen in his long career. The pandemic — or at least the city’s patience in fighting it — was coming to an end. My search for housing plunged me headlong into a frenetic and unworthy reality.
Competitors have greeted me at every open house I’ve been to. Like me, they had trawled StreetEasy and Trulia and Craigslist; like me, they had been tempted by digitally placed furniture and airbrushed interiors, deceived by wide-angle photos of spacious living rooms that looked like crypts. Some impatient people showed up with applications, while others raised the rent. One Saturday afternoon in March, I wandered in to see a fifth-floor walk-up, which one broker described as “one big bedroom.” It left me deflated: the wooden floors sloped slightly towards the center of the apartment and the bedroom could fit a double bed perfectly, maybe a small chest of drawers, but nothing else. The bathroom was a closet; I could barely stand in the closet alone. When I asked if the dingy walls would be repainted before the unit was rented, the broker, a lanky zoom in a fur coat, winked at me. “No, that’s not something the owner will do,” he said, before pointing to a neighborhood bar that he promised served bottomless mimosas at brunch.