Vergara Full Bio

Vergara and Harlem: A Brief History

Camilo José Vergara was born in 1944 in Chile to a wealthy family, but by his teens his family’s fortunes were in a steep decline. Concerned relatives undertook to sponsor his education, and in 1965 he immigrated to the United States to attend college at the University of Notre Dame. After earning a BA in Sociology he moved to New York. Despite his success Vergara never forgot what his life might have become without the support of his family, and he found himself drawn to neighborhoods in decline. He was fascinated by the stark contrasts in wealth and lifestyle in American society. After a few years taking photographs of street scenes in New York, Vergara returned to school and graduated from Columbia University in 1977 with an MA in Sociology. His time in graduate school was a turning point in his career, and he turned his camera from street scenes to the “built environment”- the buildings and infrastructure that make up the urban landscape.

One of the earliest and most enduring projects in the Vergara catalog is his documentation of the New York neighborhood of Harlem. A Dutch village founded in 1658, Harlem was annexed to the city of New York in 1873. In the early 20th century, during the mass movement of black individuals and families from the South to industrial cities in the North known as the Great Migration, the neighborhood became a primarily black community due to low rents and a willingness on the part of landlords to accept black tenants in order to stave off a real estate collapse. Many of the area’s white tenants moved to other parts of the city as the black population grew, and Harlem became the first geographically sizable black community in New York. Black churches and community organizations followed their members, and Harlem became, in a very short time, an entirely self-sufficient “city within a city” that could address all the needs of its community members.

At the same time that the black community of Harlem was coalescing on the West side, the nucleus of what would become Spanish Harlem, or El Barrio, was forming on the East side. Following the Spanish American War, the U.S. annexation of Puerto Rico and occupation of Cuba brought the U.S. and Latin America into closer contact. In 1917 Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship, and a large migration of Spanish speaking people to the U.S., and especially New York, began. Light skinned Latino immigrants were able to find housing around the city, but many of those with darker skin, facing the same housing discrimination as black New Yorkers, settled in Harlem. Like their black neighbors, the Latino community of Spanish Harlem weathered the rise and fall of Harlem’s fortunes, and remains center of Latino culture in the city today.

With the foundational support of a growing community, and the impetus of throwing off racial stereotypes, Harlem rose to prominence in the 1920s and 1930s as the center of black culture in America during a period that is now known as the Harlem Renaissance. Home to prominent black artists, writers and musicians such as Langston Hughes, Augusta Savage, Duke Ellington and Zora Neale Hurston, Harlem buzzed with cultural vitality, and black intellectual leaders like W. E. B. Dubois hailed the advent of a “New Negro,” who would take his rightful place as a respected member of American society. Wealthy people from other parts of New York flocked to Harlem to enjoy the vibrant nightlife and became patrons for the artists who lived there. However, the cultural vitality masked an ongoing economic decline, and the majority of the population of the neighborhood remained on the fringes of social acceptance.

The economic situation was brought to a crisis point by the Great Depression. Persistent racism meant that black workers were laid off in large numbers, and often before white workers. They also had more difficulty finding new work. This simply compounded the economic problems that had been masked by the Harlem Renaissance. In the early 1930s 25% of the population of Harlem was out of work. By the mid-1930s that number had risen to about 50%. Wages decreased, and living conditions in the community quickly deteriorated as the tenants had little recourse against landlords. In 1935, after the suspected police beating of a black youth, a riot swept through Harlem, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage and earning the neighborhood a reputation for violence and instability; the wealthy who had fueled the neighborhood’s cultural economy during the Harlem Renaissance stopped visiting, furthering the economic collapse.

As conditions in the community worsened the black middle class moved out of the neighborhood. Many of those who remained were people whose economic or educational disadvantages inhibited their ability to leave. The buildings in Harlem were not maintained, and the very infrastructure of the neighborhood began to crumble. The closure of city manufacturing, which plunged New York City’s finances into turmoil in the 1960s and 1970s, hit Harlem especially hard, and by the 1990 census Harlem’s population was 57% less than its peak in 1950.

Vergara began documenting Harlem during the 1970s, at a time when even leaders in the community despaired. In the early days, he said, “I saw my mission as compiling a record of the destruction and violence done to New York at the height of America’s urban crisis.” And though his photos capture the decrepitude of Harlem infrastructure, they also reveal the vibrancy and tenacity of community life. In addition to Harlem’s buildings, Vergara trained his camera on the people inhabiting the streets, the many forms of worship practiced by the people, the public art and advertisements that cover the walls of the buildings, and the ways that the citizens of Harlem adapted to survive and thrive in spite of their difficult circumstances.

Vergara adopted a method known as rephotography- returning to specific sites multiple times over many years to create a series of photographs that document the changes in a place over time. Over the last four decades Vergara has documented the gradual rebirth and gentrification of Harlem, and the many changes in culture and mood that have swept the neighborhood. Harlem’s transition from a community in crisis to one in which large corporate retailers such as Starbucks and Old Navy wish to set up shop has been fraught with cultural clashes as well as concerns about how Harlem can honor its past while still evolving into the future. His earliest photos capture the frustration and outrage of the inhabitants of the Harlem as they fight against the inequalities of racial politics; in 2008 he was on hand to capture the outpouring of emotion as the people of Harlem witnessed the inauguration of the nation’s first black president. His collected work on Harlem demonstrates the ways in which the character of the community changed over the last four decades, while the heart that binds the community together has remained intact. Throughout the collection one can witness the spirit that made Harlem shine during the 1920s, and that has solidified Harlem’s place as the heart of Black America.