The rent is about to go up for the tenants of Banneker Terrace, and for the low-income residents of this Harlem high-rise, the increase spells disaster.
Michelle does hair, but she really dreams of one day moving to Westchester County. Upstairs, her kid’s dad, Swan, doesn’t do much — but his mother, Ms. Dallas, holds down two jobs so Swan doesn’t have to wear a chicken suit in Times Square. One of Ms. Dallas’s jobs? Working at the middle school down the block where Kandese, a student from the building, reaches her breaking point.
Evictions and downgrades loom over everyone in “Stories from the Tenants Downstairs,” by Sidik Fofana, a collection of eight interconnected tales about tenants trying to survive as the building verges on gentrification. Fofana’s debut is impressive — his characters exude life and the different voices stay with the reader long after the book has been shelved.
Take Najee Bailey, a 12-year-old middle schooler (and Kandese’s boyfriend). Najee comes to life in Fofana’s prose, fantasizing about a world where street dancing can catapult his crew into stardom and away from their neighborhood. And while the reader might suspect that Najee’s dreams might stall, Fofana gives us deep insight into Najee’s passion for performance. A different circumstance, and hey, maybe Najee could have been a star?
The circumstances never let up, though. Poverty, racial disparities, jealousy, self-sabotage, rivalries, and the never-ending grind undermine every person’s hopes. Fofana’s characters are brutally human, and sometimes I worry for them, as I worry for the very real people who are facing the realities of rising rent, stagnant incomes, and impossible-to-attain mortgages.
Banneker Terrace casts a long shadow. Its gloomy hallways feel like harbingers of doom. At least to Neisha. Quanneisha B. Miles made it out of the 300-unit building and to Michigan on a gymnastics scholarship. But a devastating injury eventually brought her home. These days, she’s working for a committee to help those about to be evicted. It’s not really her thing.
But, as Neisha puts it, there weren’t too many other options: “I didn’t even wanna work for the Committee of Concern. I wanted to work for a magazine, interviewing celebrities, but every magazine from Fifth to Eighth Avenues treated my résumé like it was invisible. If I hadn’t seen the clipping in the lobby, I would have had to cut my losses and been a Macy’s perfume girl … I was a division one gymnast and now I’m back living with my parents. I already feel like a disappointment.”
The story doesn’t stop there. The person who caused her injury, the one that ended Neisha’s career and brought her home, also lives in the building and needs help facing eviction, stressing Neisha to the bone. Should she help someone who hurt her that much? Or can she simply avoid the whole fiasco and let gentrification take its course?
“Stories from the Tenants Downstairs” does not shy away from complexity. The people in these stories are inconsistent, the way actual people are inconsistent, justifying their own mistakes and petty retaliations to themselves. I found myself wanting to argue with the characters, a sign of how real they became to me. Like real living people, everyone here exists in the gray of morality, ethics, and lawfulness.
“Stories” is set during the Obama years, and Swan in 6B believes that having a Black president should mean something, but he can’t quite articulate his own desire for betterment. Swan’s best friend, just released from prison, wants to steal some food from a Chinese restaurant on his first night out. Swan, despite his inner protestations, goes along with it, rationalizing against everything inside him saying the opposite. He’s going along to get along, proving that inertia can be as powerful a social force as capitalism.
While the tenants of Banneker haven’t faced the current post-Obama world, their struggles still feel relevant. The ups and downs of the economy and the pandemic have forced a lot of people to reexamine their lives. Many folks have had to move home, many have had to downgrade, and many are worrying about what will finally push them into crime or welfare.
Sidik Fofana captures eight unique voices in eight unique predicaments. There is no one story of gentrification, there are individual people with individual struggles. “Stories” brings those people, and their very real hustles and struggles, to life.
Still — Fofana’s characters are better than most of us at getting back up again. As Ms. Dallas put it, “Maybe God like playin around with his puppets when he bored. Maybe flingin us into predicaments is his way of entertainin hisself, all the while telling us every wall we build can be crumbled down low. Maybe every hurdle that’s set up before us is meant to be cleared.”
STORIES FROM THE TENANTS DOWNSTAIRS
By Sidik Fofana
Scribner, 224 pages, $26
Adriana E. Ramírez is a writer based in Pittsburgh; she is the author of “Dead Boys: A Memoir.”