919 S. 9th Street Camden, New Jersey

A row house adjoining a burnt out row house
Camilo José Vergara ND ‘68 (American, born in Chile 1944), 919 S. 9th Street, Camden, New Jersey, 2004, Chromogenic print. Snite Museum of Art, University of Notre Dame. Art Purchase Fund, 2007.027.004

The photograph taken in 2004, by photographer Camilo José Vergara, of the paired house at 919 S. 9th Street in Camden, New Jersey tells a story that goes deeper than what is obvious at first glance. The way that the image is composed tells a story about the destruction and neglect of urban neighborhoods, discriminatory policies created by the United States government, and the rapid departure of upper- and middle-class whites to the suburbs. The effects of these policies and actions are the story of this picture and are the reality still experienced by urban communities today.

The image depicts two paired houses that take up the entirety of the frame. Even though they are connected, the two houses have very distinct characteristics. The unit on the left shows a relatively well-kept house. The paint on the house is a vibrant red. The door and the window frames are painted a bright white. The stairs up to the front door show a bit of wear and tear, which is only normal for everyday use. The windows are decorated with a simple curtain and a small plant on the windowsill. The house thus shows signs of being loved and cared for by someone. The unit next door, whose front door is barely a foot away, is the exact opposite. The paint on the house has faded into a dreary pink color. The house shows clear signs of a fire that completely ravaged the house. The doors and windows are completely nonexistent. There are very large, black burn marks above the doors and windows. The house is completely black on the inside. Under the window there are the markings of graffiti. The only thing in common between these two houses is the sidewalk that lays in front of them, seemingly connecting the two sides together.

My initial reaction to this image was probably a sense of confusion mixed with empathy. Confusion due to the fact I don’t know the story behind the fire which leaves many questions unanswered, such as “how did this fire start?” “Was it an accident or was it arson?” Additionally, “how did this fire not affect the other side of the house?” After this initial shock, I felt a strong sense of empathy for the residents involved in the fire. The people involved in the fire certainly had their lives completely altered by this event and I question where the residents ended up after. Could they afford to purchase or rent a new house or were they left homeless?

The way that this image is framed provides a significant metaphor for how the state of the inner cities has progressed over the last several decades. Because of the way that we read and write, our eyes naturally look at this picture from left to right. On the left, we can see a very well-kept urban home that has surely been loved by its owners for a long period of time. As our eyes travel toward the right of the picture, we see a house that is completely neglected and abandoned with no hope of recovery. This represents a nearly perfect timeline of the change in attitude toward the inner city through the postwar decades. In the immediate postwar years, being downtown was still desirable. It was where all the restaurants, department stores, and entertainment were located. It was a well-kept place that invited everyone to gather. But over time as suburbia became a more desirable place to live, less people cared about going downtown because they enjoyed the peacefulness and exclusivity of suburban life. This resulted in the total neglect of the downtown and urban areas around it. Which leads us into the house on the right, neglected and abandoned just like the inner city. Also, the fact that the houses are evenly distributed in the images highlights the equality between the two houses. They are both in completely different conditions, but they are united by the fact that all of the members of this community have to equally suffer the consequences of the decline of their neighborhood.

These changes were not coincidental, but were the result of multiple government policies. When the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) was passed in 1933, it created a rating system to rate neighborhoods based on their “favorability” for people to live there. The highest rating “A,” which was represented by the color green, was mostly given to the new affluent suburbs. The lowest rating “D,” which was represented by the color red, was given to deteriorating neighborhoods that consisted of large populations of minorities such as Blacks and Jews. This introduced the practice of “redlining.” Because these neighborhoods received bad ratings, the property values plummeted, loans were not available to homeowners, and almost no money was put into the improvement of these areas. The people of these areas had zero control over the way the government rated their neighborhoods and yet this ranking had everything to do with the future success of the community.

I believe that this image represents the drastic effects of redlining on these communities. Redlining essentially choked the flow of investment into improving these areas causing a family that puts a lot of effort into keeping their house well-kept to be forced to live next door to a house that is neglected. These neighborhoods are generally very poor, so the residents might not have any other options to move away. It is also likely that the residents had little chance to rebuild their house after a fire, leaving them with very few options. They are constantly reminded about how their own government failed them just by walking out their front door.

After doing a quick search on Google Maps street view, as of 2019 there is no longer a house that stands at 919 S. 9th Ave in Camden, New Jersey. The house seems to have been entirely demolished. However, there is a slight aspect of hope. Right in front of where the house once stood is a brand-new section of sidewalk completely free of cracks. Is it possible that people in the city are starting to take initiative to improve it? Hopefully, the future is bright. For now, these urban neighborhoods are still suffering the effects of redlining and rapid suburbanization in the United States.

Discussion Questions
  1. This essay begins with a close reading of Camilo Jose Vergara’s photograph, “919 S. 9th Street, Camden New Jersey, 2004.” What details from the photograph does the author highlight? What, if any, additional details did you notice?

  2. What is your initial reaction to the photograph? What emotions does it elicit in you?
  3. The author explains how governmental policies, which helped create the practice of “redlining,” led to disinvestment and the deterioration of urban communities. What other changes in American life after World War II might have contributed to an urban crisis?

  4. The essay concludes on a hopeful note: although the homes in the photograph have been demolished, a new sidewalk on the site may indicate plans for revitalization. What are the benefits and the potential downsides of such neighborhood improvement?