Sixty-six years later, after congressionally ratified national wars on poverty, the bright but failed promises of the Great Society and a seeming revolving door of state, city and community revitalization projects, the lowdown, dirty misery of being poor in America remains much as Orwell described it in Down and Out In Paris and London: precarious, chary in human alternatives, enfeebling in every imaginable manner.
But what lives on in an intractable way in the rest of the Western world, in America has festered to become a bloody ulcer. Once home to prosperity-minded visions of endless upward mobility and chickens-in-every-pot, the world's richest nation has turned its sympathy away from the issues of decaying urban centers and generational poverty. Last among developed nations in income distribution and first in murder and child mortality, late-20th-century America has recently found its experience with inner-city poverty traumatic enough to declare a moratorium on the topic. Bypassing the examples of writers like Dwight MacDonald, James Baldwin and Nathan Glazer, today's chattering classes finesse issues like Internet stocks, movie violence and the Y2K. Sadly, most of the nation's first-rate thinkers and artists have followed suit.
Most, that is, except Camilo José Vergara. Vergara, a photographer and writer trained as a sociologist, is a revelation for those unfamiliar with his exhaustive, pensive and candid work. Less a fine artist than a documentarian, Vergara has carefully observed and recorded the American inner city and its devastated experience since 1977. The New American Ghetto, one of the three books Vergara has written (his latest, American Ruins, is forthcoming this fall), is that rare, insightful volume, full of elegant prose and honest photography of, among other disaster areas, Gary, IN, the South Bronx, Bushwick, Newark's Central Ward, South Central. A cornerstone of Vergara's impressively vast body of work, The New American Ghetto represents but a fraction of the tens of thousands of pictures taken by the photographer in the 22 years he has devoted to his ambitious project.
"Ghettos," Vergara has declared, are "as intrinsic to the identity of the United States as New England villages, vast national parks, and leafy suburbs." Offering "a visual journey through cityscapes and interiors," Vergara has amassed a vast store of photographs of inner-city life, which he complements with narratives culled from historical records, his own travels and conversations with ghetto residents themselves. The pictures and quote combinations Vergara specializes in make a sustained bid to reflect the gamut of experiences built into actually being there. Like the areas they record?and in keen opposition to the graphic, taken-in-at-a-glance photojournalism of street photography and glossy magazines like Life?the photographs swerve from the lively to the excruciatingly dull. The familiar, the pathetic and the hopeful describe Vergara's business; images of struggle and stasis, the photographer deploys them in the "unattainable goal of capturing the ghettos in their entirety." (Healthily skeptical of his own ambition, Vergara tells of an incident in which, while photographing in Harlem, a young man yelled at him: "You don't get it. You'll never get it.")
Situated firmly on the vastly underexploited, reflective terrain opened up between sensational news stories and government statistics, Vergara's current exhibition of photographs, "El Nuevo Mundo: The Landscape of Latino Los Angeles," brings to New York an admiring, critical look at the largest Hispanic city north of the Rio Bravo (what Mexicans call the Rio Grande). On view at the old Carnegie Mansion that houses the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, "El Nuevo Mundo," Vergara's personal account of the physical and demographic transformation of Los Angeles County (an area that is today 41 percent Hispanic), explores the constructed environment of America's most populous "little Mexico," examining all the while its inhabitants' heritage, their stubborn sense of identity and the distinctly American aspirations that drive them, in the most hardscrabble of ways, to get ahead in the world.
Until fairly recently, the territory of what is now Latino Los Angeles was inhabited predominantly by black and white Americans, their 50s-style bungalows paid for by wages from nearby automobile, tire, aerospace and steel industries. As these factories plunged into obsolescence and tsunami-like waves of immigrants crashed onto the cement and metal ramparts separating America from the vast ocean of people to the south (about 100,000 Mexicans a year came to Los Angeles between 1985 and 1990), the character of what Vergara calls "the hot, flat, and poor part of Los Angeles County" changed, becoming virtually unrecognizable to its previous residents. Gone was the drab gray and dun uniformity covering blocks of run-down streets and buildings; up went the red and green colors of the Mexican flag and the ubiquitous image of Mexico's patroness, Nuestra Señora, The Virgin of Guadalupe.
Chronicling the years between 1992 to the present, Vergara explores the ins and outs of life in East L.A. and South Central. Concerned with the way Latinos build and decorate their homes, landscape their yards, create their workplaces and go about the daily exercise of structuring a poor but apparently thriving community, he sequences his photographs to present four broad themes: neighborhoods, workplaces, homes, the border. One image shows a depression-era view of a recently arrived couple, Eric and Marisella, seated inside their dusty Japanese pickup, a heap of cast-off items that they hope to sell tied with rope to the roof. The accompanying quote from an incongruously smiling Eric reads: "Tell Clinton that I am cleaning the city so that he makes me a resident." Another photograph of a low, two-story shop, Moreno Auto Parts, shows off parts of its brightly painted inventory on its facade, the better to hawk wares to a population that is largely illiterate.
Dynamic, fluid and full of the clashing colors of a vibrant culture, what Vergara's pictures and abundant wall text (partly because "El Nuevo Mundo" actively dispenses with the standard exhibition format, partly because Vergara's photographs often require a companion narrative, these pictures actually benefit from the show's running, albeit measured, commentary) portray is what the sociologist in him calls "a new immigrant ghetto"?a community that, unlike other poor urban centers, avoids the extreme social disorganization, alienation and violence Americans rightly associate with the inner city. In "El Nuevo Mundo," like in foreign-born communities a century ago, entire families squeeze into cramped houses and apartments, people work demeaning, exploitative jobs for next to nothing in the hopes of advancement, traffic flourishes between the local population and the native country and paint goes a long way to transforming the look of the street.
In other words: despite the unique and significant dressing, "El Nuevo Mundo" is, exactly as Vergara describes it, a ghetto, a place increasingly isolated and forgotten by the suburban majority, rough to live and survive in, and likely only to get rougher. No New World this, but a dislocated vision of an older Dickensian one, Latino L.A. is succinctly summed up by one of the many quotes Vergara collected for his narrative. Asked about the repeated appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the Los Angeles pictures of Camilo José Vergara, Mexicans living in Mexico answered with what is this show's ultimate truism: "They need her more there."
"El Nuevo Mundo: The Landscape of Latino Los Angeles," through Sept. 5 at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, 2 E. 91st St. (5th Ave.), 849-8400.
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