Harlem is described by the narrator as a place where kids can become evil or hardened "so quick, so quick." It is a place crowded with "dark" people. As Sonny and the narrator take a cab to Lenox Street in Harlem, a familiar place, the narrator notes it as "filled with a hidden menace." His father, the narrator says, was always on the lookout for a better place they could move, but he died before it could happen.
Harlem is a dangerous place, where the "street," a life of crime or drug addiction, always hovers close by. Sonny says, as he throws a cigarette into an alley, that he wants to to get away from Harlem's "stink" of "garbage cans."
The narrator is clear that the setting is a predatory environment, ready to eat up young Black men like Sonny. The narrator has built metaphoric walls of normalcy to keep its danger at bay, becoming a math teacher, marrying, and having a family.
But Harlem is also a place of music and faith. The narrator remembers, as a child, the sound of the tambourine from nearby churches outside his windows. Near the end, the narrator watches a revival meeting, with the beating of a tambourine and the singing of spirituals. It attracts a crowd, and the narrator sees the faces of people who have suffered, such as the woman who has been battered. Something in the music tugs at his soul, as it does Sonny's. Sonny says of the singer:
her voice reminded me for a minute of what heroin feels like sometimes—when it's in your veins. It makes you feel sort of warm and cool at the same time. And distant. And—and sure.
Harlem is described as a place that both grinds people up and creates beauty out of the pain.