Kwate, Naa Oyo A., ed. The Street: A Photographic Field Guide to American Inequality. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2021.
Reviewed by Howard Gillette
In 1992 Time Magazine presented its readers with a scathing picture of Camden, New Jersey, under the telling headline, “Who Could Live Here?” Featuring images of desecrated landscapes as the background for compromised lives, the essay generated outrage and denial in the overwhelmingly Black and Brown community. While fully acknowledging Camden as among the nation’s most impoverished and dangerous cities, the Ford Foundation funded the creation of a website intended to document more objectively change in the city over the course of time. This initiative featured the photographs of McArthur fellow Camilo Jose Vergara. Because Vergara photographed the same places over the years, his archive, as few others, documented in both time and space the ongoing effects of disinvestment and resulting poverty. It also brought the city to life.
The Mid Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities (MARCH), which I founded at Rutgers University-Camden twenty years ago, provided a home for Vergara’s project. At a Center conference in 2005, we introduced the resulting Invincible Cities website. Following Vergara’s presentation, a long-time Camden activist pointedly asked how an outsider from New York could presume to represent his city? After all, wasn’t Vergara seeking to advance his special and perhaps distorting vision while essentially exploiting Camden’s damaged built environment?
In his spirited defense, Vergara noted how important it was simply to document the cumulative effect of disinvestment on city neighborhoods. He pointed out that not everything he pictured was grim; the built environment had often adapted to the ravages of neglect. Also, in these and subsequent photos as well as in his written work, most recently Detroit Is No Dry Bones (2019), Vergara has made a point of highlighting resident resiliency.
Inspired in part by Invincible Cities (unfortunately no longer accessible), Rutgers sociologist Naa Oyo Kwate, has compiled a series of fifteen essays using Vergara’s photographs as prompts for reading the visual signs of inequality in urban America. Appearing to respect the integrity of the place and its capacities despite visible emblems of its social burdens, the edited volume opens with a foreword from Camden native Darnell Moore. The author of the heralded 2018 coming of age memoir, No Ashes in the Fire, Moore promises a volume that makes up for outsiders’ lack of analysis and denial of possibility: “It is a critical work that testifies to the spirit that is situated behind and within the photos that capture so much of what so many have chosen to forget.” If only that were the case, the work that Vergara did to create Invincible City almost two decades ago would have been added to and its potential for analysis realized.
These essays, largely by younger scholars in a variety of fields, broadly address different aspects of inequality. The specific connection to Camden is confined largely to a section in each essay entitled “field markings,” referring to a selected Vergara photograph. As Kwate explains, “the point is to start with the photograph and think about how we ought to interpret what we see…We need more depth in reading streetscapes, and this field guide attempts to delve beyond the parsimony of ‘bad neighborhoods,’ to think about the processes that brought conditions into being and how residents contend with them.”
To her credit, Kwate follows her own instructive insight. Under the theme of dissonance, she examines closely the photograph selected for the book’s cover: abandoned structures on Broadway, a street whose name conveys its former aspirations and whose current condition suggests how far it has fallen. Aside from the obvious loss of retail activity, she speculates about the presence in a mural on Broadway of a painted figure, a “White man dressed in a blue uniform reminiscent of the Revolutionary war [who] whips an apparent enslaved man.” Noting the white man’s declaration—all in caps—WE BUILT THE USA—she suggests this is the ultimate statement of dissonance in urban America: “the idea that Whites are responsible for building the best that America has to offer and those not classified as White were spectators alone.” Her comments are tentative, and she leaves the larger context to further speculation. And yet, had she consulted Vergara she could very well have brought home a larger point that would have confirmed local resilience in the midst of physical decay. As Vergara reported in American Ruins (1999), the painting was one of a series completed during the nation’s bicentennial by local youth angry that their story of descent from enslaved ancestors was being excluded from the national celebration. In a statement that adds power as well as context to the image, one participant at the time explained, “‘Here we are and this is our representation. We painted in a bunch of ruins. We did not have the tall ships and all that great stuff.’”
If Kwate could have done more to contextualize her chosen image, then others do even less. Alecia McGregor’s essay, framed by a Vergara photo of a fire hydrant in an abandoned field, points to the tragic loss of hospital care in distressed cities like Camden. Aside from the fact that the connection between the hydrant and health care is indeterminate, her essay describes a trend which is contrary to what has taken place in Camden. The Virtua hospital she refers to as having left has, in fact, returned to Camden, and it is in health care provision that Camden has actually pioneered measures of equity and inclusion, to national acclaim. Another essay by Jacob Rugh on forgotten Latino history makes the debatable judgment that a youngster at the foreground of a photograph of a row of homes is Latino. More importantly what he fails to mention is that Camden is now majority Latino—or that it has fostered a vital commercial district which has been threatened periodically by redevelopment.
The book includes a number of informative essays about aspects of inequality, including infant mortality, policing, and fast food. Readers will undoubtedly agree with much that is written here and find the endnotes a useful guide to recent scholarship. As for the question of representation—a subject that has gained a good deal of attention under the rubric of “gentrification porn”—the results are mixed. Vergara has been accused by Rebecca Kinney in Beautiful Wasteland (2016) of contributing to gentrification by drawing attention to underpriced areas that have in recent years attracted new investment. An essay in this book on that subject offered a chance to put some real analysis behind the various representations of stigmatized space. In the end, however, the analysis proves unsatisfying. The authors of these essays can be forgiven for not doing more homework on Camden, but in a book whose stated goal is to improve our ability to analyze cityscapes in general, more work needs to be done. As a field guide that will allow readers “to identify a phenomenon quickly and accurately, regardless of their skill level or expertise,” we await another much-needed effort.
Howard Gillette is Professor of History Emeritus at Rutgers University-Camden and author of the award winning, Camden After The Fall: Decline and Renewal In A Post-Industrial City (2005). His The Paradox of Urban Revitalization: Progress and Poverty in America’s Post-Industrial Era will be published in 2022.
Featured image (at top): A Camden streetscape. The Street considers such vantages, taken by the photographer Camilo Jose Vergara. Blake Bolinger, “Row Homes in Camden NJ” (2011), Flickr.com.