15 Years of Photographing Harlem: A Conversation with John Reddick and Albert Vecerka

Tomorrow night, June 13th, is the 3rd annual Urban Omnibus Block Party, where friends, fans, and regular readers convene to celebrate and help support Urban Omnibus. This year, the location is the Malt House, a former brewery on 126th Street in Harlem, one of a number of industrial buildings in an area currently referred to as “the Manhattanville Factory District” that The Janus Property Company is rehabilitating into almost a million square feet of mixed-use commercial buildings.

This redevelopment effort is only one of many, many changes that this historic New York City neighborhood has undergone throughout the years. And as iconic as Harlem is in the national popular imagination, the nuances of its social history over the past century, the unsung heroes of its revitalization over the past fifteen years, and the grandeur of its urban fabric despite decades of disinvestment aren’t well understood. Harlem’s streets and buildings testify to this multi-layered story of urban evolution.

That story is one that architectural photographer Albert Vecerka has been exploring since he moved to Harlem in the early 1990s. In the conversation below, he reflects on some of these images with Harlem historian and preservationist John Reddick. Both men trained as architects, but their affection and deep knowledge of their neighborhood extends beyond the buildings to encompass the various philosophies of planning, cultures of music, and legacies of community activism. Tonight, Reddick and Vecerka will be discussing this photographic body of work as part of the Harlem Focus series at the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum. But first, check out of the images and discussion below and don’t forget to join us tomorrow night in the midst of a constantly changing Harlem, and constantly changing city.

© Albert Vecerka/Esto
John Reddick (JR):

Albert’s photographs have become historic documents because of how dramatically the physical environment of Harlem has changed. Something that totally escapes people is how much of that change was generated from within the neighborhood. People think it all happened because Sotheby’s or Bill Clinton moved in, but there were neighborhood-based organizations that really did the work.

The revitalization of Frederick Douglass Boulevard, for example, was an initiative of C. Virginia Fields, who is a Harlem-based politician and the former Manhattan Borough President. She spearheaded the planning initiative for the corridor, spurring development and increasing the amount of affordable housing, but people don’t know about it. So much was accomplished by unsung, forgotten heroes, who worked to change the government’s thinking about what housing could be, how to bring schools and grocery stores to the area, how to rejuvenate the economic base. That careful focus on housing and infrastructure and schools by local talent is what really changed the neighborhood, what turned it around from 40% abandonment. The magazines write about people who are willing to pay a million dollars for a house in Harlem. But there were a lot of players who wanted to live there because they loved the neighborhood, not because their house was going to be a million dollar investment. Harlem has always been this mythic place, and the community put a lot of energy into turning it around and I feel like that history is lost.

Albert’s photos were taken at an interesting time, when people were wondering what was going on in Harlem and efforts to promote revitalization were underway. Particularly in his early series, he captures this kind of crispness, this sense of activity at night, at a time when people were afraid to come up to Harlem at night.

© Albert Vecerka/Esto
Albert Vecerka (AV):

These are two of my very early ones, when I was starting to hone my skills as a photographer. On the left is an early 4×5 from around 1999. And on the right is a photograph of the State Office Building, which completely dominated Harlem for many years. Harlem was all six-, eight-story buildings, and then there was this giant building on 125th Street. At the time, it was a real marker.

JR:

It was a very controversial project when it was built because it’s named for Adam Clayton Powell, who died during its construction. He was against building it, because it was displacing a historic bookstore and some other community gathering places. The prevailing philosophy behind that redevelopment effort was that bigger was always better. Now this whole area has been upzoned. So the height of the State Office Building isn’t as remarkable.

AV:

The idea behind taking these photographs was to show the neighborhood in its best light. It was my neighborhood, and I felt like it deserved that. These dusk pictures are really seductive.

I moved to the neighborhood in 1993 to study architecture at City College. A lot of architects like photography, and a bunch of students, myself included, decided to take some photography classes and go out and explore the neighborhood. But as we discovered, we didn’t really have enough time as architecture students for side projects like that. So my photography didn’t really take off until after I got out of school.

© Albert Vecerka/Esto
JR:

This corner has totally changed. This was a very popular restaurant. It was in the movie Precious, in an episode of 30 Rock. It used to have this “old Harlem” flair and this sort of country-city feel. The waitresses had all been there for a thousand years. It had this great signage, you could come in and get your chicken and waffles or all kinds of soul food. It shut down maybe four or five years ago, and now they’ve cleaned the building, stripped the paint off, and taken the signage down. Actually, the chef Marcus Samuelsson acquired one of the signs to put in his new restaurant, Red Rooster, but once the building owners saw he wanted it, they made him bring it back. So now one of the signs is dangling off the corner of the building and all the rest of it is ripped out. That’s a very Harlem story: it’s not valued until it’s gone, until someone else shows an interest in it.

Harlem is a stronger brand than Chanel. And I think it’s just so poorly marketed. People have one idea about it in their head, and it’s so much richer and more interesting, and there’s so much more to talk about.

I remember reading about and seeing film footage of the black regiment coming back from the First World War, when the Armistice Parade came up Fifth Avenue and all these people jammed into the street. When I turn on Fifth Avenue across 110th Street and come upon 7th Avenue, I can still see what they must have seen. I look at old photographs and I feel that history. Traces of that story remain in the physical environment. Now we have the Mayor talking about all these buildings he wants to build over by the Empire State Building. That’s like our pyramid! It is the mythic image of New York for so many people. I feel the same way about Harlem. There is something about that sign above the Apollo, and all those icons that reverberate over time and have complex meanings. You want to be able to see readable traces of that history even as the city changes — and New York will always change — particularly in black culture, when so much of the culture really wasn’t valued.

© Albert Vecerka/Esto
AV:

Here is a shot of the Metro-North train above ground, it surfaces at 96th Street.

JR:

When I was in school in the ’60s, this would have been the idealized image of all the benefits of redevelopment. There’s transportation! There are the glassy towers! But the reality is more complex when you get a little closer. The residents of these apartments with floor-to-ceiling glass, many of whom are quite poor, aren’t going to buy specialty 10-foot-tall curtains. So what ends up happening is this patchwork of everyday items turned into drapery. It’s not so perfect. This photograph actually does the building a great service by staying a little distant.

© Albert Vecerka/Esto
JR:

New York was considered for the World’s Columbian Exposition that took place in Chicago in 1893. If New York had been selected, there was a plan for the northern end of Central Park, from Central Harlem over to the Hudson River and Grant’s Tomb. The plan for the fair capitalized on this notion of the Beaux-Arts view, which you don’t typically get in New York because of the way the grid works. After the fair, that idea of a focal building became very popular — people realized that this kind of structure could be our Acropolis. Many institutions started moving up along the riverside and Broadway where you had these views over Harlem, and to the Hudson River, over St. John the Divine, Grant’s Tomb, and Riverside Drive.

AV:

When I made this photograph, Riverside Church had this new lighting scheme, so it was actually glowing at night. In a way it was a sign of change.

JR:

Illuminating towers and buildings became a big thing in New York. But in terms of bringing a sense of activity to the streets of the city, I think the biggest change was when morning TV shows started bringing people out onto the street. Katie Couric at 7 o’clock in the morning could be on a New York street and tourists from Iowa could stand out there and wait for her. I think that, more than Central Park or other stories of transformation, reverberated across the country and showed that the streets might be safer than people thought. You never would have seen these “windows onto the street” in the ‘70s or early ‘80s. I think subliminally that started to send this message to people, that “I could come to New York, get up at 5 o’clock, stand in Rockefeller Center until the sun comes up and see Katie Couric.” That wasn’t the case in early ’80s.

© Albert Vecerka/Esto
AV:

This was one of those days when I just picked up my camera bag and walked around with the tripod to see what caught my attention. I saw this building and thought maybe I should take a picture of it. As I was setting up, these kids came to me and said, “Take a picture of us.” I agreed, and it turned out to be pretty amazing. This was back in 4×5 days and these were somewhat long exposures.

© Albert Vecerka/Esto
AV:

For this shot,  I was looking at something else, trying to frame a shot with the dark cloth over my head — we had done all the other shots and this was going to be the last one — and I turned around and there they were up on the rim.

JR:

In Harlem, in these kinds of buildings, you can see how property is valued, where the commercial is more important than residential tenants. So we have the ground floor, and the rest of the building is empty, they might use it for storage or have no tenants at all. And then when this trend in huge facade advertising started, because 125th is a major street, it was a chance to have tens of thousands of dollars coming in for something that didn’t require any maintenance or effort on the part of the property owners.

© Albert Vecerka/Esto
AV:

This photo is the first one in a series I did of this whole block. This is Lenox Avenue, 125th Street is on the right side. I lived in the neighborhood and frequented 125th Street. One weekend morning in October, the light was just great, so I went out to take some pictures. It became very interesting to just look at all these different components of a block. This was right after the Mall of Harlem opened, which had Old Navy as one of the anchor tenants.

© Albert Vecerka/Esto
AV:

Now, I’m mostly interested in change. I’m still looking for things that are visually appealing to me and are representative of the neighborhood. But I’m also just looking at how these things are changing and evolving.

© Albert Vecerka/Esto
AV:

This one ends the series. This was in April of this year. The median has been widened and some trees have appeared. This lot has been sitting empty since 2006 or 2007, just before the market crashed. Now it’s supposed to be a Whole Foods.

© Albert Vecerka/Esto

JR:

This building on the left is a synagogue, the Temple Israel of Harlem. It was built in 1906, modeled after a synagogue that was being unearthed in Palestine at that time. It was more of a German-Jewish congregation. Most people think it’s a bank or something.

Images of the architecture and the grand streets of Harlem have always fascinated me because I realized how much they empowered African Americans. My interest in Harlem used to begin with the Renaissance period and everything that came after. But then I went to a talk about when Harlem was a predominantly Jewish area, and I found myself fascinated by the cross-influence of the black and Jewish populations, particularly in terms of music culture.

One of the many factors motivating both the black and Jewish communities to move to the area was big capital projects that displaced these populations from other areas of the city. For blacks, it was the building of the original Penn Station. For Jews, the building of the Williamsburg Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge forced many families out of the Lower East Side. After I’d heard that talk, I started to notice the imprints of that in the physical fabric of the city. So the Gerswhins and Marxes, those people were moving from tenements and looking for places to go, and this area had a longstanding church institutions and the kind of community fabric they were looking for. At one point, Harlem was the second largest Jewish community in the United States, the third largest in the world.

Then I started collecting sheet music. In those pages, you can see the dialogue between the artists — who was writing for whom, and who was being influenced by whom. It’s almost like a legal agreement. Also, the music covers are evocative of a time. These covers interpret the songs, and give you clues about what the cultures thought of the songs, or what they were trying to represent.

There was also a huge German population in Harlem at one point. Pabst, the beer company, their biggest restaurant was Pabst Harlem. The building is still there on 125th Street; it sat something like 1,400 people. But Prohibition really took a toll on these businesses.

© Albert Vecerka/Esto
JR:

Milk was also a big deal in Harlem. There there was a whole group of milk suppliers that were all gathered in this area. You have the Meatpacking District; well, this was the Milk District.

© Albert Vecerka/Esto
AV:

You can see the evidence of different times in these little buildings, people that did well, and people that didn’t do so well. These are all gone now.

© Albert Vecerka/Esto
JR:

I find it fascinating how Albert has grown as a photographer in and alongside this specific neighborhood.

AV:

One thing I think about when photographing architecture and design — and this is something that Erica [Stoller] likes to say, which is something her father, Ezra Stoller, used to say — a lot of people say you don’t take a picture, you make a picture.

One of my earliest influences as a photographer is my friend Wayne Sorce. I had my first assisting gig with him. He grew up in Chicago, and his brother is an architect, so architecture was really part of his life. He went to the Art Institute and then moved here and started working for Life magazine. Sorce always talked about learning to see and how that’s something that everybody takes for granted. But it really takes very keen observation and years of practice.

© Albert Vecerka/Esto
AV:

Photography was really invented as a medium to more accurately represent the environment. One of the inventors of the early processes of photography was someone who was very frustrated because he didn’t have any drafting training and, even with the aid of the camera obscura, he couldn’t really represent what he saw.

Architecture was one of the very early subjects of photography, partially because people realized that they could actually document all these historic places, Egypt, Rome, etc., so people who couldn’t travel could actually see them. Also, some of the early exposures were really long, and anything that was actually moving was not a suitable subject. So architectural photography fulfilled both of those objectives. Plus the amount of detail on some of the buildings was really impossible to accurately represent in drawings.

Photography is a kind of storytelling. In many ways, Ezra Stoller established the standards to which architectural photography is held to today. His concern was to represent architecture by telling the story of the building. It wasn’t just about the photographic merit. That’s what makes his work art.

© Albert Vecerka/Esto
AV:

For me, at some point, the intent really shifted towards documenting the neighborhood, and seeing that change and how it really manifested itself in a physical way in buildings.

JR:

But you focus on the commercial avenues, and the active streets. There aren’t really shots of the rowhouse blocks or the intermediate streets. You have really homed in on the public streets.

2000/2001 | © Albert Vecerka/Esto
2013 | © Albert Vecerka/Esto
AV:

That’s true. I think it’s partially because it allows me to step back and take this greater sample. Then you can really look at what’s happening. These brownstones, for example, there’s one that’s missing a stoop, and if you look at some of the other ones, you can see the evidence that there used to be a door there. The photographs allow you to perform an almost forensic examination of what was here, and what’s visible now. Then, when it starts to disappear, you can see what replaces it, and whether that replacement is better or not.

© Albert Vecerka/Esto

John Reddick is an architect, historian, and long-time Harlem resident. He has written on Harlem’s architectural and cultural history, and has also been a leading figure in several public space initiatives in Harlem, including the Frederick Douglass memorial in Central Park. Reddick currently leads walking tours with Harlem One Stop, and his exhibit, Harlem’s Black and Jewish Music Culture 1890-1930, is currently on view at Settepani on 120th Street.

Albert Vecerka studied both architecture and photography and uses his strong understanding of each to portray space and light through the element of time in still imagery and video. A native of the former-Yugoslavia, Vecerka moved to New York in 1992. He received a BS in Architecture from City College in 1997. The following year, he began to concentrate on photography, working as an assistant and on his own. Albert taught photography and woodworking at Parsons School of Design; currently he teaches architectural photography at City College and as a continuing education course at The Cooper Union.