Standing on the corner of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and 130th St., in Manhattan, a good approximation of the geographic dead center of Harlem, the photographer Camilo José Vergara is looking around with a puzzled expression on his face. At 70, he's been photographing and rephotographing the streets, landmarks and avenues here for more than forty years, and he knows every corner. Now he is all but scratching his head. "I wanted us to look at something," he says. He's been giving me a tour of the latest incarnation of "new" Harlem. "But I'm not seeing it." Whatever it was is gone. He seems truly distraught: "It's just not there. That's why it was so fucking disorienting!" We hurry back up the sidewalk and across the street. On the east side of the Avenue, stretching for two full city blocks, is a wall of blue-painted plywood fencing, marking an enormous construction site. It is as if a huge tree has been felled in the forest, so that along the north side of 132nd St. the low winter sun shines warmly on the red brick and brownstone of classic Harlem. Through a cutout in the fence can be seen a vast hole in the ground, lined with the cement of a new foundation. "This was the Lafayette Theater. Right here. And it's gone.”
On another trip, to Jersey City, behind the vast high-school that looks down onto the traffic waiting to pass through the Holland tunnel, we discovered a rather sad and unkempt 9/11 memorial. Vergara observed that it had probably begun its pre-ordained decline as soon as it had been installed and celebrated, almost as soon as some gaggle of earnest potentates had wandered off after a moment of silence and some minor speechifying. A plinth that perhaps once held a flagpole, complete with rusty bolt holes, now held a granite monument that had clearly been commissioned from a tombstone carver. It sat in the sort of tucked-away and neglected area used by students as a place to sneak away and share a joint. Two plastic tubs containing weeds and dead houseplants completed the tableau.
Coming soon to a vacant lot near you. Condos! Three views of the Lafayette Theater site courtesy of and © Camilo J. Vergara.
Back on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, Vergara seems to take the disappearance of the Lafayette Theater personally. It's part of what he calls the “Disneyfication” of the neighborhood. Harlem is being sanitized, he suggests, its rich history and architecture erased by condominiums, its legacy concentrated in a few untouchable icons like the “world famous” Apollo Theater, the emblem of Harlem on its most famous street, 125th. “We've designated a place to be the repository of history, so we can change the rest,” Vergara explains. “The survivors become more powerful. It's like wealth, it's like an inheritance.” It is interesting to note that the disappeared Lafayette was the first New York theater to integrate racially, as early as 1912, more than twenty years earlier than the Apollo. While Vergara agrees that the new Harlem of luxury condos and espresso bars offers a better standard of living than the one of burnt-out tenements and trash-strewn vacant lots that he started photographing in the early 1970s, he feels acutely a tension between the destruction of the historical landscape and the preservation of culture. In this way his work writes an alternative history, one that questions our dominant economic and political assumptions that equate progress with expansion and development. 125thStreet, once an ever-evolving jumble of mom and pop shops, soul-food eateries and African hair-braiding palaces, was a place with its cultural DNA engraved onto the landscape. In the new Harlem, traces of that landscape linger, but the view is dominated by many of the same huge national chain stores and franchises that are to be found in any saccharine suburban strip-mall. Near the former Lenox Lounge, another shuttered landmark farther south, Vergara gestures across the street. “I have pictures of a guy standing in a yard on this block, next to a scarecrow,” he says. “And now it's a Starbucks."
A wind-tattered MLK on the streets of Red Hook (not a Camilo Vergara)