Home / Arts & Life / Mean Streets, Kind Cameras – The New York Times

Mean Streets, Kind Cameras – The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Question for the day posed by a timely exhibition: Would someone who lived in a so-called inner city picture it differently than an outsider would?

“Down These Mean Streets: Community and Place in Urban Photography,” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum here, an exhibition organized by E. Carmen Ramos, the museum’s deputy chief curator and curator of Latino art, presents 93 photos by 10 Latino photographers, all well established but many not as widely known as they should be.

Nine men and one woman train their cameras on Latino enclaves from Spanish Harlem to East Los Angeles, from the 1950s — when many cities were in crisis and governments tried to put out the (sometimes literal) fires — to the present. Some 55 million Latinos constitute the largest minority in America. How do they regard the places they call home? Answers vary. Clues are on the wall.

The show takes its title from “Down These Mean Streets,” the 1967 best-selling memoir by Piri Thomas, a tough tale of Latino Harlem. The photographers — Manuel Acevedo, Oscar R. Castillo, Frank Espada, Anthony Hernandez, Perla de Leon, Hiram Maristany, Ruben Ochoa, John Valadez, Winston Vargas and Camilo José Vergara — know these places intimately. These streets became mean in the postwar years, when highways barreled into cities, some plunging through the hearts of poor districts, some creating them by splitting up more stable neighborhoods. When the suburbs sent out siren calls, white residents were seduced and left.


Winston Vargas’s “Child Playing,” taken in the Washington Heights section of New York (1970).


Inner cities inevitably declined, yet at least in this show images of neglect don’t quite dominate as they frequently do in “outsider” photos. Not that they are avoided: Mr. Vargas pictured destroyed housing in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn in 1972. Ms. de Leon was more pointedly sardonic; she photographed a girl in an enormous field of pulverized stone in the South Bronx in 1977. The title? “My Playground.”

Still, evidence of resilience and community keeps cropping up among the rubble. Children play continually. Mr. Vargas paired adult protest and childhood dauntlessness within a single image in Washington Heights in 1970: a girl sits on a step smiling full force at us, while graffiti behind her says “Free the panther” and “The streets belong to the people.”


Oscar R. Castillo’s “Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe at Maravilla Housing Project, Mednik Avenue and Brooklyn Avenue, East Los Angeles,” photographed in the early 1970s.

Oscar R. Castillo, Smithsonian American Art Museum

In 1980, Ms. de Leon photographed a bleak lot in the South Bronx bristling with pebbles and harboring a small building constructed by neighbors for community use.

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