loud paper interviews Camilo Jose Vergara

Camilo Jose Vergara has been documenting architectural decline for over 25 years now. During this time, the Chilean-born, New York–based writer and photographer has found himself crisscrossing the United States, delving into the deteriorating fabric of places like the South Bronx, Detroit, Newark, Gary, the Southside of Chicago, and all the way out to the heart of Latino Los Angeles. Vergara’s unceasing project has produced two mammoth books—1995’s The New American Ghetto and 1999’s American Ruins—that one might be tempted to call bibles of architectural dysfunction in this country over the past quarter century. These epic oeuvres, dedicated to America’s forgotten architectural relics, have inevitably led Vergara to many of the most infamous (and in some cases, vanished) experiments in public housing (often referred to as "poor warehousing") America has to offer: The Marcus Garvey projects in Brooklyn, Unity Plaza in East New York, and Washington Park Houses and Cabrini-Green on the Southside of Chicago to name just a few.

The documentarian’s stunning photographs and writing paint an eerie and chilling picture of the depressed landscape of these projects. In American Ruins, Vergara describes one of his visits to the Washington Park Houses in Chicago in such vivid detail and with such a personal tone one is almost transported to Prairie Avenue with him:

On the way to the roof I passed through a dark penthouse where large, outmoded elevator machinery sparked and sizzled as it was turned on and off. The ceiling leaked and hot water dripped from pipes. The room resembled a setting for a horror film; yet it felt surprisingly warm and comfortable compared to the exposed roof that lay behind a metal door.

Outside the penthouse, the roof was clear of ice and seemed safe except for the wind that pushed from all directions. Around me lay an extraordinary landscape of contrasting wealth and poverty: surviving gray stone Victorian mansions, snow-covered empty lots, black glass downtown towers with [on of] the world’s tallest building[s] among them, the Gold Coast, public housing projects. Only the hissing of the wind and the creaking of the elevated trains as they curved on their way to and from downtown broke the silence. An immense, freezing Lake Michigan lay to the east.

Still, though his words show the cold, harsh bareness of the landscape in so many public housing projects, Vergara’s view of these places is far from hopeless and his photographs are often strangely beautiful, revealing the humanity that continues to exist here despite the government’s apparent indifference. Vergara’s images reveal the pride and marvel that must have accompanied the construction and initial completion of these now tired and worn monumental structures. While Vergara’s views and feelings concerning the policies and theories that guided the formation of these modern-day slums is far from invisible, he—playing more the role of a strict-historian— resists making sweeping generalizations and refrains from offering his advice by deflecting probing questions of this nature to others he considers more worthy of an expert opinion. However, after so many years dedicated to the up-close and in-depth study of public housing, the insight that he does offer is hard to ignore. In The New American Ghetto he writes about New York City’s preferred method of dealing with the dismal state that many of the older projects—demolition and eventual replacement with low-rise units:

In New York City, where space is at a premium, covering large tracts with low-density townhouses constitutes an inefficient use of valuable public land and infrastructure. And by excluding the poor, these developments force the city to concentrate the most destitute population elsewhere—typically in institutions or in badly maintained buildings located in the most violent ghettos. In addition, townhouse enclaves set up barriers to defend themselves against their neighbors, resulting in the further fragmentation of the communities.

Vergara’s reluctance to hold the activist torch while remaining firmly entrenched in the midst of the highly politicized arena of public housing has allowed him to produce some of the most important American photographic work on this topic to date. While such thorough documentation of America’s often seedy underbelly deserves to be federally funded, Vergara has remained an independent producer of his various projects. While this has certainly led to hardships for the author, it has allowed him to produce truly touching and telling stories of the lives of those people relegated to the outskirts of American society. But perhaps more unusual, unique, and in the end, valuable to the study of public housing, Vergara has revealed the marginalized lives of the buildings that serve as homes to those on the outside looking in—a modern-day Jacob Riis—whose contributions may provide clues to a better future for the much-maligned necessity and legitimacy of public housing.