'Spanish Harlem: El Barrio in the '80s' — an intimate portrait by Joseph Rodriguez

Spanish Harlem, New York’s oldest barrio, is the U.S. mecca where Puerto Ricans first established themselves in the 1940s. One of America’s most vital centers of Latino culture, Spanish Harlem is home to 125,000 people, half of whom are Latino. Shot in the mid-to-late ’80s, Joseph Rodriguez’s photographs of East Harlem capture the core of the neighborhood, the spirit of a people that survives despite the ravages of poverty, and, more recently, the threat of gentrification and displacement. In a now distant landscape littered with abandoned buildings, ominous alleyways and the plague of addiction, the residents of Spanish Harlem persevered with flamboyant style and gritty self-reliance.

Mr. Rodriguez, himself a working-class Puerto Rican from the streets of Brooklyn, spent five years (1985-90) in “El Barrio” as the neighborhood is known. Working closely with families, residents and the neighborhood’s social institutions, he attended birthdays, communions, funerals, demonstrations, graduation ceremonies and quiet Sunday afternoons on the block. Often, Mr. Rodriguez just hung out, spending time with his friends and waiting for a moment in time to raise his Leica. His vibrant Kodachrome images form one of the most powerful bodies of work about New York’s Latino community in the 1980s.

Joseph Rodriguez was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. In 1985 he graduated with a photojournalism and documentary diploma from the International Center of Photography in New York. He went on to work for Black Star photo agency, and print and online news organizations like National Geographic, the New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones, Newsweek, Esquire, Stern, and New America Media. He is the author of Spanish Harlem, part of the “American Scene” series, published by the National Museum of American Art/D.A.P., as well as East Side Stories: Gang Life in East Los Angeles, Juvenile, Flesh Life Sex in Mexico City, and Still Here: Stories After Katrina, published by powerHouse Books. Recent exhibitions include the Hardhitta Gallery, Cologne, Germany; Irene Carlson Gallery of Photography, University of La Verne, California; Third Floor Gallery, Cardiff, Wales, U.K. Institute for Public Knowledge, New York; Moving Walls, Open Society Institute, New York; and Cultural Memory Matters, 601 Art Space, New York.

The book, released in November, is available from powerHouse Books.
“Spanish Harlem: El Barrio in the ’80s” by Joseph Rodriguez; opening reception is November 11, 6:00 p.m. – 9:oo p.m., on view until Dec. 23, 2017, at the Bronx Documentary Center.

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