Camilo José Vergara is a photographer and the author of numerous books, most recently, Detroit Is No Dry Bones: The Eternal City of the Industrial Age (University of Michigan Press, 2016). His most recent writing on Detroit can be found at PublicBooks.org. More of his work can be found at camilojosevergara.com.
Change may be on the horizon for the city’s unofficial town square, but it is not yet apparent on its streets.
Newark’s “Four Corners” is located two blocks west of Newark Penn Station and serves as the major point of convergence for the region’s bus lines. I’ve been photographing the area for 40 years now.
After decades of disinvestment its handsome stock of century-old buildings stand mostly vacant aside from their ground floor businesses. On the northeast corner, Fireman’s Insurance, a landmark skyscraper, has been covered with black netting across its top and sides to prevent falling pieces from striking passersby. Across the street, a large Art Deco-style Woolworth store has been closed for decades, the old name still on the facade. And on the corner of Broad and Market stands Urban Eyes, an eyeglass store whose name inspired me to cast my own eyes on the flow of human traffic at this intersection.
Around the corner on Market Street is a sub-precinct of the Newark Police, and uniformed police officers on Segways are posted at the intersections. Barely visible, though, are many types of surveillance video equipment attached at various angles to lamp posts, buildings, and the frames supporting traffic lights. Some of the cameras focus on what is happening in the distance while others look nearby.
Half of the population of Newark is African American, 29 percent Hispanic. Slightly more than 20 percent of the population lives below the federal poverty level. The streets of Four Corners are lined with stores that serve a low income population. Cell phone businesses are the most popular, replacing stores that once sold pagers. Korean jewelry stores fit customers with gold teeth caps, repair jewelry, and buy gold. There are places for people to pay utility bills, to purchase wigs and human-hair extensions, and to get tattooed. Fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s and Royal Fried Chicken are ubiquitous. Street vendors sell bath oil, single cigarettes, sunglasses, T-shirts, and food.
On the sidewalk, money changes hands mysteriously, cards advertising businesses or churches are handed out. Preachers explain the bible. Uniformed construction laborers, FedEx employees, security officers, and fast food employees all pass through. Despite the nearby presence of Prudential Insurance, the sight of a white person walking through the intersection wearing a business suit is extraordinarily rare. And although Rutgers University’s local campus and the New Jersey Institute of Technology are just blocks away, signs of college life on Four Corners are hard to find.
As I broadened the subject of my documentation in recent years from decaying inner city buildings to people, I realized that this intersection had become a meeting place for minorities in all their diversity: a public market, a place to take selfies, a town square, a modeling runway. The Four Corners is an excellent place to document the energy and vitality of African American and Latino street culture. Areas such as this are also storehouses of urban knowledge, places that serve as inspiration to fashion designers searching for a look with an urban edge. Here, black garbage bags are almost as common as suitcases to carry one’s belongings. Knockoffs of expensive items such as Prada handbags and Louis Vuitton luggage are popular. Other status symbols are prevalent, such as the logos of Mercedes Benz, BMW, and Ferrari printed on clothing.
By shooting fast and from the hip, I allow the camera to help me discover things that happen too quickly for me to register. And photographs give me the time to really observe the clothes that people wear, the manner in which they interact with others, the things they buy, and the way they use the space. On several occasions I have been spotted photographing surreptitiously, which evokes smiles, warnings, dirty looks, and the occasional insult.
I was once invited to photograph a group of teenagers from a charter school as they were hanging out in front of the Urban Eyes store. I posted some of the photos on Instagram and in my exchanges with the students I became aware of their aspirations to be designers, dancers, and musicians. More than ever, technology enables young people to see themselves as creators, to show their talents to a large audience, and to receive immediate feedback. Being connected gives them hope of recognition. Visiting a few of the Instagram accounts of these kids from the charter school, I saw that the people depicted in their posts were their peers—black and young, hanging out.
Because of its proximity to New York and its transportation links, planners and developers have long had their sights set on the Four Corners. In 1986, Harry Grant proposed building a 121-story tower which would have been the tallest in the country—it never happened. After the Prudential Center opened one block south of the intersection of Market and Broad in 2007, restaurants, loft apartments, and hotels began to appear. Two blocks southwest sits the more recent Teachers Village, which includes three charter schools, a daycare center, retail, and over 200 apartments. Coming eventually to the southwest corner will be the Four Corners Millennium Project, a skyscraper with apartments, offices, and parking.
For Newark’s unofficial town square, change may be on the horizon but it is not yet apparent on its streets.