This Photographer Thought He Was Documenting the Economic Collapse of Black People. Instead He Watched Them Rise Up. This Is Why Hope Exists.

When photographer Camilo Jose Vergara began to notice that Harlem was collapsing all around him, he decided to document the collapse. Then a funny thing happened. Instead of getting worse, the city began to make a turnaround.

Some people would like to attribute Harlem’s turnaround to gentrification, but Harlem has always been a hub for black creativity and genius. Acclaimed African-American novelist Ann Petry came from a middle-class family, but moved to Harlem in 1938 to be with her husband and escape the expectations of her parents. When she came to Harlem, she found work as a journalist, and quickly became involved in progressive political movements.The same can be said for several other black artists who, together, made up the Harlem Renaissance.

Vergara has walked the streets of Harlem for forty years and documented both the decline and rebirth of a neighborhood, and if you look closely, you’ll also see the resilience of a people in his work.

Harlem, 1970: For more than a century, Harlem has been the epicenter of black America. One photographer has captured how the neighborhood has transformed over a period of 40 years.

Fifth Ave. at 110th St. E. Harlem 1970: At first, his mission was to document the gradual collapse of this inner city community. But the neighborhood refused to play the role he expected

113 E. 125th St., Harlem, 1994: The residents of Harlem taught him that the destiny of depopulated, decaying neighborhoods is not simply a story of continuous decline, culminating in a return to nature

431 Malcolm X Blvd., Harlem, 2010: In today's Harlem, luxury coops and condos stand on what were recently empty lots serving as unofficial junkyards and garbage dumps

260 West 125th St., Harlem, 2010: Blocks characterized by violence and the illegal drug trade are now  among the most prosperous, safe sections of Harlem

West 125th St. at Adam Clayton Powell Blvd., Harlem, 2010: For more than a century, Harlem has been the epicenter of black America, the celebrated heart of African American life and culture

Medgar Evers College band, African American Day Parade, W. 136th St. at Adam Clayton Powell Blvd., Harlem, 2010: Harlem has also been a byword and symbol for the social and economic problems that have long plagued inner-city neighborhoods: poverty, crime, disinvestment, and decay

West 123rd Street at Malcolm X Blvd., Harlem, 2010: The award-winning photographer Camilo José Vergara has walked the streets and chronicled Harlem for forty-three years

167 E. 125th St. in 1980, Harlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto is at once an unprecedented visual record of urban transformation and personal exploration

167 E. 125th St., Harlem, 1999: Vergara grew increasingly fascinated and became drawn to the neighborhood's urban fabric, the buildings that composed it

167 E. 125th St., Harlem, 2007: Repeatedly returning to the same locations over many decades, Vergara reveals a community in constant evolution

319 West 125th St., Harlem, 1977: Some areas decline as longtime businesses give way to empty storefronts, graffiti, and garbage, while others gentrify with corporate chain stores competing with local mom-and-pop enterprises

319 West 125th St., Harlem, 1996: Vergara successfully captures the ever-vital street life of this densely populated neighborhood

319 W. 125th St., Harlem, 2007: Woven throughout Vergara's images are his own accounts of his years of photographing Harlem

20 East 125th St., Harlem, 1977: His images and words narrate a story of a Harlem and its residents navigating the segregation, dereliction and slow recovery of the closing years of the twentieth century and the boom and racial integration of the twenty-first century

20 East 125th St., Harlem, 2007:  In his first decades of photographing Harlem, Vergara was often asked: 'Why make such a depressing record? It will discourage investors. You should celebrate successful projects.'

65 East 125th St., Harlem, 1977: Since 1970 'The Capital of Black America' has evolved from one of the nation's worst ghettos into a thriving multi-cultural community

65 East 125th St., Harlem, 1981: Harlem - The Unmaking of a Ghetto visually reveals that story of hard times, decline, struggle, and accomplishment

65 East 125th St., Harlem 1990: Vergara began his documentation of Harlem in the tradition of such masters as Helen Levitt and Aaron Siskind

65 East 125th St. Harlem, Aug., 2001: Photographer Camilo José Vergara has been chronicling the neighborhood for forty-three years

65 East 125th St., Harlem, 2007:  By repeatedly returning to the same locations over the course of decades, Vergara is able to show us a community that is constantly changing some areas declining, as longtime businesses give way to empty storefronts, graffiti, and garbage, while other areas gentrify, with corporate chain stores coming in to compete with the mom-and-pops

65 East 125th St., Harlem, 2011: Vergara captures the ever-present street life of this densely populated neighborhood, from stoop gatherings to graffiti murals memorializing dead rappers to impersonators honoring Michael Jackson in front of the Apollo, as well as the growth of tourism and racial integration

Source: The Daily Mail



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Was listening to this song a lil earlier and it reminded me of this thread so I thought I'd post it here. Hope u don't mind, Yvette. 

My previous comments got deleted when I was forced to delete my old account due to my not being able to sign in to comment ... oh well. 

At any rate, enjoy. :)

Bert C
Bert C

Hey Folks,

I live in New York, in fact I am going up to Harlem this week.  I was up there two weeks ago.  It's like Watchful mentioned it has some real gentrification.  It is about 33% white, and upper Harlem it's more.  High price restaurants, businesses being shut down, because of rent increases.  Also, the influx of Applebees, and other high end stores.  The Politicians has completely sold out Harlem, they are so corrupt. Morgana you are welcome to come it's not totally dead yet.  Twenty years from now if you are black, and don't have money you will be gone if not sooner.  Sad.  


This is why Harlem is probably the most dynamic, interesting and resilient places in America. I have to visit this place sometime soon. So much history. 

Bert C
Bert C

@MCarolyn1003   Do your research before you jump on the internet, with what you believe to be a "GOT YOU" statement.