Harlem, USA 35 Years Later: A Guest Blog Post by Dawoud Bey
A writer once wrote that every place is simultaneously the place that it was and the place that it is. It is the combination of the two that constitutes the deeper meaning and experience of a place. And so it is with Harlem.
Typical of the changes that have transformed this community is the McDonald's where Mr. Moore's Bar-B-Que luncheonette used to stand on 125th Street and Lenox Avenue. As I pass the location by I still recall his beaming face and the pictures I made there. Barbershops used to be ubiquitous in the community as well. I knew of at least three on Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard between 135th and 139th Streets: Garden Barbershop, Deas McNeil, and the nameless shop below street level between 138th and 139th by Striver's Row. I photographed in all of them, and none--of course--are there now. But walking along the Boulevard one recent Sunday morning after leaving church service at Abyssinian Baptist Church I pause briefly at the former spot of each. Yes, I still visit Abyssinian when I am in New York; my family has a lot of history there, as does Harlem itself.
I photographed in Harlem when the neighborhood was in the midst of change. Neighborhoods are always changing of course. But Harlem then was still a place where the present intermingled more visibly with Harlem's original heyday. A number of my photographs from that time have a timeless quality that makes it hard to mark just when the pictures were made. It was that timeless quality that I was indeed looking for.
Much has happened in the thirty-five years since I began making these photographs. I am still committed to using the camera to describe the human community to itself. And I have come to find a home in museums all over the world. The Studio Museum, however, was the first time I came to understand what the relationship of a museum to its community could be, and that relationship remains central to a lot of the work and projects I currently do. The opportunity to have these works presented once again at SMH thirty-one years after they were first shown there reminds me of the ways in which the present is connected to the past, for the Museum, myself and the Harlem community.