Portrait of a Neighbourhood: Harlem

I’ve been meaning to write about my time in New York for a while now. I came and left so quickly that I’ve hardly had time to look back. I moved to New York in 2006 after completing my BA at UCL and ready to tackle the world of academia across the pond. I was going to Columbia University, an experience I thought would transform me without recognition. But it was not Columbia that transformed me, it was New York City.

As a clueless graduate student arriving from overseas, I was awarded university housing on 119th Street, on what is called Morningside Heights. It’s actually South Harlem, if we’re honest, but Columbia has done a wonderful job a gentrifying the joint and making it utterly artificial. All the shops, restaurants, cafe might as well have had a massive ‘STUDENT’ in front of their name, there was no subtelty in suggesting that these were not authentic.

I studied Urban Planning at Columbia University. Lots of great memories, but a lot of bad ones too. I was new to the US, I didn’t know anything about contemporary politics, or culture, I really stood out like a sore thumb with my hangover of a British accent as well. I can’t help it, I tell myself, I’ve got an ear for languages… It might sounds incongruous, but it was actually the architectural photography class that I enjoyed most, taught by Erieta Attali and facilitated by my now friend, Stan Lee.

Erieta was not easy to please, which is a good thing. She had the passion of the Greek and the work ethic of the Israeli, making her an unforgiving judge of anyone’s photographic dabbling. It was harsh: prints flying across the room, ‘do more of that’ (of what?), ‘I don’t want to see anything like this again’, ‘the subway is off-limits for all of you’ (as a photographic subject she meant, I hope)… It was quite a daunting prospect to come to class to be honest. She started the first class by showing us Stan’s work for the previous year, yeah, like that helped. We all knew how high the bloody bar was. Sky high.

So off I went, with my film camera shooting in black and white. I didn’t have much time to take the subway to the Guggenheim, or wherever else other people went, so I decided I would stay close to home and explore Harlem. In hindsight, it was probably silly of me to walk around desolate blocks with expensive camera equipment, but Harlem really took my fancy. It was so close, yet so distant. You could feel that the population, economy, culture and history of the place had nothing to do with that of Columbia University, the Island University as I started calling.

Although Harlem is changing a lot at the moment (a lot of people are moving up there to take advantage of what is relatively cheap real estate) the symbols of its former glory as the Black capital of the US are visible. From the Apollo on 125th Street to a series of former movie cinemas turned into churches, closed down banks, the part of Harlem I was roaming was a modern ruin. I ended up spending 2 or 3 afternoons a week, venturing every time a bit further north, trying to understand the continuity of the social and built fabric, reading the invisible fault lines in the landscape. Incredible and very precious experience to be honest.

A couple of times, I ran into some homeless guys who asked me who I was and why I was taking photos. One guys said: “What are you taking pictures of all this junk for, go downtown lady, you shouldn’t be here!”. I really hope I wasn’t indulging in an episode of poverty tourism, but that seemed unlikely. But then again, I couldn’t quite pretend I understood his world either. So I thanked him for the advice and moved on.

Luckily, the photographs I ended up taking were to Erieta’s liking. She kept sending me back up there, for “more”. I came to be fascinated by the way in which nature is never very far at bay, it is always waiting in the background, ready to take over at the first sign of human absence. I captured impromptu vertical gardens, urban landscapes and artefacts of human stories. I never photographed the people themselves though, it seemed a bit forward at the time, plus people are only ever any good if they don’t know you’re taking pictures. There was no way they weren’t going to notice me though, so I had to make do with the built heritage instead.

Below are some examples of what came out of this exploration. A couple made the end of year exhibition, Erieta’s ultimate endorsement. She once told me: “I have no idea what you are doing in Planning School, you should be in Art School.” I think she got carried away a bit, but it was really a turning point in my career. Even if I were convicted to being a planner in spite of my better judgement, I would be a creative one. Hopefully, that is still playing out.

Enjoy the photos, you can see more on my flickr profile.


One Response to “Portrait of a Neighbourhood: Harlem”
  1. Dena Rabadi says:

    i enjoyed reading the story, thank you

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