Over forty years ago, award-winning photographer Camilo José Vergara began
chronicling what he believed would be Harlem’s decline. Vergara’s early photographs of 1970s Harlem show a neighborhood in decay—the junkyards, abandoned buildings, and plywood windows that threatened to overtake the streetscape.
But as Vergara vividly shows in his new book Harlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto (University of Chicago Press), this didn’t happen to the place he calls home. The overgrown lots that once defined the neighborhood have given way to luxury condos, the empty storefronts are now big-box retailers, and the abandoned streets are lined with tourists.
These dramatic changes can be seen in Vergara’s photographs of the Eisleben Building at the corner of Malcolm X Boulevard and West 125th Street. In the 1980s, paint was chipping off the building’s exterior and cinderblocks filled the window frames. As the neighborhood changed, though, so did the Eisleben. By 2000, the exterior was masked by splashy ads for companies like Old Navy, Fila, and Adidas. And by 2013, the old building was gone entirely.
Perhaps the perfect capstone to that series of photos is the intersection’s current Google Street View. Next to the abandoned lot where the Eisleben Building once stood is a double-decker tour bus, complete with tourists snapping pictures. The vacant lot they are next to, though, will not stay that way for long; construction has already started on Harlem’s first Whole Foods.
Vergara’s new work helps readers understand what this type of change means for Harlem from all angles—for its buildings, its businesses, and its people. By looking back, Vergara is ultimately helping his readers look ahead.