Thomas Roma, the author of In the Vale of Cashmere, is featured in the first iteration of a new video series spotlighting photographers and their work produced by the Steven Kasher Gallery, where Roma’s accompanying exhibition runs through December 23. The photographer, a Brooklyn native and founder of Columbia University’s photography program, has spent the last few decades of his career documenting Brooklyn with an inexhaustible passion for the people who make the borough such a diverse and fascinating place.
We interviewed Roma about his photographs of the Vale — a cruising spot for black and Afro-Caribbean gay men who live in the surrounding Crown Heights neighborhood — which the photographer returned to nearly every day for nearly four years.
Roma developed a deep connection to the place, as you can imagine, and not simply because he spent so much time there, but because years earlier, a very close friend of his named Carl (who died of AIDS in 1991) frequented the Vale.
These photographs began to take on a whole new dimension, however, when we heard that the Prospect Park Alliance (PPA) — which has carried out a massive overhaul of the park, transforming it from an overgrown, neglected area that many residents avoided to a leisurely, manicured retreat for nearby neighbors — has now set its sight on renovating the Vale of Cashmere. Some critics have argued that the improvement projects, which have reached nearly every corner of the park, while improving the public space for more than a million people who visit the park annually, has had a negative impact on the surrounding area in terms of “green gentrification.”
While the PPA has good intentions to be sure, the worry is that a project aimed at “cleaning up” the Vale will destroy what’s already a legitimate gathering place for a group that’s facing displacement and discrimination in other ways.
Roma denies that his project is a “political one,” pressing that his intentions stemmed from his love for Carl and wanting to better understand a place that his friend frequented. Still, the photographer vehemently disapproves of so-called “clean up” projects. His photographs however, do promote understanding in that they provide a window into a world that’s generally shrouded in secrecy, or as Roma put it:
“People did warn me because it was ‘dangerous,’ and I believe most of that is racist and part of it is homophobic– it’s the ‘other,’ the ‘other’ is not going to allow you near them, and that’s simply not true. I’m living proof of it. People thought I was crazy for going into the Vale of Cashmere,” he said, exasperated. “You’re crazy for disallowing yourself.”
One thing we wish we’d been able to convey is Roma’s capacity for storytelling, and this video by Rachel Liebling bring us back to Roma’s office, where we sat and listened to him talk on end, something we highly recommend you do if given the opportunity.