Harlem conjures up visions of the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural revival of black art and literature often associated with literary figures such as Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston. Spanning nearly two decades — from the 1920s to the 1940s — the Harlem Renaissance ended with the Harlem Riot of 1943.
Some black artists and scholars, such as Alain Locke, viewed Harlem as a cultural Mecca and saw the Harlem Renaissance as the age of the New Negro because black artists were given an opportunity to define their humanity through their art. But others, such as Richard Wright, saw it as a time when white benefactors, enamored with primitivism, supported — and eventually exploited — artists willing to create conventional Negro art. In his essay, "Blueprint for Negro Writing," Wright contends that "New Negro" artists were often perceived by their white benefactors "as though they were French poodles who do clever tricks."
But for the thousands of Southern blacks who came to New York during the Great Migration (1920s to 1940s), Harlem was a City of Dreams. Like the narrator, they were amazed by the freedom urban blacks enjoyed. To Southern sharecroppers, used to working on plantations their forebears worked on as slaves, Harlem's lifestyle must have seemed truly astonishing. But with the poverty of blacks living in crowded, substandard tenements ruled by ruthless landlords, came disillusionment and, like the narrator, Harlem was seen in a different light.
In his essay, "Harlem is Nowhere," Ellison describes living in Harlem as "dwell[ing] in the very bowels of the city [with] "its crimes, its casual violence, its crumbling buildings [and its] vermin invaded rooms. . . ." He also contends that Harlem symbolizes "the Negro's perpetual alienation in the land of his birth."
Ellison often merges fantasy and reality. Based on his experiences living in Harlem, the narrator's struggles are understood. He strives to survive and succeed in the City of Dreams that, for him, became a nightmare.
As the narrator points out, the heart of Harlem is 125th Street, although many of Harlem's social and cultural attractions — the famous Schomburg Center for African American Culture and the Harlem Branch of the YMCA, where both Ellison and Langston Hughes lived during the Harlem Renaissance — are located on 135th Street.