A characteristic series of images in Camilo José Vergara’s remarkable book portrays Newark Street in Newark, New Jersey. The first photograph, taken in January 1980, shows three row houses. The buildings are typical of the blue-collar, inner-city housing built in the early 1900s when booming cities like Newark were a magnet for industrial workers, both immigrants and native-born. The houses are not elaborate. They are merely serviceable, although a hint of classical decoration around the front doors lends them a certain dignity. It is evident that they have seen better days. The shallow front yards are ill-kempt and forlorn. Still, there are signs of human occupation: curtains and blinds, television antennas, a piece of garden fence. Nor are there any broken window panes. An old car is parked out front with a man standing beside it. The accompanying text tells us that he is the landlord, and his car is sagging at the rear because he has just loaded the trunk with domestic odds and ends stripped from the houses. He has decided to abandon his properties rather than invest more money in maintenance and repairs. He looks happy.
The second photograph was taken in April 1985, more than five years later. A group of people is standing in front of one of the houses. It appears to be trash pickup day, for there are garbage cans and boxes neatly stacked on the sidewalk. The trash—and the people—are evidence that the houses are still occupied. Otherwise, one might assume that they were derelict. Shingles are peeling off the walls. Almost all the window panes are broken; the windows are patched with corrugated cardboard, plastic garbage bags, and what look like bed-sheets. The ground is beaten hard and littered with debris. What is most striking about the photograph, however, is what is absent. The front walk of the middle house is still there, but it leads to—nothing. Where the house once stood there is a space; the building has simply vanished. The new landlord—the city—was unable to maintain the building and has finally torn it down. The row now resembles a gaptoothed smile, but there is nothing cheerful about the scene.
The third photograph was taken twelve months later. The process of urban decay has accelerated, and only one house of the original three is still standing. It appears to be empty, for its front door is boarded up with a sheet of plywood. The land where the houses once stood has been taken over by the adjacent garage, which uses it as a combination parking lot and dump. Two men are working on a car. The garage, at least, appears to have prospered, for the old swing doors of the previous year have been replaced by a new, overhead steel shutter.
The fourth and final photograph was taken in August 1994. The original urban scene of fourteen years earlier has been replaced by a view that, while not exactly bucolic, is starting to suggest a rural landscape. Where the houses once stood there is now a field. There are no bushes yet, but undoubtedly these will come. The city has erected a chain-link fence to prevent illegal dumping. It has also mounted a high-power flood lamp on the light pole, presumably to discourage trespassers. These are the only civic improvements. The sidewalk on which nobody walks is beginning to be overgrown with weeds; the concrete is cracking apart. Soon it, too, will disappear.
Newark, which in 1950 was home to 439,000 people, has fewer than 270,000 inhabitants today. Like the houses on Newark Street, the city is disappearing. The experience of Newark Street has become common in dozens of cities across the nation. It is evidence not merely of poverty, or of poor city management, or of federal cutbacks to urban aid—although all have had a part in urban decline. American cities have always had skid rows, wrong-sides-of-the-tracks, and bad-parts-of-town, but the current ghettos are different, and not only because they are bigger. They are part of a nationwide process; the United States is in the midst of a vast urban reconfiguration.
This change is being driven by three simultaneous forces. One is the huge relocation of industries and population to the Sunbelt, which is now, for the first time, home to more people—and to more industry and manufacturing—than the Northeast and Midwest. Hence the rise of such relatively new cities as San Diego, Houston, and Phoenix, and the parallel decline of old industrial Rustbelt cities like Newark.
Another feature of this urban musical chairs is the move of people and jobs from large cities to small. Throughout most of the twentieth century, most urban Americans lived in very large cities like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. These cities enjoyed overwhelming advantages: better services and better employment opportunities than smaller cities. After World War II, however, things started to change. Thanks to decentralizing technologies like cable television, air travel, and electronic communications, smaller cities like Raleigh-Durham, Denver, and Colorado Springs became competitive. Not that the largest cities all stopped growing, but their growth depended on (predominantly poor) immigrants. Middle-class Americans of all colors increasingly were attracted to smaller cities. As a result, in 1980, for the first time in the twentieth century, more Americans lived in cities with populations of less than half a million people than in larger cities.
The third aspect of this urban change is the distribution of population within metropolitan regions themselves. Instead of most people living in a dense central city, and a minority living in surrounding suburbs, the suburbs now make up most of the metro area. And they lead the cities not only in population, but also in jobs, wealth, and economic production. “Suburbs” is really a misnomer, however, for it continues to imply dependency, and these outlying areas, with their own employment, shopping and entertainment, are really as autonomous as traditional central cities. Thus cities like Newark have lost jobs and people not only to the Sunbelt and to smaller, more competitive cities, but also to their own metropolitan regions.
It should be emphasized that the result of these changes is not across-the-board urban decline. Two thirds of the seventy-six largest cities in the United States grew in population between 1950 and 1990, and grew extremely vigorously, at an average rate of 394 percent. But deindustrialization, decentralization, and dispersal also had an adverse effect. During the same period, the average rate of population loss for the twenty-six cities that were not growing was 24 percent. Here is evidence of a situation that is unique among the industrialized nations of the world and probably unprecedented in urban history. Urban decline has usually been a byproduct of national decline: Rome deteriorated following the collapse of the Roman Empire, Venice shrank after the decline of the Venetian Republic, so did the industrial cities of northern England following the economic and political decline of Great Britain. But never before has a significant number of large cities experienced such a major loss of economic vitality, cultural influence, and population in a nation that continues to be both rich and powerful relative to other nations.
To say that a city has lost almost half of its population since 1950, as in the case of Buffalo or Detroit, or more than half, as in the case of St. Louis, is to tell only a part of the story. To begin with, since the people who move tend to be middle-income, and the people who stay tend to be poor, a shrinking city loses a disproportionate part of its tax base even as its social expenses are rising. Moreover, population loss is not experienced equally across the entire city. Many neighborhoods are relatively stable; many downtown districts have attracted considerable investment over the last several decades, as well as new residents. On the other hand, inner-city neighborhoods that are plagued by crime and poverty have drastically lost population. Redlining of mortgage applications and high insurance rates haven’t helped. Nor have racism, riots, and black power rhetoric. Thus selected parts of Baltimore, Chicago, or Washington, D.C., have experienced much more drastic population losses than the city as a whole. In Philadelphia, for example, while the city population declined by less than a quarter between 1950 and 1990, the population of predominantly black, Lower North Philadelphia dropped by more than half during the same period.
The chief locations for the catastrophic population decline in American cities are loosely referred to as ghettos. The term originated in Venice in the sixteenth century. Getto means “to cast metals,” and the first ghetto was a foundry site on an island that was set aside for German and Italian Jewish refugees from the mainland. The district was surrounded by a wall and locked up at night. Ghettos as legally enforced Jewish enclaves became common throughout Eastern Europe, and while they were certainly segregated, they were not necessarily poor. In America, the term ghetto described an inner-city neighborhood that was chiefly restricted to African-Americans who had migrated north during the period between the First and the Second World Wars. The old, pre-civil rights ghetto was black, crowded, and mixed people of different incomes. The new American ghetto is still predominantly black—and Hispanic—and it is almost exclusively poor. But it is no longer crowded, quite the opposite.
When a city population explodes we call it a boom. But what happens when a city implodes? What happens to city life when a city undergoes huge population loss? That is the question that the photographer Camilo José Vergara set himself to explore. The result, gathered together in The New American Ghetto, is an extraordinary document. Vergara, born in Chile, came to the United States in 1965 to study at Notre Dame University, and later moved to New York City (where he still lives) to do graduate work in sociology at Columbia University. This last experience is important. Vergara is not a photographer who happens to have chosen a sociological subject. He is more like a sociologist with a camera. It is an important distinction.
“Photographs depicting only an instant, lacking a sense of the whole, and constructed through dramatic light and strong compositions that hide important details shape more than record reality,” Vergara writes in the preface. Many of the photographs in The New American Ghetto, like the sequence of Newark Street, show how places have changed over time. The author has visited and revisited locations for almost twenty years and the various series of time-lapse photographs are among the most striking in the book. “The visual and written record that I have begun enables us to mentally reconstruct neighborhoods that are disappearing and to better understand the lives of the inhabitants of shattered communities,” he writes. Vergara refers to his work as an archive and it is evident that what he is presenting here is part of a lifetime project. It now includes more than three thousand slides of the South Bronx; twelve hundred from Chicago; eleven hundred each from Harlem, North Central Brooklyn, and Newark; and smaller numbers from Gary, Indiana, Camden, New Jersey, Detroit, and Los Angeles. One must admire not only the author’s dedication and perseverance but also his physical courage, for he often visited neighborhoods with a reputation for being dangerous.
We know—or we think we know—how to deal with urban poverty. Politicians and pundits, academics and activists, glibly pronounce on the subject. They give us ready solutions: more welfare—or less; more jobs, more training; more policing; better schools, or different schools; fewer high-rise housing projects; tax incentives for investment; new community organizations; enterprise zones; empowerment zones. It is easy to get the impression that urban poverty is a temporary condition that could be easily “cured” if we would just summon the national will to find and carry out the right combination of social and economic programs. Perhaps so. But, as Vergara’s photographs amply demonstrate, there is nothing temporary about inner-city ghettos. “Ghettos,” he writes, are “as intrinsic to the identity of the United States as New England villages, vast national parks, and leafy suburbs.” Of course, most of the people who live in suburbs and go to national parks for their vacations are careful to avoid urban ghettos. We have instinctively come to plan our city travels to skirt the no-go zones, the islands of abandonment, the devastated blocks, the rows of vacant houses, the street corners with the groups of threatening young men. Vergara’s book forces us to confront the incontrovertible fact of the ghetto, and to recognize its immensity, its pervasiveness, and its longevity.
It is the everyday quality of many of Vergara’s photographs that is most affecting. He shows the ways that ghetto dwellers are forced to deal with crime, vandalism, drugs, destructive behavior, and poverty. Here he describes, for example, the monthly ritual of cashing government checks.
Usually on the first or last day of the month, entire families line up at private check-cashing outlets to get their money. The elderly and the disabled are delivered in vans driven by young, strong men who watch so that their charges don’t get robbed. Drug dealers stand aside in groups waiting for payment on advance sales, while vendors hawk hot dogs.
A series of photographs illustrates inner-city community centers, religious buildings, boys’ clubs, and recreation centers. The buildings that elsewhere would be symbols of civic pride are bleak, fortified bunkers, with grates, fences, and bars, and blank walls. The roof of a branch of the New York Public Library is covered in wicked-looking spikes and graffiti. A methadone clinic in the South Bronx has every opening sealed with cement blocks and steel shutters and steel bars over the doors. A Head Start pre-school in Newark is surrounded by chain-link fencing topped by razor wire. A day-care center in Queens looks like a high security prison, but not to keep people in—to keep them out. Even as ordinary a device as a pay telephone has to be adapted to ghetto life: crudely welded steel plates and a heavy-duty padlock protect the coin box. A post office in the Bronx is so heavily fortified that it resembles a US embassy in a particularly violent third-world country.
The third world is recalled, also, in photographs of ghetto businesses. A man sells second-hand kitchen appliances and old mattresses from a truck parked on an empty lot in Newark. He has been in this location for four years. A local resident explained to Vergara, “You get the mattresses, you spray a couple of cans of Lysol, you lay them out on the roof, you bring them downstairs and put them on the bed.” A woman sells winter clothes and pots and pans in the parking lot of an abandoned shopping center on Chicago’s South Side. A variety of used furniture is displayed on a vacant lot against the background of a charred and half-collapsed building in Detroit. These outdoor markets resemble garage sales or flea markets, but they are really permanent businesses. That is what commerce is often reduced to in depopulated, poor communities. As Vergara observes, businesses price goods according to the amounts of welfare payments; supermarkets offer food (e.g., pork neckbones) rarely sold elsewhere in the city, and inexpensive brands like Coco Rico or Shabazz Cola instead of Pepsi and Coke.
One does not need much imagination to understand the profound and devastating effect that the abandoned, decaying, asocial urban landscape of the ghetto must have on its residents. It is to Vergara’s credit that he neither trivializes nor romanticizes this environment. He questions the use of terms like neighborhood or community to describe the ghetto. “I find ‘community’ misleading…” he writes. “It conveys a sense of a place like any other, masking the dreadfulness of the daily surroundings, the breakdown of social order, and the confinement, often compared to imprisonment, experienced by many residents.” At the same time, while Vergara observes and clicks his shutter from a certain distance, he also talks to people, and reports his conversations in sometimes chilling detail.
A caretaker at the Albany Houses, in Brooklyn, explained to me that gun sellers take their clients to the tops of buildings to demonstrate their wares. If the customer can hit something in a nearby building, the gun fetches a higher price.
“America leads the world in urban ruins,” Vergara writes. Last year he briefly got national attention when he proposed that part of Detroit’s downtown be set aside and promoted as a sort of theme park of architectural ruins. What might be termed “Yesterdayland” would include many of Detroit’s now-empty Depression-era skyscrapers: the Book-Cadillac Hotel which, at twenty-nine stories, was the world’s tallest hotel when it opened in 1924; the splendid neoclassical Michigan Central Railroad station; and Hudson’s, once the nation’s largest department store. “At night, I would like to project movies on the sides of skyscrapers to recapture the faded energies of the city: old-fashioned locomotives, steam billowing upwards; Ford Trimotors going at full speed.” The idea, much discussed in the press, was seen as scandalous in Detroit.
Vergara’s argument for the redemptive power of architectural ruins is hardly convincing; it appears whimsical. But perhaps occasional whimsicality is necessary to sustain someone who has chosen to devote his life to pursuing such a depressing subject. Mostly, he is realistic. His book concludes without the usual call for an urban renaissance; instead, the final chapter is titled “No solution in sight.” The national and even global changes that have affected the fates of large parts of cities like Detroit, Camden, Newark, and Gary will not be reversed. It is possible, I suppose, that people may one day return from the Sunbelt, but it will not happen soon. In the meantime, the process of urban decline will continue. “Contradicting a long-held vision of our country as a place of endless progress, ruins were unforeseen and then often denied, but surely they are here to stay and spread,” Vergara writes, “leaving us with the question of what things mean when they are no longer used.” His chief purpose seems to be to reveal a reality few middle-class people have ever confronted. This is how it is. Before you try to fix it, make sure that you understand it.
When I visited the traveling exhibition of photographs from The New American Ghetto that was being held at the Municipal Art Society in New York City (until September 25), I glanced at the book that had been provided for visitors to record their comments. There were many entries expressing shock, outrage, and anger. Vergara’s images obviously moved people to express themselves, often at length. A German visitor wrote—self-righteously, I thought—that this sort of thing could never happen in his country, where cities were properly managed. Others deplored the evident neglect of the nation’s poorest citizens. The most recent entry was the shortest: “What a sad, sad, sad show!”
October 31, 1996