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Visualizing Gentrification In 'Remnants Of An Exodus'

A crack in the pavement and a Black couple kissing. Both photos are in black and white in Al J  Thompson's book, Remnants of an Exodus.

At the same time, gentrification can be both pervasive and personal.

Photographer Al J Thompson entwines these two ideas in his debut book, Remnants of an Exodus.

A pool of light on asphalt, the dangling Jordans of a boy on a tree limb, a police officer from the shoulders down, his right hand resting on his holstered gun. Thompson's photos pose a truncated perspective of Spring Valley, N.Y., the New York City suburb where he came of age. The frames shy from literal views of change — Thompson intends to leave the big picture incomplete.

"This could be anywhere," he says. The causes and effects of gentrification in cities across the country have spawned fierce debate in recent years about how to keep rising housing prices from driving out longtime residents.

Thompson considers gentrification to be "a term that relates to the undermining of a community by building new empires."

It's this visual tension — between the specifics of this neighborhood and the ubiquitous issue of displacement — that carries the viewer through Thompson's work.

A fence in front of homes, a shirtless Black man with tattoos, a chain link fence casts a shadow over a puddle, two young Black girls. All photographs are in black and white.
/ Al J Thompson

When Thompson migrated from Jamaica to the U.S. in 1996, he joined his mother in Spring Valley. The two were part of a largely Black community of Caribbean immigrants. The town park served as the meeting place for everything familiar. Jerk chicken sizzled during cookouts in July. Men played cricket on long weekends. And during many nights when floodlights illuminated the grass, Thompson and his friends ran through the park fields playing soccer.

Today, a development called Park View Condominiums overlooks that same space. The three-story housing complex is just one of the many long-litigated results of the area's urban renewal push. Since 1990, Spring Valley's Hispanic population has seen a sixfold increase and its number of ultra-Orthodox Jewish families has soared, shifting the demographics of what a community looks like. The proportion of Black residents has declined by 10% over the same time.

Canadian Geese swimming, a Black woman smoking, a willow tree, a portrait of a Black woman standing amongst foliage.
/ Al J Thompson

With this perspective, Remnants of an Exodus is as much a meditation on memory as it is an examination of place.

"By shooting this project, I'm also experiencing nostalgia," Thompson says. "The sense of community, at least within the African diaspora, that's been gone."

Thompson also invites viewers to revisit their own recollections through his selective visual compositions. A quick pace of vague images allows the reader to project — a folded sign affixed to a chain link fence, the point where a willow's limbs meet the ground, graceful fingers around an umbrella handle. Interspersed, direct portraiture brings pause. We spend time with the determined eye contact of a young girl with beaded braids and the knit brows of a woman set back in foliage.

"It's very rhythmic," Thompson says. "It's almost like a musical."

Just one explicit depiction of change interrupts this rhythm. In his only wide landscape, Thompson shows the viewer those new condos rising just beyond the fence that surrounds the park. In at least this frame, the past and present appear in harmony.

Trees in front of an apartment complex, a Black man puts a necklace on, a person holds a snake.
/ Al J Thompson

Maura Friedman is a visual journalist based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Instagram@maurafriedman.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: March 21, 2021 at 10:00 PM MDT
The original version of this story said Thompson and his mother moved from Jamaica to the U.S. in 1996. In fact, only Thompson moved that year.