Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Deep in the militarized hearts of the South Bronx, Brooklyn, and Newark, new suburbs are springing up. Not long ago, Great Society engineering experiments herded the urban poor into superblock, Corbusian high-rises; today, a few lucky inner-city folk are pulling into driveways in bedroom communities atop what used to be scorched earth. But as Camilo José Vergara shows in his book, The New American Ghetto, even where American cities are said to be revitalizing, they continue to rot. The Chilean-born photojournalist has doggedly stalked the streets of post-exodus New York, Newark, Camden, Chicago, and Detroit, amassing 9,000 35mm slides that support his case. In Ghetto, 100 color and 300 black-and-white exposures accompany essays about the decomposing and recombining urban environment.
Vergara visually documents the radical geopolitical shift, as well as the dramatic spatial reordering, that has been taking place in America’s urban interior over the past decade. His deadpan images take a time-lapse view of storefronts, homes, and vacant lots; he photographs his subject from a conventional angle, then returns, year after year, to witness the site’s breakdown and buildup. For example, Vergara travels to New and Newark Streets in Newark’s Central Ward between 1980 and 1994. One by one, rickety row houses fall prey to the bulldozer, leaving weedy lots and the kind of cars whose fenders and quarter-panels don’t match. On other blocks, erstwhile banks and storefronts turn into churches and methadone clinics; rangy dogs roam the place; blank brick walls become surrealist murals, with visions of deliverance and evil splashed on in bold colors.
Almost by prescience, it seems, Vergara knows when and where to start documenting urban flux—but his most striking tableaux really represent the miles and hours he logs. “There was a sense of inevitability in the gradual disappearance of these dwellings,” Vergara writes earnestly, in an attempt to explain his working methods. Yet the decay does seem inevitable in retrospect, doesn’t it? His gripping photos far surpass his well-intentioned but often tedious text.
The idea behind Vergara’s work resembles the theme of Stewart Brand’s excellent book, How Buildings Learn, only at the urban scale. Both Ghetto and How Buildings Learn explore the built environment in its crucial and oft-overlooked fourth dimension: time. Vergara’s motivations, however, are more political than those of Brand, who concentrates more on form and aesthetics. Ghetto explores how cities learn, and suggests that it’s usually the hard way.
Neoconservatives like to assert that a new day has dawned on urban America. The old, liberal nonwisdom of high-rise living and free money every month is being supplanted by twaddle about heroic, “bootstrapping” efforts by the poor. Through “grass-roots” neighborhood and church groups, self-determined people are ostensibly building new housing, schools, and businesses for themselves. In reality, however, popular urban theory is conspiring with shorthand redevelopment tactics to impoverish cities anew.
Vergara’s photos show how officialdom has demolished, among others, Newark’s mammoth Scudder Homes and Columbus Homes. Conventional wisdom holds that because such models failed, people can’t live close together and get along. Never mind that housing so many in such extreme fashion—no boundaries, no domestic territory, and, really, no exit—is like filling a tire with too much air. Of course it explodes.
But one cannot ride on a flat, either. That, Vergara posits, is essentially what is happening in the “new” ghetto. In reaction to the overcrowding in the “old” ghetto, he says, a suburban sensibility prevails, turning New York into New Rochelle and leading to severe underpopulation in the city. As evidence, the photographer presents the Lawndale section of Chicago, where two symmetrical batteries of town houses barely fill their site. He also points to the Nehemiah Houses of Brooklyn, in which columns of two-story brick boxes with sad little yards line streets where denser brownstones once might have been the rule.
Vergara’s photo-essays hold hidden meaning, which is why it is fortunate that he has published them under independent aegis in Ghetto. Over the past 18 months, his photographs have accompanied numerous articles on urban “success” stories in such places as the New York Times, New York magazine, and Smithsonian. And in every case, his images have been wildly misinterpreted.
The situation has been pretty much the same each time. The offending publication runs Vergara’s photos as part of a story on the rebuilding currently taking place in, say, the burned-out South Bronx. The article trumpets a Lazaruslike recovery in the embattled borough. Alongside the text appear two or three of Vergara’s stunning then-and-now sequences. For instance, a 1980 shot of the Bronx’s Charlotte Street looks like Grozny: a mélange of rubble, abandoned cars, and derelict space. A 1994 shot of the same location, tellingly renamed “Charlotte Gardens,” shows a subdivision of 92 raised-ranch houses alongside some frazzled tenements and railyards. Public-housing towers brood like thugs in the background. Nevertheless, each of Charlotte Gardens’ homes has a neat lawn, a driveway, and a picket fence. The Bronx is “one more place where immigrants can get a grip on the American dream,” sighs Smithsonian. A “South Bronx Renaissance” is under way, spouts New York’s incontinent article. “A Bronx Miracle,” proclaims the Times editorial page, with overtones of visitor’s-bureau dotage. Hope springs anew.
But not quite. It would be a miracle, this tenements-to-town-houses scenario in the nation’s most notorious slum, except for millions of dollars in federal subsidies, all of which are about to dry up fast under the Pataki and Giuliani administrations. Moreover, each of those optimistic articles misses the point of Vergara’s photographs: This kind of subsidized housing is bad for the American inner city. In Detroit, Vergara reports, public subsidies run to about $125,000 per town house, each of which winds up costing as much as $150,000 to build. In Brooklyn’s Crown Heights, the $60,000-per-dwelling subsidy covers about half the eventual cost. Thus, Vergara writes, 80 percent of renters cannot afford even the cheapest new houses.
Yet form follows finance. Nonprofit, neighborhood, and church groups develop these overpriced houses, funneling meager funds from the city, state, and federal government to third-rate contractors. And form also follows new federal laws, specifically the Americans with Disabilities Act, the 1990 law requiring that any building of four or more stories must have an elevator, which makes “affordable” housing impossibly expensive to build.
Such is the unwittingly cruel conspiracy of divergent federal do-goodisms: These new apartments shelter too few people. Tracts of land that once housed 80 to 100 families in sturdy, six-story tenements now hold eight to 20 families in a shoddy array of prefab ranch or row houses, clad in inexpensive materials for economy’s sake. A place like the Bronx or Brooklyn, with a hard-core infrastructure of water, power, sewers, and transit, was originally built for thousands of people. It needs those people, earning salaries, to pay for itself. Today’s housing, however, wastes space with fewer units—in the Bronx alone, 70,000 families await decent shelter—which means, over time, fewer taxpayers and fewer voters. When the district lines are redrawn, this adds up to less representation and guaranteed political impotence.
Vergara, of course, is onto all this, and offers sober testimony to counter the perky media viewpoints that misappropriate his work. In one of his sequences showing the old, crumbling Bronx and the new, suburban-simulacrum Bronx, he writes, “Two Bronxes are visible in these photographs. One that died too soon, and one too flimsy to last.”
Ghetto’s concluding chapter is titled “No Solution in Sight.” However, Vergara has been ballyhooed in the press for floating one dubious solution. The author proposes to turn downtown Detroit into a theme park of ruins. His most recent photos of the area show what looks like the aftereffects of a neutron bomb, people gone but buildings spared. Phantom beaux-arts and art-deco towers stand amid increasing urban emptiness. Why not make this a theme park? With casinos and superstores taking over downtowns from coast to coast, Vergara’s proposal for desolate Detroit at least contains a substantive honesty.
Vergara quotes architectural historian Carol Willis as condemning this notion. In Willis’ opinion, “buildings represent an economic structure, not a romantic evocation of the past.” But nobody’s buying into Detroit. To tear down this cityscape would be a tragedy, for its buildings serve as eloquent reminders of how urban experiments can and will go awry.CP