Behind The Scenes

Harlem Then and Now: Interview With Camilo José Vergara

Camilo José Vergara, East 118th Street at 2nd Avenue, 1991, Inkjet print, New-York Historical Society, Gift of the artist

Photographer Camilo José Vergara has been documenting the neighborhood of Harlem for nearly four decades, chronicling the changes, both good and bad, that have come to the area. Through his lens he has served as an almost impartial observer, cataloging storefronts and street corners as they open and close, letting the viewer see the changes and finding their own conclusions. A collection of his work is currently on view, so we spoke to the artist about the neighborhood, its history and its future.

Your images are presented in a very straightforward way, letting viewers draw their own conclusions about the changes in the neighborhood. Do you have any opinions about the changes in Harlem that you’d like people to see?

My approach is one that documents a place, hoping to capture its present look and through repeated visits its development over time. My aim is not to find out how to make a place better. but to allow the place reveals itself. My goal is for people to form their own opinions, not to tell them:  “This you should know.”

What are the changes you’ve noticed yourself?

Harlem is one of the few reborn inner city neighborhoods in the country. I’ve done a similar documentation project in Detroit a city whose population continues to shrink and decay. At one point, back in the mid-80s to the beginning of the 90s, Harlem was pretty much up there with Detroit. Central Harlem was one third the population of what it was during its heyday. The outlook was terrible. They had to close hospitals, schools, police stations. But after the mid 1980s the city of New York invested in infrastructure and services bringing an influx of private capital to Harlem in the late 1990s.

Harlem has been gaining population and racial and ethnic diversity since the 1990s, Central Harlem was nearly 99% black.   There was an influx of Latinos and Caucasians to the area, many of them middle class families. Harlem has become the showcase of an urban area coming back.

Why do you think Harlem is seeing the growth and Detroit isn’t?

Although they’re built in completely different ways they shared the abandonment, the empty lots, the trash and violence.  Detroit was the engine of growth, and in New York Manhattan was that engine. New York has more resources. By 1980 Wall Street was doing fine and the city was more  affluent. The tax revenue in Detroit keeps going down. Harlem, instead of cutting down services began to rebuild sidewalks, install new streetlights, plant trees and rebuild parks.  Morningside was in terrible shape and was all made new. At the time I thought that within five years it would be full of trash, and I’m glad I was wrong!

Would you ever give this photographic treatment to another neighborhood in the city? Why has Harlem inspired you so?

The South Bronx is similar, but it doesn’t have the high end life style that Harlem has.  That high end does not exist in the Bronx or Central Brooklyn. They don’t have the mix of restaurants, luxury buildings and services that thrive in Harlem.

You spoke about documenting the destruction that happened in New York at the height of the urban crisis, but you hear a lot of people complaining about things like “gentrification” now. Do you think Harlem is better now? Worse? Just different?

There is a cost that long time resident have had to pay. You put a new building in an empty lot, and across the street from public housing, the purchasing power of the people in the new building changes the block. They bring upscale stores, big supermarkets and raise the rents for the mom and pop stores.   Development is forcing people who remained in Harlem through the bad times to leave.

Is that causing problems in the neighborhood?

It’s not that they’re getting into fights, but there is resentment. They verbalize it. They’re writing it on the walls, but they’re not acting on it. There’s a very aggressive police presence, which young minority people resent. Things on the whole are much better than they used to be, but poor neighborhood residents have been forced to move out and many of those that stay feel that Harlem is not theirs anymore.

Do you have a favorite building or block in Harlem?

It all depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for a spot to perch yourself for a glass of wine, I go to my friend’s penthouse on the top of a former hospital. To feel nature in the city I walk in Morningside Park near the waterfall.  If you want to see what New York looks like from high, you go to the roof of the Polo Grounds. If I want to see people I go to 125th Street.


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