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My childhood and adolescent memories are set in a time when my family had become poor, a condition I believed I would never be able to escape, only adapt to. My life changed when I came to the United States as a college student on a scholarship in 1965 and eventually entered the middle class. Although now blessed with a life of comfort, I sympathize with others experiencing hard times, declines, and things falling apart. Moreover, I admire their persistence, creativity, and faith in overcoming these challenges. Too often overlooked, their story is compelling and deserving of our attention as we celebrate Black History Month.
In the 1970s, I started photographing the residents of poor, segregated communities and their surroundings in New York City, Newark, Chicago, and Gary, Indiana. To prepare for my excursions I looked up the poorest census tracts in these cities. I photographed Mott Haven in the Bronx, East New York in Brooklyn, and the Central Ward of Newark.
By the late 1970s, as disinvestment, fires, and abandonment destroyed entire inner-city neighborhoods, I turned my attention from people in their environment to the precarious life of the buildings themselves. I wanted to tell their story while asking, “What will happen next?” I looked at boarded-up windows and walls blackened by fires. I examined vacant structures for signs of the homeless living inside them, stray dogs moving in, and the work of scavengers taking whatever valuable materials they could find.
In the 1980s, I added to my investigations the high-rise public housing projects of Chicago, Gary, and Camden, New Jersey. In the early 1990s I added Detroit, Los Angeles, Compton, Oakland, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Richmond, California. People imagined that I was interested in real state in buying and rehabilitating buildings. When I explained that I was making a record of the neighborhood, I was often told to photograph something pretty. Once in Los Angeles, I was told to take pictures of Disneyland.
In order for my images to tell stories effectively, I avoid distortions as much as possible. I mostly photograph head-on and use perspective-correcting lenses. I seek out conditions of even light with few shadows. To make images comparable with one another over time, for my time-lapse photos, I try to show entire buildings and keep cropping to a minimum. I used Kodachrome film to capture the most detail until it was discontinued and then turned to digital photography. To do my work quickly, without attracting attention, I use a hand-held 35mm camera.
My goal has been to serve as a witness, to document the big public housing projects in Chicago, the street life on Skid Row in Los Angeles, the drug-dealing on the narrow streets of North Camden, and the demise of the vacant 1920s skyscrapers of Detroit. When I started, I did not know that the Chicago high-rises were going to be demolished, that Skid Row, at the heart of Los Angeles, was going to turn into an area of booming real estate, or that Camden would become home to memorials to drug dealers and churches that built new housing and ran private schools. In Detroit, several fine old skyscrapers have been demolished, but new ones are being built, and prosperity has returned to the downtown area.
My initial expectation, that poverty, depopulation, abandonment and crime were going to continue unabated in the urban communities that I was documenting, was wrong; some of them were rebuilt, and others adapted to decline. In the Bronx, once a national symbol of urban decay, ruins are now a rarity, but disinvestment and population loss continue in Gary. In South Los Angeles and Compton, immigration from Mexico and Central America has changed black communities into Spanish-speaking enclaves. In downtown Steel City an African American church declares its mission to be “Helping Our People Endure.” In communities throughout the country, there are eye-catching murals commemorating African American civil rights leaders, politicians, pastors, and musicians.
My interest eventually circled back from the built environment to include the people in the streets. I call this project “Crossroads.” It has involved photographing street intersections in the poorest communities of New York City, Newark, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. In busy transportation nodes I photograph shoppers and people passing by on their way to work, school, and social gatherings.
My images throughout time give glimpses into poverty, segregation, and perseverance in cities throughout America during the past half century. They are part of an evolving historical record, contributing stories of resilience and pride to Black History Month.
All of the photos in this guide are from the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division. Camilo J. Vergara's photographs are used by permission of the photographer. For information on permissions and credit line, see the Camilo José Vergara Rights and Restrictions information page.