Is Harlem coming or going? Evolving into its next iteration or disappearing under the onslaught of change? It depends on whom you ask. For the photographer David Vades Joseph, who grew up in the neighborhood’s Hamilton Heights section, Harlem is an idea that is vanishing daily. “Certain mom and pop stores that I’ve walked past most of my life aren’t there anymore,” Mr. Vades Joseph, 30, said recently. “Buildings that I grew up with are being torn down and replaced by condominiums. It’s haunting, in a way.”
In 2010, Mr. Vades Joseph began to photograph vestiges of his old Harlem before they disappeared: the annual parades and watering holes where people gathered in the manner of generations past. He shot in black and white, noticing only later that his photographs seemed rooted as much in the past as in the moments he photographed. He was shooting backward, to a time he knew only in memory. Mostly he shot people rather than buildings, he said, because he felt the community’s essence lay in the neighbors who shared their dreams or hopes, not in the architecture where those dreams sometimes crumbled.
Change, of course, has been part of the neighborhood all along, and a key strand in Harlem’s DNA is its dynamism: new language, new sounds, new styles. All flowered at the expense of something else. What’s new, Mr. Vades Joseph said, is the pace of change. “We always thought Harlem would be the way it was,” he said. Someday he said, he may train his camera on the new Harlem emerging from the old. But for now, he said, “I want to celebrate what we had in the past that’s still being upheld to this date.” Among the survivors is the barbershop of his youth. “Thanking my stars,” he said. “Thanking my stars.”
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