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Six black girls sit on dilapidated stoop, carefully arranging their white Barbie dolls on the steps.

Camilo José Vergara’s image of everyday life in Harlem, taken in 1970, hints at the fraught race relations within the United States that provide the starting point for his book Harlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto.

Vergara, a Chilean-born writer and photographer who is a MacArthur fellow and won the National Humanities Medal in 2013, started his chronicle of the district in the early 1970s. At the time he was working as an audiovisual technician for a Park Avenue advertising agency, and would visit Harlem in his lunchtime and at weekends and holidays.

In the introduction to his book, he says the district at that time “was like a rundown version of Paris where life was lived on the streets, amid the fading glory of its grand boulevards”. Vergara remains very fond of these early photographs: “I see them as unique historical artefacts, images of people who stayed behind and documents of the decrepit buildings they inhabited.”

His subsequent work depicts the neighbourhood’s evolution over the next four decades as it turned into the flourishing, multicultural community it is now. “I consider myself privileged to carry with me present-day Harlem as well as that Harlem I first saw 42 years ago and all the Harlems in between,” he writes.

‘Girls and Barbies’ is included in ‘Harlem: The Unmaking of a Ghetto’ by Camilo José Vergara ($55, University of Chicago Press)

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