The Harlem That Was

Photographs of New York's most interesting neighborhood in its most neglected age.

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Camilo José Vergara

"Harlem, 1970-2009: Photographs by Camilo José Vergara" is on exhibit at the New York Historical Society until July 12.

I began my documentation of Harlem in 1970. The neighborhood was like a rundown version of Paris in which life was lived outside, on the streets, amid the fading glory of its grand boulevards. Once imposing and elegant buildings were now derelict; the streets were dirty; parks were semi-abandoned and dangerous; the schools were decrepit; its most famous figure was American Gangster inspiration Frank Lucas. Even so, a culture, different and separate from that of mainstream America, was thriving in Harlem's many nooks and crannies. The vibrant street life, the scenes of destruction all around me, and the constant fear of being mugged made my visits exciting and unpredictable.

Since I liked the photographs of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, and Aaron Siskind, I was delighted to see in the streets of Harlem many scenes evocative of the ones these masters had captured: children jumping on discarded mattresses and opening fire hydrants to spray friends and passers-by alike.

Sometimes I photographed weddings as they spilled out onto the streets. I went inside tenement buildings to make portraits of old ladies sitting in the hallways. I photographed men playing dominos, naive commercial signs, torn and faded advertisements, and, of course, graffiti.

 

Read more of this article and check out Camilo José Vergara photographs on Slate.com .