PDN Photo of the Day

Remembering El Barrio in the 1980s

Besides documenting an important piece of urban history, Joseph Rodriguez’s vibrant photographs of Spanish Harlem in the 1980s, on view at the Bronx Documentary Center until December 23, evoke nostalgia for the bygone days of a lively, cohesive, predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood. In his introduction to Rodriguez’s book, Spanish Harlem: El Barrio in the ‘80s, published by powerHouse, writer and critic Ed Morales emphasizes how much has changed since the photos were taken, because of gentrification in Harlem, not to mention the exodus of most of New York City’s working class over the past 30 years. “But Rodriguez probably wasn’t chasing nostalgia when he shot the photographs. He was just documenting everyday life as a neighborhood insider, with an insatiable curiosity for everyone and everything that was going on. He photographed inside churches, hospitals, social clubs, bath houses, apartments, and most of all, in the streets, where he embraces everyone as they come, flaws and all. He made impromptu portraits of families, performers, street vendors, toughs and poseurs, activists, saints and sinners, the old and the young, friends, lovers gay and straight. People are photographed at their windows, on their front stoops, parading down the street. Video games, helicopter parents and stranger danger were still scourges of the future, so kids play exuberantly (and unsupervised) in the streets. But Rodriguez also photographed the harder realities of the neighborhood: derelict buildings, trash-strewn lots, drug dealing and addiction. Poverty is everywhere evident in the photos. But Rodriguez looks at all of it with compassion, and the poverty in particular is just a backdrop, mitigated by a spirit of pride and optimism, tight family and community bonds, and religious devotion.

The photographs are also rich with color, contrast, symbolism and irony. In the details, Rodriguez captures the often conflicting sympathies and identities of his subjects, as well as their aspirations. In one image, two mostly naked toddlers, backlit by sunlight, stand on a fire escape looking into a dark and cluttered apartment. A TV sitcom plays in the foreground, and a museum exhibition poster adorns an adjacent wall. It seems to represent a new generation of immigrants, on a threshold between two worlds.

The sequencing of the images plays with contrasts. A tender photograph of a father combing his daughter’s hair is followed by an image of two half-drunk fathers in a living room, swigging beers while their toddlers drink formula from their bottles. Another photograph, of a couple of neighborhood toughs showing off their gold rings, is followed by a portrait of several girls in confirmation dresses. They stand in front of a blackboard on which someone imparting a catechism lesson has scrawled the word ABOMINATION.

Rodriguez shows 1980s Spanish Harlem in all its contradictions and complications, but what shines through in these photographs is the cultural and spiritual vibrancy of the people and their barrio. That both have changed so much—because of assimilation, gentrification, and other factors—makes Rodriguez’s photographs all the more poignant.—David Walker

Related Stories:
East Side Stories
Helen Levitt’s Street Views
Anatomy of a Successful Grant Application: Joseph Rodrigues on the Audience Engagement Grant (for PDN subscribers; login required)

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