Documenting Crossroads: Survival and Remembrance Under the Pandemic
By Camilo José Vergara
with Elihu Rubin
We are afraid. What can we do about it?
Part three of the Documenting Crossroads series deals with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic in the five months since June 16, when the second installment of this series, The New Normal, was published. Similarly, this presentation for the National Building Museum was produced in collaboration with consulting curator Chrysanthe Broikos and Elihu Rubin, associate professor of urbanism at Yale University.
I have continued documenting developments at crossroads in New York City and Newark, New Jersey. Based on the strength of the documentation, I have focused on four categories: Street Vendors; Something to Eat; Depicting the Power of the Virus; and Picturing the Lost. For a more complete view, I have added segregated commercial streets such as Fordham Road in the Bronx, Springfield Avenue in Newark, New Jersey, and Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn. I would like to have included the crucial topic of schools, but it was possible to photograph only building exteriors.
In our earlier presentations, we were able to identify visible effects that living with the virus were manifesting in the urban fabric and to explore themes over time. Since then, urban life continues, schools open and close, and restaurants and bars have built outdoor seating areas. Unfortunately, these precautions have not sufficiently slowed the virus. People seeking employment need proof that they are Covid-free, those planning to travel for the holidays want to make sure they will not infect their families; this results in long queues at test sites. Traveling has become more difficult as subway lines temporarily close and trains are delayed. At the end of May, since George Floyd was murdered, the pandemic and the struggle against racism have evolved together, making it harder to concentrate on the virus. Labor Day, Election Day, Halloween, and a subdued Thanksgiving have passed, creating the anticipation of normalcy. But with a resurgence, the fear of spreading the virus has increased, leaving people confused, afraid, suffering, and depressed.
As this holiday season began, store windows filled with bright Christmas trees as well as masks for sale, and signs reminding shoppers to socially distance. These unprecedented juxtapositions attest to the continuing presence of both a deadly virus and the normal desire to gather and celebrate.
And for the spring, we have the promise of at least two effective vaccines.
Our gratitude goes to the National Building Museum for giving us the chance to begin this ambitious project as an online exhibition, and to the Library of Congress for further supporting us by placing the documentation on its website.
Camilo José Vergara
November 29, 2020
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Camilo José Vergara is one of the nation’s foremost urban documentarians. He was awarded the 2012 National Humanities Medal and was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2002.
Elihu Rubin is Associate Professor of Architecture, Urbanism, and American Studies at Yale University.
This exhibition was produced with assistance from Chrysanthe Broikos, consulting curator.
This exhibition has four parts, each with a dedicated page and image gallery. All pages link to every other exhibition page. The final section also includes “Overheard and Observed,” in which Vergara documents a portion of what he has experienced over the past several months.
- 1: Street Vendors: Peddling for Survival
- 2: Something to Eat: Neighbors Helping Neighbors
- 3: Depicting the Power of the Virus
- 4: Picturing the Lost / Overheard and Observed
Photo at the top of this page: November 15, 2020: Child street vendor. 9215 Roosevelt Avenue, Queens, New York. © Camilo José Vergara
Photo on the website homepage: August 1, 2020: Sanitizing the subway supergraphic, part of a “Thank You Covid-19 Heroes” mural at the Harlem Health Center, Morningside Avenue at West 125th Street, Harlem, New York, New York. © Camilo José Vergara
Please enjoy this discussion between Camilo José Vergara and Elihu Rubin on the Documenting Crossroads project. This program was recorded on December 7, 2020, as part of the Museum’s 40th Anniversary celebration week.