In Harlem, clothes were everything, and you were judged by the sum total of your sneakers (preferably, Jordans), worth your weight in glittery, gold chains and nameplate necklaces.

Everything had to be en pointe. I’ve never since seen so many well-coiffed/manicured (read: acrylic tips) middle-schoolers. Boys would try to best each other with their 360 waves and Caesar cuts with elaborate razor designs, all of which would have been benign, if not for the “pissing contest” mentality that often followed suit.

The reality of life in Harlem was dismal for most. Having spent most of my childhood in a condo a block away from Strivers’ Row, my mother was able to shelter me from much of it. But it was never too far away. You didn’t have to walk too far before you were confronted with poverty, or filth, even if it was beneath the surface, or behind a façade. The community possessed all this culture and history, but much of it had been turned to ruin, leaving only a shadow thriving the community that once was.

Some sought comfort in bottles, and blunts, in needles and pipes. Others (likely a great deal more) used “stuff” to medicate. I remember tales from my stepfather (during his years spent working for Geoff Canada, subject of documentary, Waiting for Superman) of teens blowing their entire two-week pay check on sneakers, and then coming into work the following Monday asking to borrow money for lunch. It was a culture of posturing to compensate for broken homes and spirits, for dreams of a better life.

For many, fashion served as a source of aspiration. Those who couldn’t see past their community became apart of this insular, fantasy world, where Chloé sunglasses, and True Religion jeans helped them climb the social ranks. But there was no high society in Harlem. It served no real purpose. Still, in theory, if you could buy a piece of the lifestyle, maybe you could convince yourself that you really were living it. It was the placebo effect: retail therapy.