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“The New American Ghetto:

Photographs of Camilo

José Vergara”

At the National Building Museum to May 18

In the 1830s, with the United States poised for conquest of the trans-Mississippi West, George Catlin opened a Philadelphia exhibition of his Western paintings to massive crowds. The first prominent artist to focus on the American West, Catlin appealed to Eastern audiences not so much for his skill, which was rather limited, as for the exotic marvel that was his subject. Focusing not on the mountains and deserts that have captured America’s imagination, the 19th-century romantic set out to create a historical record of a more problematic subject: the West’s indigenous peoples. Catlin condemned the traders, trappers, and soldiers whose frenetic efforts at civilization were beginning to overrun the Indians. For all Catlin’s consternation, however, the message behind his work hardly channeled that energy: The depictions of passive, simple, almost resigned Indians conform to his writings, which spoke of them as noble savages, doomed by nature, logic, and fate.

The odd impolitic LAPD radio transmission notwithstanding, there would seem to be little similarity between the far West of the mid-19th century and the inner city of the late 20th. Hardly beset by conquering hordes of white capitalists, the American city, conversely, has been thrust into crisis by abandonment. Though the existence of desperate urban poverty has, over the course of American history, been the rule rather than the exception—a pattern well documented by photographers from Jacob Riis to Dorothea Lange—what sets the ghetto of today apart from the slum of a century ago, argues photographer Camilo José Vergara, is its almost complete isolation from the realities of the majority of Americans who do not live there.

With the notion of cities as shared spaces on the decline in 1990s America, the urban ghetto is in many ways as exotic a subject to the middle classes as were Western Native Americans to East Coast urbanites of the 1830s. Though numerous photographers recorded the magical rise of American cities, today relatively few make pictures of their decline. Abandoned and neglected, decaying urban America has been physically transformed both by systemic forces beyond its population’s control and by that population’s grotesque, banal, and at times eerily beautiful reactions to them. It is this silent collapse and metamorphosis that Vergara set out in 1977 to document, and it is what he calls the “New American Ghetto.”

Vergara’s show, the first in a series of three architectural photography exhibits to open this winter at the National Building Museum, is a stunning accomplishment. Through slightly over 100 simple, close-cropped photographs and the texts accompanying them, Vergara presents a long-needed historical view of the process of disintegration at the heart of America’s largest cities. He also does something even more important. Unlike Catlin, and unlike too many of this century’s photographers of urban blight, Vergara manages to focus centrally on the resistance, the resilience, the agency, and ultimately on the humanity of the people living in the newly alien landscape that serves as his tragic subject. In so doing, he has succeeded in making a sober exhibit about a heartbreaking issue a cause for some small optimism, if not about America and its urban future, then at least about the human heart and its will to overcome.

The exhibition is divided into seven sections. The first, “Documenting Urban Decline,” introduces the historical focus that makes Vergara’s work unique among documentary photographers. Presented in several series of pictures, each taken over many years at a single location, it seeks to serve as a memory for an amnesiac nation. Photographed at intervals of three or four years, elaborate entryways to buildings that once housed genteel, middle-class populations in places like the Bronx’s Vyse Avenue and Brownsville, Brooklyn, are shown being gradually bricked over and finally covered with steel, as residents gird themselves to face the necessities of ghetto security.

Vergara is particularly fascinated by converted abandoned bank buildings, ironic vestiges of a more prosperous past scattered throughout the ghetto. Capital having fled, only solid buildings remain. Thus the oldest bank in Michigan is now a Domino’s Pizza; other banks are discount stores and churches. Located incongruously on the façade of the Church of Prophesy in Newark is the stern visage of a Puritan, a solitary remnant of the building’s first incarnation as the Robert Treat Savings and Loan.

Elsewhere, however, not even a trace of the past remains. Vergara’s series of photographs of Newark’s Scudder Homes project provides stirring proof of the need for a record. In 1979, the building is depicted in the early stages of abandonment; its top and bottom floors have begun emptying. A 1986 picture shows the building closed, its doors welded shut. In 1987, the building is demolished; laughing housing officials stand in the foreground as the rubble settles. By 1990, row houses are erected in place of the destroyed public housing tower. Due to shoddy construction, however—Vergara says that several of the officials in the 1987 picture later served jail time for corruption—those buildings were damaged by a storm. A 1995 photograph shows new row houses erected in place of the old ones. A casual observer might never know what enormous artifacts of American history had preceded these innocuous suburban homes.

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From the solid banks and decorated doorways of a century ago, and the concrete projects of a generation ago, Vergara’s photographs take us forward into inner-city America’s twilight-zone present. After the infrastructure is gone, people remain, scraping by in the new environment. Photographs show the chain-link fence around a vacant Detroit lot being used as a clothes rack by people making a living selling old clothes. Clinton Avenue, once a downtown commercial street, is a good market, carrying as it does thousands of suburban commuters every day. The street, however, like many others presented by Vergara, takes on an eerie rural look. In his photograph of Chicago’s West Madison Street, site of two riots, the effacement seems almost complete. With weeds waving like grain under the expansive, unbroken Midwestern sky, the picture at first glance resembles a lonely country highway.

For each image of the system working on a grand scale, putting up buildings and tearing them down, Vergara provides a picture of people working on a more humble level, putting up old clothes and pulling security gates shut. Photographs of the built environment focus on hulking concrete monsters like the Morrisania Air Rights Houses in the Bronx and the ABLA Houses in Chicago, where fencing and spikes wall off residents as high as the 16th story. A section titled “Not in My Backyard (NIMBY)” depicts the one growth industry in this isolated heart of America: the methadone clinics, rehabilitation centers, and homeless shelters that have been put in the ghetto, the only place lacking the political muscle to keep them out. Alongside these bleak images of the systems of poverty, though, Vergara depicts the personal agency of ordinary people. If images of popular reactions to the ghetto’s crime, such as cyclone fencing strung around homes, churches, and even a Newark preschool are grotesque, then his depictions of murals, graffiti, and folk art in the section he calls “Expressions” offer signs of human creativity surviving amid social collapse. Though occasionally veering into easy cliché—he photographs a billboard reading “Pray! It Works!” next to a prison under construction in West Chicago—Vergara’s record of the manifestations of life in America’s internal wasteland are nonetheless deeply affecting.

“As long as we know there’s something moving and brewing,” says Vergara, “we keep the link [to the past].” His photography is thus best viewed not as artistic statement but historical documentation. Indeed, in removing himself as an obvious creative presence from the photographs—no easy task for a photographer, particularly one who exhibits as intimate a knowledge of his subjects as Vergara does—he contributes to his photographs’ sense of accuracy.

Many of the pictures were taken from the roof of Vergara’s car as he made his rounds through numerous American cities. Closely cropped and shot head-on in color—Vergara avoids relying on photogenic angles or shadows—his photographs owe much to the work of the New Deal photographers. Yet what separates him from Depression-era shooters is noteworthy. Walker Evans’ famous men wore defeated faces and lived in shacks that seemed to bear little trace of their occupants. Though his pictures inspired many to empathy and to action, whether they affirmed their subjects’ ability to take control of their lives is another question. Perhaps because so few of the photographs in “The New American Ghetto” actually focus on faces, which so easily achieve a look of preternatural defeat, and instead show simple doors, windows, homemade signs, and storefront paintings—emblems of those aspects of life that people can and do still affect—he accomplishes what even Evans never entirely did.

Vergara’s New American Ghetto is actually the endgame of the postwar transformation of America’s cities. With large slices of the middle class fleeing them for the suburbs after WWII, urban working-class neighborhoods were descended upon by public-housing planners. But the designers’ lofty ideals were compromised by an elitist detachment from the prospective residents of the architected urban future. Slums were cleared, replaced with massive concrete projects. As if designed specifically to fail, the projects characteristic of postwar urban planning pushed residents like so many clumps of clay into new developments shorn of exactly those manifestations of organic community life that enable neighborhoods to be stable. Fifty years later, as these ghetto neighborhoods, in turn, collapse under the gaze of Vergara’s camera, what remains of America’s cities is depicted in his exhibition’s last sections. “America’s Ruins,” reads the placard above photographs of the abandoned castles of 19th-century millionaires and the façades of massive churches reduced to entry walls for generic town-house projects. “The way we look at buildings is a very utilitarian way,” says Vergara, but there is real history of real life to be seen. America’s size has been the source of endless bounty, but it is also responsible for deep holes at our very center, both physical—by enabling Americans to simply abandon, rather than improve, outmoded surroundings—and psychological—the holes in the heart that result from a nation’s forgetting its own inheritance. There, the New American Ghetto’s premature relics hold a lesson for the country. As Vergara says, “Why not tour the ruins in America?”

“The New American Ghetto” ends on an explicitly political note. “No Solution in Sight,” reads the final section title, with accompanying text describing the flight of capital, jobs, and people from America’s cities. Such explicit politics, however, are almost redundant. In 1992, the most destructive urban riots of the 20th century exploded in the nation’s second-largest city. In the presidential election six months later, the candidates scarcely mentioned the riots or the poverty, degradation, and systems of oppression it exposed—however briefly—to the nation. In 1996, with President Clinton and his Republican challengers competing to publicly distance themselves from cities and the poor, the urban crisis will receive even less attention. In that context, merely acknowledging the existence of ghettos is a political stand.

Vergara, however, has done more than that. By acknowledging his subject as an active, living entity, he avoids a pitfall that has too often marred both the progressive politics that has sought to aid the poor and the artists who have sought to depict them. Hardly doomed by fate to disappear, even though much of the country seems to want them to, the residents of American ghettos—parts of the country as central to our being as the deserts and plains of Catlin’s West—are presented as resilient, resisting, and, ultimately, alive.

If paintings like Catlin’s allowed a nation to look away as a native population was “logically” slaughtered, and if photographs like Walker Evans’ allowed its best minds to treat the poor as manipulable blobs whose improvement could be achieved by forcing them into sterile, isolated monstrosities erected in place of real communities, Vergara forces his viewers to accept the humanity of poor people themselves as a prerequisite for social change. In writing them back into the history of our times, Vergara manages, despite his heavy subject and sober assessment, to leave in his viewer a sense of buoyancy about the human spirit. Such a faith is, perhaps, a necessary and too often forgotten complement to the political challenge Vergara’s words and images present.CP