| "We are There But We Are
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It's a long way on the IRT line from 110th Street to the Junius Street station on the border of Brownsville and East New York. Camilo Josť Vergara knows the ride well, knows when seats will start to open up, when the last Orthodox Jew will exit, and when certain large housing projects will come into view. The 51-year-old Vergara's black-frame glasses, neatly trimmed beard, and mild demeanor give him the aspect of a college professor on his day off, but the bleak streets around Junius are as familiar to him as those around his apartment near Columbia. Since 1979 he has taken more than eleven hundred photographs here. He is, he admits, a man obsessed, and if he could show places like this to the rest of America, he would.
The New American Ghetto, a collection of Vergara's photography and writing to be released by Rutgers University Press at the end of December, should bring him a little closer to that goal. The book is remarkable not so much for the subject it addresses as for Vergara's approach. Instead of the heart-rending portraits of the poor that have become so familiar, he takes almost clinical shots of a deteriorating archaeology: in Detroit, a grand old movie theater converted to parking garage, and a Domino's outlet in a building that once housed a bank; in Newark, a long-abandoned factory converted to a homeless shelter; in the South Bronx, post offices and homes protected by razorwire; and not far from the Junius Street stop in north central Brooklyn, a community building for children and the elderly whose architecture resembles that of a fortress. Vergara's peculiar obsession has brought him back to the same street corners in these neighborhoods (and in Chicago and other cities) over many years to make time lapses, like his series of shots of the entrance to the former Aidlin Automation Inc., also not far from Junius Street, which has closed, been gutted, and gradually fortified against intruders. The result is a bleak and relentless work containing some 400 images less than five percent of Vergara's vast Kodachrome archive. In all, it's an unlikely coffee table book.
Vergara himself turns out to be a quiet and unassuming man, but a project like this could never have happened without an extraordinary single-mindedness. After all, he has toiled in relative obscurity well into middle age; only in the past few years have his photos begun to appear in textbooks, magazines, and galleries. He's an unlikely figure, toting his camera bag from the Junius stop to the Carter Woodson projects, but follow him up to the 25th floor and out onto the project's roof and his dedication to his grim subject is obvious. This is a place where you could spend hours, Vergara says from this vantage point one recent November afternoon. A great place. You could just loaf here.
The camera is out now, and between photographs, he points out the neighborhood landmarks: a school, a vacant lot where someone has built a makeshift home, the spot where he was once nearly mugged. A police officer happened to come by. He was tiny, Vergara says, shrugging, but he had a gun. (He's been careful enough over the years to have suffered only two physical attacks, another confrontation in which a gun was pointed at him, and a high-speed car chase.)
The sound of sirens drifts up from the streets, and Vergara looks back through his camera. You go up here, he says softly, and everything almost looks pretty.
• • •
Vergara's childhood, as he describes it in the book, is a kind of richest-to-rags story: The wealth built up by his grandfather's successful Chilean farm was torn down by his alcoholic father. With help of relatives, Vergara was able to leave his native Chile at age 21 to attend Notre Dame University. He studied sociology, and became fascinated by the power and wealth of Chicago, contrasted with the smoke and stench of Gary. He began to take pictures.
Finishing his degree in 1968, he moved on to New York, where he continued to pursue traditional street photography. But, he writes, I saw myself at a dead end, retracing the steps of many others. He started on his masters in sociology at Columbia, and somewhere around 1977 his work changed. I try to date it to the first useless picture, he says. In other words, a picture that, unless someone needed it for insurance purposes or simply to demonstrate the fact that a particular building exists, one that nobody would have any use for whatsoever. He took pictures in Harlem, just blocks from the apartment he shares with his wife and two children, and he began taking the subway to the South Bronx and to Brooklyn. He would see how far he could get into troubled urban neighborhoods on his lunch hour while work for ad agencies in midtown and in Newark.
The idea was to dodge the trap of the quest for single, defining images of poverty, and attempt to capture something deeper, more lasting. Someone shooting up drugs now is the same as someone shooting up drugs 20 years ago, Vergara says. People are not the ones who are expressing that change that's going on in the cities. Buildings are. My hope for this book is that it will show people this, to revolutionize they way you portray urban reality. Instead of going for the ultimate picture, use sequences that show what's happening.
• • •
Walking north from the Carter Woodson projects, Vergara points out a methadone clinic he has photographed on many occasions. The building might look abandoned to untrained eye, and appears to have closed for the day, but Vergara has been on hand to see the lines of junkies waiting outside, and his been inside. He points out the building's key details like a scholar, some windows boarded, others barred but otherwise normal. A building like this says, 'We are there but we are not there,' he observes, moving up the street.
It is precisely Vergara's peculiar expertise that has gradually drawn attention to his work. He was interviewed by television journalists working on ghetto trend stories on the homeless or other topics. He began to write for publication, particularly in The Nation. In 1992 New York's New Museum of Contemporary Art made his work a centerpiece of a show on transitory cities. A British Broadcasting Corporation newsmagazine did a ten-minute segment on his work in 1993. Finally, after a few false starts, the book deal came to fruition. But a project like this does not end with a book, and Vergara has no plans to move onto something else. He wants to add more neighborhoods to his archive, but mostly he wants to keep returning to the same places, documenting what has happened, or not happened. You don't, he says, want to lose the continuum.
• • •
Turning now onto Alabama Avenue and walking north toward its intersection with Atlantic Avenue, the neighborhood no longer looks beautiful. This is just awful, Vergara mutters, stepping over tires and other debris. He is headed toward the heavily fortified community building for children and the elderly that appears in his book. He recalls seeing it for the first time, his shock at discovering its function. When he entered, he found that, as in other grim-looking ghetto buildings, the atmosphere inside was far more welcoming than the exterior let on.
As he approaches the two-story building now it becomes clear that something has changed. On the top floor, the windows are all missing. On the ground floor, the glass behind the metal bars is smashed. There is a black metal grill on the door. The building has been abandoned.
Vergara is stunned. The door isn't locked. Vergara once had a knife pulled on him when accidentally woke a homeless man sleeping on a project roof, and this darkened building seems like an obvious hangout for people that one wouldn't want to disturb. But he pulls out a flashlight and walks in. Inside, the abandonment looks recent. Around a corner there is a wide room with stacked chairs, a small upright piano, cabinets still full of stationary and envelopes. But with water all over the floors, an inch deep in places, it's a mess. I went to a birthday party here once, Vergara muses. He points at the ceiling. There were balloons all up there. There's a broken photocopier, a small framed painting on a post. You know, Vergara says eventually, as he wanders back outside, I used to look at this building and I thought it couldn't be worse.
Later he will attempt to piece together what happened from locals, asking a passing woman and her children, and approaching a group of men drinking beer in a battered VW van to engage them in a five-minute conversation in Spanish. Later still, on the long ride back to Manhattan, he will keep returning to this recently vacated building, so menacing on the outside but once friendly within. Who has a mandate to document such changes? He recalls a man who approached him when he was photographing some row houses that stood on land where once there was a tall project. The man was raised on a top floor of the project, and pointed to the appropriate spot in the air, saying that's where he was born. Returning to the abandoned center, Vergara asks: What if that's the place where you celebrated your birthday, and now it's gone? It's almost like that birthday didn't happen.
That question will come later, but for now there is this issue of the continuum. Vergara turns and looks back up at the building as he walks out and says, Let me take a picture. He crosses Alabama Avenue and climbs onto the base of a light pole, wraps his arms around it for balance, looks through the viewfinder, and pushes the shutter-release button.
• • • • •
A version of this story appeared in the April 22, 1996 issue of New York.