The novel starts and ends in the Grimes family home in Harlem. It's a poor neighborhood, and there are references to rats, harlots, and other not-so-nice neighbors. This particular area of New York City is predominantly African American, and famous for the boom of music, art and literature known as the Harlem Renaissance.
Race is On
In 1920s Harlem, African-American writers and artists were experiencing a renaissance, and Baldwin's work is definitely an heir to this artistic boomtime.
The neighborhood had traditionally been the home of black residents, but around the turn of the century the population increased greatly, due in part to the influx of African-Americans fleeing the racial oppression in the South.
By setting the novel in Harlem, Baldwin is really zooming in on the issues of race and racism in the US. When John leaves Harlem for Central Park (not far, really), it's like he's stepped into a different country… that's just how segregated New York City was.
Going to the Chapel
Besides the apartment and the city streets, the great majority of the novel takes place in the Temple of the Fire Baptized. The storefront church is, for John at the beginning of the novel, a dark, poor place that he wants to escape. He fantasizes about getting the heck out of Dodge:
John was not much interested in his people and still less in leading them anywhere, but the phrase so often repeated rose in his mind like a great brass gate, opening outward for him on a world where people did not live in the darkness of his father's house, did not pray to Jesus in the darkness of his father's church, where he would eat good food, and wear fine clothes, and go to the movies as often as he wished. (1.1.28)
Compared to the dark, repressive atmosphere of home and church (and John's at church so much that the two places are basically the same), the wild world full of cinematic delights sounds pretty sweet.
Room for Flashbacks
That's not to say that all the action takes place in Harlem. There are lots of flashbacks, where the older generation (Gabriel, Elizabeth, and Florence) remembers their youth in the South, before they moved north. Check out our "Contrasting Regions" section in Themes for more on the way that the South is portrayed.