Known in the early 20th century as the site of a black cultural renaissance and later as a symbol of urban decline, Harlem has long been considered a center of African-American life. This unique community is showcased in an attractive new photo-essay book, Spirit of Harlem: A Portrait of America's Most Exciting Neighborhood. The collection was created by writer Craig Marberry and photographer Michael Cunningham, the duo who previously collaborated on Crowns, a surprise hit book about the church hats worn by black women.
In their latest effort, Marberry and Cunningham steer clear of celebrities and focus their attention on the everyday people who live and work in Harlem. This storied neighborhood on the northern end of Manhattan, which the poet Langston Hughes described as an "island within an island," is home to people of diverse ethnicities and occupations. Spirit of Harlem profiles many of these residents with black-and-white photos and brief essays based on Marberry's interviews with the subjects. We meet a literary agent, a preacher, a nun and a saxophonist, among others, who share their vision of the neighborhood they call home. "I love Harlem," says hat shop owner Junior "Bunn" Leonard, a native of Trinidad who makes one-of-a-kind hats for his customers. "If I took my hat shop downtown, I could get two, three times, what I get in Harlem. But it's not about that."As Gordon Parks notes in a foreword, these voices taken together produce a varied portrait of this changing and revitalized community, reflecting "the vivid soul of Harlem, light refracted into a rainbow of colors."