The Last Block in Harlem: A Review
"You all a bunch of fools!" she yelled. "Don't you know that the more trash you throw on the ground, the less this block is going to be worth? You ignorant asses know what happens after that? People are going to come in here and buy these buildings real, REAL cheap, raise the rent, kick you out, hire you to clean up the trash, fire you from that job, and rent the places out at triple the price. Now then, where are you going to go after that? Where are they going to push you after that?" -- Christopher Herz, "The Last Block in Harlem"

"Writers are always selling somebody out." -- Joan Didion

I don't think there is a realistic solution to the problem of "gentrification," the process by which a neighborhood with a bad reputation becomes "cool, exciting, and real," causing the prices to shoot up and causing the displacement of long-time residents. It is frustrating to watch beloved things change, and perhaps the best we can hope for is to seize the present and to be constantly aware that nothing in this world is permanent.


What do the pre-Socratic philosophers say?

Thales says that neighborhoods with a bad reputation are all just water, changing and flowing like melting wax into different forms with the passage of time. Alternatively, Anaximander says that neighborhoods with a bad reputation have no substance, and that gentrification occurs as a result of necessary cosmic differentiation: things must always become their opposite.

Pythagoras says gentrification is all about numbers. Demographics. Wages. Rents. Heraclitus says gentrification is all about fire. All things are in perpetual flux, and neighborhoods with a bad reputation that originate from primordial fire also return there. Parminides declares that the reputation of a neighborhood is simply a point of view and that all matter is part of one solid, unchanging block. You know, THE BLOCK. Xenophanes calls this uncarved block "God." Empedocles says that a neighborhood with a bad reputation is constantly in the grip of two powerful abstract forces: love (which keeps a neighborhood together) and strife (which tears a neighborhood apart).

And then there is Zeno, the philosopher of paradoxes...

"The Last Block in Harlem," by Christopher Herz, is a novel that tosses us -- like a big-eyed blinking immigrant -- into the dizzying and paradoxical nature of living in a neighborhood with a bad reputation that you grow to love, taking us on a journey through all the intellectual contortions that one must pass through as a privileged person moving to a place where the inhabitants cannot afford to leave. The daily torments and joys; the feeling of belonging to something big; the misty overlay that we slap across grim Death Holes and praise as "hard" and "true" and "strong."

A sexy place. A place with a history we don't share.

"The Last Block in Harlem" is a first-person account of a tiny section of Manhattan and a look at how it changes over time as a result of manipulation by a marketing copywriter (the narrator) who has quit his job as a result of the soul-crushing nature of his advertising work.

After finding himself unemployed, the narrator is given an old typewriter by his neighbor and begins to write down his block's stories in an effort to do something "great." In order to get these stories, he spends each day going down to street level to sweep and to pick up trash, turning himself into a neighborhood fixture and a living symbol of a new era for Harlem.

Spurred on by advice from other local street-level eccentrics, such as "The Chicken and Rice Man" and "Crossing Guard Lita," he gets involved in the serpentine world of block politics and sees how charisma, power, greed, and manipulation shape the neighborhood around him.

He decides he wants to be a part of it.

As he learns how his neighborhood works, he begins to see trouble on the horizon. Real-estate development is pricing out his "new friends" and leaving them without homes or hope. He realizes that the stories he has collected are powerful demographic data, and he comes up with a marketing plan to turn neighborhood kids into armies fueled by social responsibility, doing a deal with a local political boss to help showcase each block in Harlem as something special, variegated, and unique in order to protect them.

As his plan begins to work, he sees that he is merely being used and that his plan has warped into something else behind his back: a method to sell Harlem to the rich as a reconstructed and palatable neighborhood in which to buy property. He realizes that by throwing himself whole-heartedly into a world that he insufficiently understands he has helped to do more damage to his community than he could have ever done through casual neglect.

He is able to leverage his newfound insights to do some damage control that helps keep his own block safe from development (hence "The Last Block in Harlem") but the world around him peels away, revealing something unrecognizable.

After destroying everything good by trying to "save" it, he realizes he is alone, having ignored his one-true-love for the sake of going after his dream of greatness. In the end, he inhabits a world of ghosts and the dead, unable to cope with the living world around him and the vibrancy of change, flux, and progress. He is a tragic figure, sucked dry by thinking himself bigger and smarter than the world around him, and in the end, he finally sees his true place in the neighborhood's lifecycle.

The protagonist of this story, however, is the block itself -- a block which grows and changes and achieves some kind of serenity by the story's end. The narrator is the agent of this change, but not the recipient. Some may identify with him; some may find him monstrous.

"The Last Block in Harlem" is a novel with narrative problems, but with so much heart, enthusiasm, and strangeness that one can't help but sit back, smile, and enjoy the story, even as the horrors mount and cynicism seeps in. The block goes on, no matter who calls it home.

Herz's self-published novel is pure unrefined fiction: messy, incomplete, and savage. There is some polish here, but the guts are what shine. Because of the strong story and clean, unaffected prose, the goofy and audacious plot is forgivable. This is a novel that takes a hell of a lot of risks, and while it doesn't exactly crack out a home run, it is a solid base hit and deserves notice by anyone interested in pluck. This is a story unfiltered by the modern publishing machine and it crackles with weird energy that the machine would have siphoned away. The book is only available from Herz's own start-up publishing company, Canal Publishing.

I would never have known about "The Last Block in Harlem" if it weren't for an article in "Publisher's Weekly" about Herz's mission to sell his self-published book on the streets, not returning home each day until he managed to unload ten copies to NYC tourists and residents. You can feel this same energy and restlessness in his prose. His passion is undeniable, and it is this enthusiasm which keeps you turning the pages.

However, "The Last Block in Harlem" is raw, and not always in a good way. It frequently feels undercooked and -- especially with regard to some of the romantic components -- perfunctory. The best parts of this novel are the sections about political maneuvering on the block and the small scale victories of small people fighting for small stakes.

That's life. That's a block.

The worst parts are the scenes between the narrator and his wife, a couple who are constantly proclaiming undying love and who strive for a creepy ideal marriage that crosses over into true grotesquerie with the novel's conclusion. The gothic horror elements of their love are neat, but they don't really feel like they belong in this book.

In many ways, the book is classic drug narrative. The drug is marketing. The narrator tries to go sober, but he can't help himself. He doesn't realize that it is manipulation that is the problem, and that manipulation can never be washed clean by good intentions or used in the service of the greater good.

If I had been editing this work, I would have made the main character single. Herz is clearly not a romance novelist and his big strengths lie in politics and social realism. He has a Dickensian flair for characterization that animates his block and turns it into something real and palpable. It would be hard to write a book that delivers more "on the ground" insight and analysis of the balky and complex situation he decides to confront, and for this reason, the book is damned important.

The characters may stumble to life clumsily and through occasionally interminable digressions that do not serve the ends of the grander narrative, but they live and breathe on the page nonetheless. This is no small feat.

I enjoyed "The Last Block in Harlem" as a piece of art and as a spectacle. I think Herz will only get better as a writer as he learns to control his gifts for dialog and the artful sidestory. That being said, this is a perfect book for anyone who intends to move to New York and make a lot of changes.

Our dreams of greatness must always be tempered by patience, respect, and wisdom.

We aren't the only ones dreaming.

Posted by miracle on Wed, 21 Oct 2009 17:34:41 -0400 -- permanent link

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