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When I first moved to New York, I was a college student trying to make Harlem my home. I had a lot to learn. As a Californian, I thought Chucks were all-season shoes; I’ve even worn them in the snow and gotten my toes stiff on late-night walks from the library or the 116th Street train station back to my dorm. However, by my sophomore year, I knew the most important things: where on Malcolm XI to find the shea butter I needed to keep my skin from turning ashen in the winter, the barber shop where I could get a decent complexion, and the grocery store where I could get a decent complexion could buy Red Rooster Hot Sauce.
A serious literature nerd, I went to Columbia University because I wanted to be a writer, which meant being like the writers I read as a high school student—Larsen, Hughes, Hurston. And that meant being in Harlem. I often found myself at Minton’s Playhouse on 118th, or hanging out in St. Nicholas Park, or absorbing history through osmosis at the Studio Museum. I wanted to be part of Harlem’s long cultural heritage and the steady stream of newcomers who came to New York to transform themselves into what they were meant to be.
When I had the prospect of returning to New York last winter after a decade in California’s Bay Area, I knew I wanted Harlem to be my home again. However, if I was hoping for a return to the charming literary imagination that carried me as a college boy, I was unlucky. When I first started my apartment search, a real estate agent described the rental market as the worst he’d seen in his long career. The pandemic — or at least the city’s patience to fight it — was coming to an end. My apartment hunt plunged me headlong into a hectic and undignified reality.
Competitors greeted me at every open house I went to. Like me, they had scoured StreetEasy, Trulia, and Craigslist; Like me, they had been tempted by digitally placed furniture and airbrushed interiors, duped by wide-angle photos of spacious living rooms that felt like crypts. Some eager people came with application packages while others bid up the rent. On a Saturday afternoon in March, I walked to a fifth-floor walk-in building that one realtor described as “a sizeable bedroom.” It left me discouraged: the wooden floors sloped subtly towards the center of the apartment, and the bedroom could easily fit a full-size bed, maybe a small dresser, but nothing else. The bathroom was a closet; I could barely stand in the only actual closet. When I asked if the dingy walls would be repainted before the apartment was rented, the realtor, a lanky Zoomer in a fur coat, blinked at me. “No, the landlord won’t do that,” he said, before pointing out a neighborhood bar that he promised would serve bottomless mimosas for brunch.