Rating 4 stars
Above Sugar Hill is a collection of short stories by Linda Mannheim, set in the Washington Heights area of Upper Manhattan. I picked it up from the Influx Press stall at the Manchester Indie Book Fair at the start of the month because I have a good friend who used to live near Sugar Hill, in Hamilton Heights, and I visited her twice when she lived on St Nicholas Ave.
By the time I visited, this candidly multiracial area was moving towards gentrification. There were still pockets of the old community left, but most of the apartment blocks had been cleaned up so that professionals who couldn’t afford to live downtown any more could stay on Manhattan.
I loved visiting. It said New York to me like nowhere else that my friend took me. It excited me to be in the place where the Sugar Hill Gang had started out. It excited me to walk past carnicerias and bodegas, to cross St Nick and Amsterdam to head down to Broadway past brownstones and wood shingled row houses, to walk up to Washington Heights to see the Morris-Jumel mansion on our way to the post office.
Mannheim’s stories gave me another view of this area, an earlier incarnation, full of dilapidation, poverty, absent parents and latch-key kids, and abuse in three flavours – physical, sexual and drug. It wasn’t an easy read. Often, the protagonist of the story is a young girl, experiencing life too quickly, trying to stay a kid but forced into adult situations because her parents are out working all day and into the night and then distracted or violently over-interested when they get home. She’s usually a young girl who becomes a young woman that leaves the city, trying to escape the hardships of her young life, and we meet her as she’s looking back on the past she sought to escape, a returnee to the city that can never be shaken off. Sometimes she’s an observer, not a protagonist, documenting the things happening around her – the walls that fall off buildings, the local activist who is murdered, the woman who dresses like she’s Marilyn Monroe.
Mannheim brings out the sounds and smells of the city, the terrifying fascination of the local crazies, the seediness of the bars. She conjures the uniqueness of the subway. She describes the queasiness of never quite feeling safe in the place you call home, and the sensation of being broken because everything around you is broken.
All of this is encapsulated in the best story in the book, Dropping, which deals with growing up poor, finding an escape route through education and the military, experiencing friendships and relationships that are always off-kilter because you have to silently negotiate which side of the district you grew up on, and the shock waves from the terror attack on the World Trade Center. I found one episode in this story particularly affecting, when the main character is watching the live reporting of the attacks and, not believing it to be true, heads up to the roof of his apartment building to see that the Twin Towers are gone. I remember watching on the news here in the UK and simultaneously not believing my eyes and not doubting the thing that was playing out in front of me. I found it fascinating that people watched what was happening blocks away on the TV, bearing witness in what seems to me to be a very modern, very American way. And when Mannheim describes this character leaving Washington Heights to visit his friend in Park Slope across the river, and the ash hanging heavy in the air, the smell clinging to his skin, I realised that I could never imagine what it was like to be there in that moment. It will always be a remote, visual memory for me. It made me think about what the area around Grenfell Tower must have been like in the days following that awful fire.
There are other highlights in the collection. Tenor caught my imagination, as did The Dust that Rises from Bombs and When It Breaks. Most of all the afterword grabbed me. In it, Mannheim describes her relationship with Washington Heights, how she felt growing up there, how she felt as an observer from afar, and as someone trying to explain the area to people who had never known hardship, and why she went back. She lists books about the history of New York, in particular the reasons behind the collapse of areas like the Bronx, that now I want to read so that I can understand that city differently. All through the collection, reference is glancingly made to the ethnicity of the individual characters. Mannheim explains why in her afterword.
…when you create a narrative in which a neighborhood takes on a single identity, in which a neighborhood was once a solid thing and then becomes another, you take up the space that individuals need to tell the stories of their lives – you remove the streets and the buildings and the relationships that played out there.
For a speculative purchase based on its title, this short story collection has certainly delivered a lot. As I made my purchase, I chatted with the guy from Influx Press who told me that a follow up collection will be published in the autumn of this year. I can’t wait.