Down These Mean Streets: Community and Place in Urban Photography

May 11, 2017 — August 5, 2017

Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and G Streets, NW)

America’s urban streets have long inspired documentary photographers. After World War II, populations shifted from the city to the suburbs and newly built highways cut through thriving neighborhoods, leaving isolated pockets within major urban centers. As neighborhoods started to decline in the 1950s, the photographers in this exhibition found ways to call attention to changing cities and their residents. Down These Mean Streets: Community and Place in Urban Photography explores the work of ten photographers—Manuel Acevedo, Oscar Castillo, Frank Espada, Anthony Hernandez, Perla de Leon, Hiram Maristany, Ruben Ochoa, John Valadez, Winston Vargas, and Camilo José Vergara—who were driven to document and reflect on the state of American cities during these transformative years.




Rather than approach the neighborhoods as detached observers, these artists deeply identified with their subject. Activist and documentary photographer Frank Espada captured humanizing portraits of urban residents in their decaying surroundings. Hiram Maristany and Winston Vargas lovingly captured street life in historic Latino neighborhoods in New York City, offering rare glimpses of bustling community life that unfolded alongside urban neglect and community activism. Working in Los Angeles, Oscar Castillo captured both the detritus of urban renewal projects and the cultural efforts of residents to shape their own neighborhoods. Perla de Leon’s poignant photographs of the South Bronx in New York — one of the most iconic blighted neighborhoods in American history — place into sharp relief the physical devastation of the neighborhood and the lives of the people who called it home. John Valadez’s vivid portraits of stylish young people in East Los Angeles counter the idea of inner cities as places of crime. Camilo José Vergara and Anthony Hernandez adopt a cooler, conceptual approach. Their serial projects, which return to specific urban sites over and over, invite viewers to consider the passage of time in neighborhoods transformed by the urban crisis. The barren concrete” landscapes of Ruben Ochoa and Manuel Acevedo pivot on unconventional artistic strategies — like merging photography and drawing — to inspire a second look at the physical features of public space that shape the lives of urban dwellers.

The title of the exhibition is drawn from Piri Thomas’ classic memoir Down These Mean Streets (1967), where the author narrates his upbringing in New York City’s El Barrio. Like Thomas, these photographers turn a critical eye toward neighborhoods that exist on the margins of major cities like New York and Los Angeles. The exhibition is drawn entirely from SAAM’s collection and showcases many new acquisitions by Latino artists. It offers a chance to see how these photographers responded to the urban crisis in the communities where they lived and worked.

Down These Mean Streets is organized by E. Carmen Ramos, SAAM’s deputy chief curator and curator of Latino art.


  • Martín Espada is an award-winning poet, essayist, and attorney who has dedicated much of his career to the pursuit of social justice and Latino rights. His critically acclaimed poetry celebrates—and laments—the immigrant and working class experience. Espada reads poems inspired by his father, Frank Espada, whose photographs are featured in Down These Mean Streets. Award-winning DC based poets Naomi Ayala and Sami Miranda join Espada to read from their work in the context of the exhibition. Support for this program comes from the Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center; additional support provided by Letras Latinas, a literary initiative of the University of Notre Dame.

  • Manuel Acevedo reimagines the streets of his hometown of Newark, New Jersey, a city shaped by periods of unrest and urban renewal initiatives that tore down existing housing to erect massive housing projects.

    MANUEL ACEVEDO: Hi, I'm Manuel Acevedo at the Smithsonian American Art Museum to talk about my work.

    “Altered Sites” started in 1996. El Museo del Barrio was invited to do a collaboration with ICP for the first collaboration between the International Center of Photography and El Museo del Barrio. So basically, they asked me to propose a project. I said, "Hey, why don't we do this?

    Why don't we think about what it would be like to create kind of revisions of El Barrio? Let's do a survey of the community. Let the young students photograph it and talk about what they'd like to see."

    I introduced them to a drawing technique where we use the photograph as reference. We'd lay a piece of vellum over the photograph itself, so the image became kind of a ghost image. The idea was to create a drawing where you can alter the site without physically altering the photograph. They would use pencil to create these revisions of the community.

    Two years later in 1998, I come across this lot. It was just kind of calling me. It was almost like a kind of a spiritual calling—like, "Photograph me, please." There was something about its barren state and something that felt very foreign, and I photographed it. I didn't know exactly how the structure should look. It was very intuitive. As I started to think about this tower, I also wanted it to be something that was kind of in this in-between stage of whether it was being constructed or being taken down, which is what I was experiencing with some of the architecture and some of the ruins in the city.

    You'll notice that in most of my drawings, they seem to be very skeletal. I take advantage of the fact that also this kind of represents a state that Newark was in, kind of starting this Renaissance, the Newark Renaissance. What the Newark Renaissance represented to me was the possibility of building something but also never finishing it. I started to see multiple structures in the state of limbo. It was very easy to formally integrate these structures that they became questionable images of whether they were real or not.

    The birds for me symbolized another world. I had also lost my father in '97 and when I made this piece, I had also started thinking about ways of communicating through birds to my father. I started to build this mythology around it. Every time I looked at a bird, I saw the possibility of that bird being a messenger as well.

    The technique for “Rising” is a little different. “Rising “came out of one particular photograph that seems to be composited, but the tractor and the stolen car and the homes are all part of this image. What I did was superimpose the death mask of Pedro Albizu Campos, who was a revolutionary individual who fought for the independence of Puerto Rico, that I located through an institution in Ponce called El Museo de la Masacre. In the back room, there was a room that was dedicated to Albizu and there was his death mask. Interesting enough, when I spoke to the folks that were running the museum, I said, "I'm working on this project. Is it possible to photograph his death mask?" They invited me to come back the next day, and they took the glass off the showcase, and allowed me to photograph it. I superimposed his face into the landscape thinking about kind of Mount Rushmore, kind of the equivalent. Here's this hero who becomes an integral part of our mountain in this landscape in Aguada, Puerto Rico.
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  • Perla de Leon’s poignant photographs of the South Bronx in New York place into sharp relief the physical devastation of the neighborhood and the lives of the people who called it home. The artist discusses her 1980 series "South Bronx Spirit," which capture the life, laughter, and resiliency of the community in which de Leon was teaching at the time.

    PERLA DE LEON: My name is Perla de Leon, and I'm a New York City photographer. I am here at the Smithsonian American Art Museum talking about my photography series called, "South Bronx Spirit."

    I've always lived in Manhattan. I grew up in Harlem. We did not have the fires that the Bronx and the Lower East Side and some areas of Brooklyn had. I knew it could be an area that had had some difficulty, but I had no idea that it had completely burned down the way it did.

    At first, maybe they thought I was a newspaper person, then they thought maybe I was a cop. They weren't very comfortable with me until I just started to talk to them and explained that I was teaching down the block and that I was very concerned about what the community looked like and that I wanted to take pictures. Then they were really helpful.

    One gentleman called "Pepe" noticed that my car had tires that were on their last threads and he said, "I'll get you some tires if you need some tires, because it's important that you tell people what's happening here." Then I was received really well. He was a very nice human-being and he showed me where he and his family used to live and introduced me to some friends. Then eventually brought me this little diary that belonged to a friend that he wanted to show me, someone who had written about the neighborhood.

    When I first arrived on Charlotte Street, the infamous Charlotte Street, besides teaching at the little school up the hill, I was very aware, because it was still nice weather, of all this laughter and children giggling. It was like, ok, there's some life here, let's follow, let's go see where these children are.

    I remember him walking down the block and kind of doing his moves. The minute he took that leap, I just quickly prayed that I would catch him, and I was very fortunate that I caught him just as he was in the air. I was always looking for moments like that where you are just capturing what someone is enjoying. He was by himself. It's not like he stopped me and said, "Watch, photograph me." He was into his own thing, and I said, "Ok, this boy is going to leap."

    Everyone has captured the fires as they would happen. It was always in the news. It didn't interest me as much. You can see it, obviously, in the background and in the photographs, but I wanted to show more of the life that was there. I feel that my photographs capture the spirit of the kids. For me, it's just resilience.
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  • Hiram Maristany’s street photographs of New York City's El Barrio in the 1960s and early 1970s are an ode to his beloved neighborhood.

    HIRAM MARISTANY: Hi, my name is Hiram Maristany. I'm a photographer from New York, El Barrio to be specific. I'm here at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

    Photography is part history, part documentation, and more importantly, it was more cultural identity.

    Growing up in East Harlem in that era, and I'm talking the early to mid-60s, it was a very tough reality. There were enormous amounts of violence. There was also a lack of space. It's no accident that a lot of the images are of 111th Street. That's the street that I was born and raised on.

    We young men were always finding a way to play. One of the safe places that we had as a haven was rooftops. Rooftops gave us a different perspective that we were not victims. "Night View" is to me very significant because it tries to show what I think is beautiful in our community. It has three elements: it has a sky, a mid-view, and then it has a play street. It shows people moving around in this urban environment, and we're not confined by our poverty.

    "Casa Evita," which is this huge building that is not a high view, but it's a higher view looking down on this building. What I was most pleased with is that the elements of that photograph is very much the way East Harlem looked. At the bottom of that image you'll see the way we used to buy clothes. Poor people didn't have the luxury of going in and sitting down and trying on a pair of shoes. You point to the shoes, and you put them on on the street. My family's in that; one of my nieces is standing on it.

    A lot of my work reflects dual realities and, to a certain extent, contradictory realities. In that image you have both movement and stillness simultaneously. When you look at the image you see the spray and you see some of the joy of being in a hydrant in a community that's 98 degrees and heat is everywhere and this incredible spray of coolness. Anyone who is from East Harlem, anyone who sees that, they know immediately what's going on. I lived at 64 East 111th Street on the ground floor. When I looked out of my window, I saw that hydrant every day of my life.

    Lechón is the roasting of a pig that has a lot of traditional values in Puerto Rico. It speaks to the gathering of people that are going to be celebrating. It's a kind of a thing that speaks to the way East Harlem used to be. It was very, very poor, but we were not defined by our poverty. In my way, I think that I tried to respond to attempting to level the playing field and to show the beauty in the community. East Harlem is a beautiful place, because of what the people were doing within that space.

    There are people that I know that when they come here and they see this, they will feel included in the history of America. That's something that so many people take for granted. Truly, my work is a reflection of a love affair that I've had with my community. One day hopefully I will give some inspiration to some young people or an evolving artist to know their community, to preserve their community, and not allow someone else to do it for them. We have to take responsibility and title to our own history.
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  • Ruben Ochoa deliberately tampers with the appearance of the I-10, a freeway that runs through East Los Angeles. He created a lenticular print that interlaces two different views of a freeway wall. As viewers walk past his photograph, the wall partially disappears, opening up a portal into an imaginary verdant landscape.

    RUBEN OCHOA: Hello, my name is Ruben Ochoa. I'm here at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and we're standing here in front of my work, "What if Walls Created Spaces?"

    The artwork that you see behind me is a photo lenticular documentation of a public intervention I did in Los Angeles, on the I-10 freeway, eastbound. I got funding from Creative Capital Foundation to wallpaper the freeway of L.A. I went around and photographed all the surrounding vegetation throughout the freeways of L.A. From 4x6 photos, I comprised a few and created a larger composite. The digital composite that I created through Photoshop was then printed digitally on wallpaper vinyl.

    I had to find someone that was certified to wallpaper the freeway in L.A., which there's no one that wallpapers the freeway, so I had to find a contractor that was willing to do that. I had to take a course on how to shut down the shoulder of the freeway. We had to do it when cars were flying like 60 miles per hour, and we had these cones set up and we scaled the wall up and down with ladders.

    There are so many freeways in that area, they actually call it the “malfunction junction.” When these freeways were put up, it would cause contention. It caused different areas, different barrios, different neighborhoods, and it dissected communities. This was done right in that area is what I was trying to capture.

    When I was conceiving the work it was like, growing up in Southern California, you're always on the freeway, you're always driving, you're going from one neighborhood to another, but the freeways, you get to pass a lot of those areas, but as you investigate or you live in the area you start to understand why or how the built environment has disrupted several neighborhoods and communities. How it's like torn the social fabric in some areas.

    The wallpaper was up for three months. For me, conceptually, it was like I wanted to document this intervention. I was like, how do I activate a photo on the wall? The lenticular was it.

    What is a lenticular? The best way I describe it is, I don't know who eats Cracker Jacks anymore, but back in the days they had Cracker Jacks, and they used to give these little like holograms. When you look from one angle you see one part of the image, but as you walk back and forth you see the image transition.

    I look at the work as an investigation. What if walls created spaces? Can walls create spaces? They do, you know, walls create spaces to allow people in, to not allow people in, keep people in and keep people out.
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  • Camilo José Vergara captured, through photography, over 40 years of changes in the urban landscape of 65 East 125th Street in Harlem. Through these photographs, he tells the story of change, growth, and life in Harlem.

    CAMILO JOSE VERGARA: I'm Camilo José Vergara. I'm here at the Smithsonian American Art Museum to speak about my work.

    I was not trained as a photographer. I wanted to write poetry. Then my professor at Notre Dame said, "Hey, you aren't very good as a poet, but maybe you should try as a photographer. I can lend you money to buy a camera. They have a Pentax, a used Pentax, for sale at the camera shop in South Bend, Indiana." I got that and I began using it. First, I used black and white, but then I thought why not color?

    I became interested in Harlem first of all because I lived very close to Harlem. It was a matter of three blocks or four blocks and I was in Harlem. Secondly, it's because it has a tremendous resonance because of all the people that are there and because of its presence, of what it meant in American culture, and certainly in African-American culture, and the world. I wanted to know the places that so many people were talking about and then follow them. I mean, what happens? It's always that sort of thing that interests me.

    I was very impressed by the buildings and what they were because they were big, and they looked like they had seen better times. Those better times interested me, you know? You see signs of wealth, you see decoration, you see marble and different things. Then you see the reflection, you see a wild dog coming out of that marble stairs or something, and that looked to me as being extremely, you know, contrasting.

    My interest in the architecture then was first to get the building as a whole before it disappeared. But then, of course, I went home and I said, "What's going to happen to that building tomorrow, or the day after, or the next week?" So get back on the subway, and get back to that place, and take the same picture. That's how this series developed.

    I selected 65 East 125th Street because there is a Metro North Station that is a block away from there, and I used to take that train very often. I would walk by that little location, and it had such an uncanny presence. Like when I first saw it, and I said, "What is this building doing here?" It's like you're looking at a survivor, and I think you can go back to probably by now, there is nothing left of the original building. It was all demolished and then something else was built there.

    I don't know if I'm going to be around to see what's going to be next, but it seems to me that this particular series has gotten enough attention that it's going to be followed so that 10 years from now, or 30 years from now, and maybe hopefully a hundred years from now, we'll know what's happening there. It'll become, it's sort of one of those rare cases when a somewhat ordinary place in a kind of ordinary neighborhood gains that kind of prominence.
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    Online Gallery

    The American city underwent unprecedented transformations after World War II. As middle-class populations shifted to the suburbs and new highways cut through thriving neighborhoods, many cities began to experience economic and social disintegration, especially in Black, Latino, and working class communities.

    Down These Mean Streets: Community and Place in Urban Photography unites the work of ten artists who critically reflect on the state of urban America primarily between the 1960s and early 1980s, when government initiatives that sought to address the needs of cities in crisis sparked public debate. The title is drawn from Piri Thomas’s classic 1967 memoir Down These Mean Streets. Like Thomas, their work challenges perceptions of embattled cities and explores the human narratives that unfolded in communities across the United States.

    This exhibition examines how Latino photographers, many of whom came of age in urban neighborhoods, frame their environment. They approach the street not as detached observers but as engaged participants by turning to portraiture, urbanscapes, serial photography, or unconventional manipulations of the photographic image. Many contribute to a long tradition of socially driven documentary photography. Others adopt conceptual strategies or use color photography to capture a less romantic image of the American city. Their work reexamines neighborhoods often viewed as places of social decline and affirms the strength of community in urban America.

    The Latino Initiatives Pool of the Smithsonian Latino Center provided generous support for the new acquisitions featured in this exhibition. The Bernie Stadiem Endowment Fund supports the installation and programs.

    Deciphering Urbanscapes

    Urban neglect was especially visible in the deteriorating condition of city streets. Rather than simply document blight, the photographers gathered here draw out the stories embedded in the physical environment in transformative ways.

    On the Sidelines

    Anthony Hernandez has devoted his career to examining the landscape of his native Los Angeles. In the late 1970s, Hernandez started using a large format camera to capture a detailed and panoramic view of people in their milieu.

    Picturing Activism

    Photographer Frank Espada was also a respected activist who fought for improved living conditions in African American and Puerto Rican neighborhoods across New York City. 

    Rising Above

    Communities targeted for urban renewal were often labeled slums, a characterization that many local residents and activists contested. Hiram Maristany often took to rooftops, fire escapes, and windows to capture a dramatically different perspective of his El Barrio neighborhood in New York City. 

    Tracking Time and Change

    Since the early 1970s, Camilo José Vergara has chronicled the shifting fate of urban communities across the United States. As an immigrant settling in New York, he was first drawn to neighborhoods that were transitioning into Latino enclaves.

    Community Portrait

    Inner-city neighborhoods are communities where human narratives unfold. Births, marriages, and friendships take center stage in the photographs gathered in this section.


    The Latino Initiatives Pool of the Smithsonian Latino Center provided generous support for the new acquisitions featured in this exhibition. The Bernie Stadiem Endowment Fund supports the installation and programs.