The Landscape of an American Ghetto

Camilo Jose Vergara's photos expose urban blight, but also tell of hope and continuity

Most Americans rarely venture into the poverty- and crime-wracked portions of inner cities across the United States. If they do, they usually look for the fastest way out.

Artist-sociologist Camilo Jose Vergara has spent the past 20 years documenting the disintegration of metropolitan commercial areas and residential neighborhoods. The result is a powerful combination of photographic display and newly published book, both entitled ''The New American Ghetto.'' The exhibition is installed at the National Building Museum in Washington, and Rutgers University Press has published the book. Together, they take the viewer and reader into a world far removed from the mainstream, yet desperate for attention and action.

There is no fancy angling or shadowing to Vergara's work. Quite simply, his subjects are provocative enough. To use creative license and tamper with their portrayal would shift the focus from them to the man behind the camera. Vergara's honesty is powerfully evident in his color and black-and-white prints.

Often, his depictions of ''home'' show the squalor in public housing projects. With the flight of most banks and the closure of factories and department stores, much of the business that's left, he shows us, is made up of liquor stores, check-cashing outlets, and small vendors selling used clothing and auto parts.

The need for a rebirth of areas deadened by violence and deprivation is made stark in Vergara's portrait of a day in South Central Los Angeles.

The picture - taken after the 1992 riots ripped through minority communities, when looters set fire to everything from stores to schools - shows a woman carrying a baby as she walks between burned-out buildings against a backdrop of billboards.

''In portraying vacant land, ruins, and fearsome structures, I do not intend to demean people, deny their strivings and successes, ignore their desire to have a regular job, and a decent, safe place to live, nor to imply that they are helpless victims of circumstances, unable to shape their own lives,'' Vergara explains in his book. ''I believe that if we as a nation are determined to do so, we can transform poor, minority ghettos into nurturing neighborhoods.''

He graphically demonstrates reasons for both despair and hope. Where there has been decay, he has found urban renewal. In a series of pictures of 178th and Vyse Avenue in New York's South Bronx, the viewer is taken through a gradual disintegration of a massive prewar building whose grand entrance and solid construction should have lasted for many more generations.

By 1994, standing in place of the finally razed structure, Vergara found a row of town houses built with plastic and metal. While the bright town homes undoubtedly give a sense of dignity and pride to their residents, they look vulnerable; indeed temporary.

The artist recalls neighborhoods once inhabited by working-class people and cities bustling with activity. Row houses, once the residential rite of passage for upwardly mobile immigrants, are now often populated by drug dealers and rats.

Disinvestment, abandonment, and depopulation have left once vibrant downtown areas eerily silent. Two decades after the 1967 riot began, Vergara's 1987 shot of downtown Detroit, west of Rosa Parks Boulevard, could be Iowa farm country. For a moment, the fields of weeds and wildflowers seem to be a welcome relief, until the viewer realizes that the area is considered so dangerous and untouchable that no developer would opt to build homes there, and no employer would consider setting up shop.

But what often appears discarded, such as boarded up buildings in Brooklyn's Ocean Hill neighborhood in New York, may actually be destined for reuse. Instead of being razed, the Ocean Hill structures were converted into a shelter for families. Others become community centers, churches, and Boys and Girls Clubs.

The Vergara collection also records continuity with pictures of buildings that have, over time, remained for community use.

A majestic mansion built in 1901, still standing in the South Bronx, has long housed society's outcasts. Earlier in this century it served as the Female Guardian Society and the Home for the Friendless; today it is a 99-bed AIDS shelter for families and individuals. The nearby Franklin Armory, built for the New York National Guard, is now a shelter for homeless men.

Vergara's lens captures some jarring contrasts. A shot of Chicago's West Side shows abandoned lots against corporate-towered skylines. And juxtaposed against looming billboards that push national-brand cigarettes and malt liquor are local touches that can convey a strong sense of belonging and community. Vergara refers to the latter as ''joyful manifestations.''

In a Latino neighborhood, for example, ''grocery stores fill their windows with stacks of colorful merchandise: packages of diapers, boxes of detergents, shaving cream, pots and pans, and stuffed animals ... as if to reassure people that they will find what they need inside,'' he writes.

He continues: ''The signs display a curious mixture of Spanish and English, establishing the shopkeeper's ability to deal with clients in Spanish, to cater to Latino tastes, and to assist customers in getting insurance, filing income tax forms, and securing driver's licenses.''

With his photographs, Vergara leaves his audience wondering whether people living in neighborhoods such as these can prevail under the toughest of conditions. He challenges us to think about just what it will take to regenerate urban America.

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