From California to the New York island, American cities are in the midst of unprecedented physical change. Land that once belonged to working-class communities is being rapidly gobbled up, occupied and shorn of inconvenient reminders of poverty, diversity or history. In San Francisco, Google Buses have transformed working-class immigrant neighborhoods like the Mission district into playgrounds for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and engineers. Closer to home, gentrification washes across New York City.
One especially striking example of that transformation is the subject of longtime Nation contributor Camilo José Vergara’s new book, Harlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto, in which the photographer—awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Obama last year—employs his landmark “rephotography” technique to capture how that neighborhood has changed in the forty years he has spent as one of its chroniclers. Vergara’s ambivalent feelings about gentrifying Harlem stem from a recognition of just how far the neighborhood had fallen in previous years. “For many, the new Harlem may mean the loss of a familiar ‘down-home’ place, a more aggressive police presence on the street, and growing economic hardships,” he writes. “For others, however, the neighborhood demonstrates the evolving and ever more multicultural society of the United States.”
In the twenty-five years since he first contributed to The Nation, Vergara has presented for readers an unparalleled portrait of the trials and tribulations of marginalized minorities in American cities. His camera and his pen have succeeded, as few others have, in capturing both the striving and the strife of those abandoned by money and power, left to make their way in the oddly beautiful ruins of the twentieth-century city. In fact, one can think of his articles for The Nation as themselves a form of rephotography, with the photojournalist returning again and again to see how cities and their inhabitants adjust themselves to negotiate ever-changing realities.
In “New York’s New Ghettos” (June 17, 1991), Vergara described the emergence of a new form of social-service ghetto, in which the deeply racist image of an “urban jungle” was replaced by an equally problematic, highly bureaucratized web, segregating the poor from the rest of the city and alienating them from life itself. To understand the “resurgence” of places like Harlem in recent years, it is vital to understand their recent history; as Vergara’s 1991 essay shows, Harlem didn’t fall—it was pushed.
New York, famous for its garment district, its diamond district and others, now has its districts for the “homeless industry.” Group homes for children and battered women share buildings with homeless families; drug treatment centers, methadone clinics, shelters, soup kitchens and correctional institutions are also springing up. By encircling the blocks in which large concentrations of these facilities coexist with deteriorating housing projects in areas of heavy drug dealing and relocation of formerly homeless people, one can map New York’s new ghettos.…