Harlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto

Camilo José Vergara. Univ. of Chicago, $55 (312p) ISBN 978-0-226-85336-9
Setting out with a 35 mm camera in 1970, urban sociologist, historian, and photographer Vergara (How the Other Half Worships) has photographed the New York neighborhood of Harlem for 43 years. This stunning volume describes the lives of Harlem’s buildings and the activities of its residents. MacArthur Fellowship recipient Vergara’s archival stills are full of movement; the historic Baby Grand becomes King Party Center, a gift store, and then a Radio Shack. An ordinary address, 65 East 125th Street, first photographed in 1977, is transformed over the course of 13 photographs, becoming the Grocery Candy Smoke Shop, then a Sleepy’s, and finally, in 2011, a church. Vergara’s omnivorous camera takes in the architecture of the neighborhood (monuments, luxury apartments, projects, churches), as well as it culture (street art, parades, Thanksgiving dinners). One can almost hear two women talking in a shot taken at Jimbo’s, and sense the thoughts of the 90-year-old woman listening to Obama’s inaugural address. To experience Vergara’s photos is to live, for a spell, in Harlem. His text has similar immediacy: it’s pithy, engaging, and informative—a deft mingling of the personal and professional. “Unlike tourists taking snapshots,” Vergara writes, “people sense that I have a larger purpose.” He does, indeed: to capture and preserve Harlem’s history, the losses and the gains; this remarkable book does both. 268 color illus. (Jan.)
Reviewed on: 10/14/2013
Release date: 12/01/2013
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