By Maurice Berger
Dawoud Bey’s large-scale color photographs of Harlem vividly document a bustling and rapidly transforming neighborhood: a verdant Marcus Garvey Park; construction sites popping up for more luxury housing; street vendors hawking hats and used clothing; posters of black women’s hairstyles in the window of a hair weave distributor adjacent to a vacant lot; faded paper covering the windows of the legendary — and shuttered — Lenox Lounge; and white tourists intent on hearing gospel music waiting outside the Abyssinian Baptist Church.
These photographs are featured in a new exhibition, “Harlem Redux,” at the Stephen Daiter Gallery in Chicago, running through Dec. 3. Although Mr. Bey’s images are largely devoid of people, his sharp attention to the physical details of urban life manages to “reveal a much deeper truth,” as he wrote in the exhibition’s catalog. The neighborhood is beset by gentrification and unsettling demographic shifts, but it also remains home to a dynamic and determined African-American community.
Census data shows Harlem’s black population declining precipitously as speculators buy up buildings and land. The activist and preservationist Michael Henry Adams noted in an essay for The New York Times, “The End of Black Harlem,” that this transformation is taking place with little government concern for its impact on longtime residents. “We see policies like destructive zoning, with false ‘trickle down’ affordability, changes that incentivize yet more gentrification, sure to transfigure our Harlem forever,” he wrote.