National Building Museum presents Documenting Crossroads: The Coronavirus in Poor, Minority Communities

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Online-only exhibition presents Camilo José Vergara’s photographs and observations of the urban spaces and people most likely to be affected by COVID-19

March 17, 2020: Evangelist at Broadway Junction subway station, Brooklyn, NY. © Camilo José Vergara

WASHINGTON, D.C.—In a timely response to the rapidly escalating restrictions on public movement and use of space dictated by the growing COVID-19 pandemic, the National Building Museum is proud to present Documenting Crossroads: The Coronavirus in Poor, Minority Communities. This online-only exhibition, organized with renowned urban documentarian Camilo José Vergara, features 49 photographs taken from early March into early April, as well as an essay chronicling Vergara’s firsthand observations.  

Vergara’s commitment to documenting poor, urban neighborhoods and populations has never been stronger. Over the course of the last month, in the face of a growing pandemic, he has taken to the streets almost every day, capturing life in the epicenter of the crisis in the United States. Vergara visited the Bay Area during the second week of March (March 8–12), and as the first images in the photo gallery attest, everyday life in Oakland, and Richmond, California, continued unaffected by local and national headlines. At the time, the Grand Princess cruise ship was stranded off the California coast with infected passengers and was finally allowed to dock in Oakland on March 10. The next day, March 11, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic.

Vergara returned home to his Morningside Heights neighborhood in Manhattan resolved to document what was happening on the ground—especially in the greater New York area crossroads he has been systematically photographing over the past decade. As Vergara writes in his essay: “These crossroads are social condensers and amplifiers, yet they are barely mentioned in media depictions of the virus and its impact.” He took hundreds of photographs, recounted dozens of conversations, and collected his impressions.

Over the course of the past week, Vergara has been working with National Building Museum Curator Chrysanthe Broikos to organize the materials. “I was a bit taken aback when Camilo reached out about this coronavirus-related series,” said Broikos, “and overwhelmed. But I jumped at the chance to help bring this jarring work to the public as quickly as possible.”

This exhibition marks the Museum’s seventh collaboration with Vergara. Broikos and Vergara have worked together previously, most recently on Commemorating 9/11: Photographs by Camilo José Vergara (2016), part of an ongoing partnership focused on his images of the World Trade Center.

Vergara intends to continue the coronavirus series. “Now, more than ever,” he says, “the public needs to see and understand not only what’s going on in New York, but what’s happening—and will be happening—in Detroit, and Chicago, and in cities all across the country.”

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One of the nation’s foremost urban documentarians, Camilo José Vergara is a recipient of the 2012 National Humanities Medal (awarded by President Barack Obama) and was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2002. Drawn to America’s inner cities, Vergara began recording New York City’s urban landscape in 1970, the year he settled there. Since 1977, he has photographed some of the country’s most impoverished neighborhoods, repeatedly returning to locations in New York, Newark, Camden, Detroit, Gary, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Braulio Agnese,