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.
Camilo José Vergara takes his camera to the intersection Lou Reed sang about in 1967.
As an urban photographer I find myself drawn to East 125th Street at Lexington Avenue, the heart one of the most diverse and energetic among New York’s segregated intersections. Thousands of new apartments in this once run-down and depopulated neighborhood have gone up in recent years—so have the rents.
In 1967 Lou Reed wrote his famous song, “I’m Waiting for my Man,” about this intersection:
“I'm waiting for my man. Twenty-six dollars in my hand. Up to Lexington, one, two, five. Feel sick and dirty, more dead than alive…”
In 2018, people catch the M35 bus going to the city’s shelters and drug treatment centers on Randall’s Island. Coming from the other direction, the yellow buses of the correctional system bring inmates released from Rikers Island to this crossroads.
If in need of a detox center, this is the place to go. The largest methadone clinic in the city is nearby, as are several homeless shelters and places to get a free meal. A dialysis clinic and a hospice are a block away. People using walkers, canes, and wheelchairs are easily spotted. Elderly women often carry small children with them on their wheelchairs or slowly push them in a seating compartment on their walkers.
Nowadays, even well-off people sometimes frequent this crossroads. College students board the M60 bus to LaGuardia Airport, and all kinds of people come here to take the 4, 5, and 6 trains to the East Side of Manhattan or to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. Police presence, video surveillance, and security guards are the main tools used for keeping the peace.
The sirens of ambulances, police cars and fire trucks are often blaring on this corner. “Five dollar headphones, nice and loud,” shouts a man selling what look like Apple EarPods. Another man sells Newport cigarettes by the unit, and others sell drugs. The ice cream salesman discusses with customers whether or not the Mexican drug czar Arellano is dead. Preachers use this location to preach, and heavy truck traffic adds to the din.
With my back against a urine-soaked corner of a building, I wait to snap photos of passersby—people of all ages and races rushing past those standing on the corners. The variety of facial expressions and fashions is vast. I document what I see as the most urban of situations, clusters of people as they cross the streets or walk by me. I want to create images of strangers coming together, of families and friends negotiating the confusion of the crossroads and becoming one with cars, buses, and buildings. I prefer to photograph with a normal lens and a low aperture setting to capture the streets both in depth and in sharp focus so as to later examine tattoos, jewelry, hospital bands, hairstyles, and street signs.
Some men walk by bare chested. I see an angry, screaming man suddenly punch a brick wall. I see single dollar bills inside girls’ clear plastic purses. Behind me at the 99-cent pizza and fries restaurant, a man goes through a resealable bag full of small change to find enough to pay for a slice.
The sign at the entrance to the PathMark reads “Closed 4ever Supermarket,” and a more recent sign says “Stop Bed Bugs! Eliminacion de Chinches.” In 1997, it was the first large supermarket to open in Harlem in several decades, and it covered almost an entire city block. But it closed in 2015 and is now likely to be replaced with high-end housing. The original red and blue letters on the store are crumbling. The once-popular redeeming machines for cans and bottles on the East 124th corner have been covered over. Facing the former PathMark, a T-shaped, eleven-story rental building with a curved façade by the star Danish architect Bjarke Ingels is almost completed. A block west on East 125th Street, another large empty lot has been waiting for development for decades, and several vacant buildings across the street on Park Avenue are ready for demolition and new construction.
The Salvation Army, with a large and growing presence in the neighborhood, is building a senior residence. “In the name of Jesus,” screams the woman in a wheelchair by the Salvation Army building. Another woman, passing by, asks for prayers, and a man in a wheelchair plays the tambourine.
Half a block east is the wall chosen by Reverend Al Sharpton and radio station WBLS in the early 1990s to record the names of recent shooting victims, reminding me that a quarter century ago this area was one of the nation’s most dangerous. The names are now covered over by a hospice wall. The project, an initiative that arose during the crack epidemic, was named “Increase the Peace.”
Inside the McDonald’s on the corner, a little boy asks me, “Are you English?” The mother tells me that they are Dominicans. I have been there several times overhearing conversations while having a cup of coffee. The restaurant walls are decorated to look like a nightclub with portraits of Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Louis Armstrong, and Billie Holliday. A security guard has his eyes fixed on the bathrooms, making sure that those waiting to use them have made a purchase and that people do not stay inside for too long. A shirtless man asks, “Can I have some water? I lost my shirt. I left it on a shopping cart.”
A decade ago, young white and Asian students visiting the city or returning to school would stop at the restaurant. I once even heard a young couple talk about their trip to Florence, Italy. But in 2018 the clientele is almost completely poor and black or Latino.
Outside the McDonald’s, three men are busy placing a long stick through a subway grate trying to retrieve something. Harvey, a man waiting for the bus to the Bronx, explains, “Maybe they dropped something,” and adds, “There are drugs down there. They are trying to get them. Don’t say it too loud, this is New York; you have to mind your business.”
A ripped sign outside the 24-hour Grocery Corp reads: "Sells K2 (synthetic marijuana) illegally to our community.” There are several police cars parked around the corner along with a Mobile Command Unit on Lexington Avenue. I photographed patrolman Werner and his partner, Officer Maldonado, as they stood on Lexington Avenue in contrasting poses: Werner tall and flabby, Maldonado, small, tense, fit, and well groomed, holding his belt with his two hands, conveying that he means business.
I ask myself why I feel so attracted to this messy crossroads. At Lexington Avenue and 125th Street I feel fully engaged, watching several dramas taking place simultaneously. Nowhere else have I seen a neighborhood so vigorously pulling in opposite directions at the same time: accumulating NIMBYs along with completed new apartment buildings. It is heavily surveilled while offering a place for drug dealing; it gives some refuge for the mentally ill, the drug addicted, the disabled, and the poor, while offering comfortable high-rises to mostly gentrifiers.
Not one person or institution can claim responsibility for the planning and evolution of this crossroads. If I had not seen so much human suffering here I would claim it one of my favorite places.