Camilo José Vergara Documents Camden New Jersey’s Crumbling Economics

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Camilo José Vergara’s 40-year project, “Tracking Time,” chronicles urban transformation in some of the poorest and most segregated communities in the Northeastern United States. In Camden, New Jersey, one of the poorest cities he regularly visits during his documentation, he captures what he calls “Paired Houses”: two dwellings that share a wall, one of them occupied, the other empty. Because each dwelling is part of the same building, Vergara is able to capture the stark contrast between deteriorated and maintained habitats, reflecting the declining state of Camden’s housing market. For some of the photographs, Vergara returns to a building he’s previously documented in order to chronicle the absence of formerly dilapidated buildings.

In his photo essay for Slate, Vergara writes,”If a resident of a middle-class neighborhood dies or moves to a nursing home, or if a dwelling burns, the empty house is usually guarded or secured by the owner’s family. The police keep an eye out for it. Neighbors, well-aware of the impact of a deteriorating eyesore on property values, alert city officials whenever they see a house falling into disrepair. The situation is quickly brought under control.

It’s different in a crumbling inner city like Camden. Even Walt Whitman’s old house at 328 Mickle St.—the only home he ever owned—was by the 1980s adjacent to a vacant three-story dwelling and just two houses away from a ruin. House values in Camden are low and likely to remain so since the population of the city is declining, unemployment is high, and there is little new demand for houses. The number of vacant houses is likely to increase; many will eventually be acquired by the city, which is too poor either to board them up or to demolish them.”

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