The Transformation of Harlem

Photographer Camilo Jose Vergara's pictures document Harlem's journey from a "rundown version of Paris" in the 1970s to the "global Harlem" of luxury condos and corporate franchises [includes slideshow].
June 15, 2009, 10am PDT | Michael Dudley
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"The merchants and traders of Harlem have changed during the 40 years I've been going there. The Korean and the West Indian business people who had replaced an earlier generation of Jewish storeowners are now themselves being displaced by corporate franchises and chain stores. Many of the Korean toy, fruit, and clothing stores have closed, as have West Indian variety shops and restaurants. In their place is a proliferation of McDonalds, KFCs, and Blimpys.

This transformation coincides with the community's loss of local organizations, clubs, associations, and stores that served to link residents with the rural South or the Caribbean. Stores named Mity Fine or De Paree Beauty Products have been replaced by mainstream franchises and stores with more familiar names.

There was something vital going on in Harlem in the '70s, and it was not a Renaissance, or a jazz scene, or a sports frenzy, or a world of gospel singing. As time passes, I have become rather fond of my earliest pictures of Harlem. In their anonymity, images such as these are an antidote to the cult of celebrity. They show some of Harlem's grace and beauty. The people portrayed are anonymous and the places and signs depicted are mostly forgotten or now transformed beyond recognition. These photographs show the end of a Harlem that lasted for two generations and the beginning of the global Harlem of today."

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Published on Thursday, June 11, 2009 in Slate
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