Photographs of Harlem during its most neglected—and interesting—age.

Collected images.
June 11 2009 6:47 AM

The Harlem That Was

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

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

Click here for a slide show on the Harlem that was.

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. I was delighted to photograph a man driving his horse-drawn carriage full of junk and an elderly woman sitting on the sidewalk on the wall behind her a painted mural of the skyscraper city. Another of my favorites is of young black girls on a tenement stoop carefully arranging their white Barbies.

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The merchants and traders of Harlem have changed during the 40 years I've been going there. The Korean and the West Indian business people who had replaced an earlier generation of Jewish storeowners are now themselves being displaced by corporate franchises and chain stores. Many of the Korean toy, fruit, and clothing stores have closed, as have West Indian variety shops and restaurants. In their place is a proliferation of McDonalds, KFCs, and Blimpys.

This transformation coincides with the community's loss of local organizations, clubs, associations, and stores that served to link residents with the rural South or the Caribbean. Stores named Mity Fine or De Paree Beauty Products have been replaced by mainstream franchises and stores with more familiar names.

Harlem used to be home to a surprisingly large number of junkyards, where cars and trucks—and even boats—as well as kitchen appliances were displayed for prospective customers to examine. Often these junkyards were located next to tire and auto-repair shops or used-appliance stores. Some of the junkyards were so large they covered almost the entire block, while others were tiny, occupying the lot of a demolished tenement.

There was something vital going on in Harlem in the '70s, and it was not a Renaissance, or a jazz scene, or a sports frenzy, or a world of gospel singing. As time passes, I have become rather fond of my earliest pictures of Harlem. In their anonymity, images such as these are an antidote to the cult of celebrity. They show some of Harlem's grace and beauty. The people portrayed are anonymous and the places and signs depicted are mostly forgotten or now transformed beyond recognition. These photographs show the end of a Harlem that lasted for two generations and the beginning of the global Harlem of today.

Camilo José Vergara is a 2002 MacArthur fellow whose books include American Ruins and How the Other Half Worships. You can see more of his photos on his Web site and can contact him at camilojosev@gmail.com.

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