Portals to Another Era: The Churches of Harlem, Photographed by Jamie Phillips

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In the 1980s, “vernacular style” was the rage among certain graphic designers. Some considered it more democratic and less elitist to emulate the unschooled work of the neighborhood printers and sign shops that make handbills, menus, and billboards than to follow the principles outlined in corporate design manuals. In architecture, too, vernacular design has been considered healthier, more economical, and more genuine because it’s based on local needs, materials, and traditions, and it gives neighborhoods their character.

There could be no genre more vernacular than the lettering on signs that announce the presence of neighborhood storefront churches. Such was the discovery of Jamie Phillips when she experienced the unhappy convergence of the COVID pandemic and a cancer diagnosis. In March 2020, after the pandemic shut down New York City, Phillips moved from Brooklyn to Harlem to be closer to her job as a coordinator of adult volunteers and corporate volunteer Engagement at Dorot, a non-profit alleviating isolation among older adults through volunteer programs such as delivering meals and socializing.

She was also in the midst of deepening her commitment to Judaism by studying for an adult bat mitzvah at Romemu Synagogue, where I met her. At almost the same time, she learned she had to undergo several cycles of chemotherapy and a month of radiation for early-stage breast cancer.

Here are excerpts from our recent conversations.

What inspired you to start taking pictures of churches, Jamie? With the double-whammy of the lockdown and your diagnosis, were you in need of a spiritual uplift?

I needed to heal myself. To walk, slowly. When my treatments began, instead of biking through Central Park for exercise, I started taking slow walks around my new neighborhood. Slow walk, slow mind. It’s hard not to notice how many churches there are here in Harlem. My walks gave me time to imagine what the stories could be behind so many different churches serving so many different faith communities. I was struck by the diversity. As I walked, I realized that the churches are portals to another era. I tried to imagine what it would have been like for me to be on those streets during Harlem’s religious heyday when it was bustling with churchgoers.

It was the signs that really caught my eye. The churches were closed, so I became fixated on their exteriors. I was as fascinated by the sheer number of denominations represented as I was by the style and design of the buildings and signs. They each have different fonts, lettering, and iconography, all of which were unknown to me. Many have large 3-D crosses extending over the sidewalk, with the church name in a logo-like typographic arrangement. I was endlessly curious about what they intended each design to represent.

Is there a connection between your Jewish studies and your interest in churches?

The Hebrew language and alphabet are, to me, an invisible line into a lost pre-Holocaust world. When I began the program, I could only read phonetically. Through the study of Jewish mysticism, I learned that each Hebrew letter has a meaning, and thus each word is comprised of multiple meanings. The Hebrew alphabet is a world unto itself, and the language contains multitudes. The language itself is prayer. And some people refer to the calligraphy in the Torah (the scroll on which the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, are written) as ‘black fire.’

The empty churches are reminiscent of a similarly lost universe. The signs, especially the black lettering on white signs, are what I fixated upon, as though they were clues to that lost world. The signboards with the times of service and sermon topic were culturally intriguing to me. Judaism doesn’t typically list the rabbi’s name on signage or times of service. Jews don’t proselytize, either; some church slogans seemed very catchy, a way to attract people. One church has a lighted marquee for a sign, as though it is advertising religion. I suppose I was like an ethnographer with this project—making the familiar strange enough to investigate, to find patterns of meaning.

You have an M.Ed., and your career includes serving as a program coordinator at a literacy organization, the Red Cross, and a homeless shelter. Have you noticed signs in this detail before, the typography, branding, meanings?

Besides photography, I’ve written poetry and done calligraphy, so my curiosity about churches came from a blend of those art forms. Add religion, and voilà. The visual impact of words speaks to me. I never focused on the language of graphic design until now. I like it a lot! I’m also a devoted aunt and love kids’ books that use the visual effects of printed words to tell a story.

Last summer, New York City was a ghost town, so you couldn’t go inside the churches and meet the people. Would you have wanted to?

None were open, other than on a food pantry day. One day I passed the church on my corner and heard singing inside. Thinking about it now, it was like a dream. When I was photographing another storefront church, a neighbor gave me an earful about how he hadn’t seen anyone in the building in 20 years. There was a sadness in seeing all those places of worship neglected and shuttered. But even the facades hold energy. Perhaps doing these photographs was a way for me to pr
ocess grief over being physically separated from my community. I wouldn’t want to go inside and get seen as a tourist with a camera phone.

Is there a particular time of day you do this?

In the morning. When I was further along in my treatments, I could bike to and from early-morning radiation at the hospital about five miles away. On the way home, I exited the bike path on 112th Street and then mixed up my route every day to see what was on each block. On the days when the light wasn't good, I made a point of returning in the late afternoon.

Have you taken any photography classes, or are you self-taught?

I took a class at a community arts center six or seven years ago. I think I have a good eye.

You do. What else have you photographed, or are you taking pictures of now?

Mostly nature. It’s my preference. Nature is always changing; a good shot is like a new discovery.

Now that New York City is starting to open up, do you see signs of life at the churches? Resumed Sunday services, people gathering?

I’m looking forward to returning to Harlem in September after my vacation and seeing how things have changed.

Will you continue to photograph churches?

Yes. I had trouble capturing the large churches from street level with an iPhone, though. I probably need a drone.

What else would you like our readers to know?

I’m beginning a writing program offered through Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and will be doing a piece about my personal journey, which includes photographing the churches. I’m thinking about devoting more time to writing.

Good luck with that! Be well. And thank you.