Art

In the Bronx, a Photo League Captures the People and Places Threatened by Rezoning

Kevin Mendoza (front) and Pepe (no last name) from Fordham Glass & Windows located on Jerome Avenue and 183rd. Kevin is retiring soon and Pepe will take over the business. Photo taken August 2015 by Jonathan Santiago/Bronx Photo League.
“Kevin Mendoza (front) and Pepe (no last name) from Fordham Glass & Windows located on Jerome Avenue and 183rd. Kevin is retiring soon and Pepe will take over the business.” Photo taken August 2015 by Jonathan Santiago/Bronx Photo League (all photos courtesy the Bronx Documentary Center)

Gentrification is both a macro problem of city design, economics, and population movement and a cluster of micro difficulties related to identity, property, community, and livelihood. Jerome Avenue Workers Project, an exhibition featuring work by photographers from the Bronx Photo League (a project of the Bronx Documentary Center), sees gentrification through the second lens: the personal. The exhibition responds to a plan to rezone a 73-block stretch of the Bronx’s Jerome Avenue, which would enable residential development in an area currently dominated by community-owned businesses. The financial potential offered by residential housing forebodes the fast demise of many of these local enterprises.

The prevailing logic in New York City seems to be that gentrification is revitalizing rather than destructive. The Department of Planning states in its study of the Jerome Avenue rezoning:

DCP and sister agencies are engaging local residents, businesses, and institutions, to identify and evaluate opportunities to provide and support new and existing affordable housing, access to jobs and training, economic development and entrepreneurship, brownfield clean-up, cultural amenities, pedestrian safety, parks, schools and daycare, retail and local services … Many community stakeholders have suggested that Jerome Avenue be revitalized to meet existing area needs and plan for the future.

What is left unsaid — and what Jerome Avenue Workers Project seeks to demonstrate — is that there is already a vital cultural community in the area. More retail stores and new high-priced residential buildings are likely to damage that community.

Installation view. Photo by the author.
Installation view, ‘Jerome Avenue Workers Project’ at Vasquez Muffler (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Jerome Avenue Workers Project is comprised of silver gelatin print portraits and a short documentary film. The exhibition is situated along one wall of the Vasquez Muffler repair shop at 1275 Jerome Avenue, a location that feels surprisingly uncontrived. The shop continues to function around exhibition-goers — a kind of literal homage to the area workers featured in the photos.

Each picture captures an individual with a relationship to the Jerome Avenue neighborhood. Captions explicate the stories behind the portraits, often focusing on a subject’s association with Jerome Avenue as a business district. A photograph of Makilsi Rodriguez at the Valencia Bakery shows a young woman in front of rows of cakes and teddy bears, and is accompanied by the following caption:

Our business has been open since 1947, and we’ve become a very well known bakery for our community and (people) continue to come and order our cakes. They feel at home here. They’re used to familiar faces and familiar products, they feel comfortable coming to us. It’s like a tradition. We’re very known locally.

Tessie Polygerinos at Munchtime Diner on 170th St. between Jerome Ave; Townsend Ave. Her husband, Laki, has owned the diner since the 1960s. The diner has been serving Bronx residents for over 60 years. Photo taken August 2015 by Trevon Blondet/Bronx Photo League.
“Tessie Polygerinos at Munchtime Diner on 170th St. between Jerome Ave; Townsend Ave. Her husband, Laki, has owned the diner since the 1960s. The diner has been serving Bronx residents for over 60 years.” Photo taken August 2015 by Trevon Blondet/Bronx Photo League (click to enlarge)

Some of the stories are more emotional, describing personal ties created through community business. The caption for a photograph of a young man, Kevin Mendoza, and an older man, Pepe Sartor, at Fordham Glass & Windows is a quote from Kevin: “…The relationship that I have with Pepe is something that I would call special. I would come to work and I wouldn’t have to worry about whether I would eat that day or not. Every time I got into trouble, he was there.” Not all the captions are as demonstrative as Kevin’s statement, however; the exhibition generally avoids sentimentality. A couple of the subjects are actually in support of the rezoning. Jeff Friedman, owner of Drinks Galore, Inc., offers his opinion: “I think it’s great. It’s time for the Bronx to come into the modern world. They want to rejuvenate the whole area … you’re going to have sidewalk cafes and Starbucks.”

Filmmaker and multimedia editor Giacomo Francia’s expertly composed documentary further explores the trials and richness of life along Jerome Avenue. The film, which is projected onto a metal door at the back of the shop, features five primary subjects and employs black-and-white stop motion and slow motion to add a visual variety that corresponds to the heterogeneity of voices. In a conversation with Hyperallergic, Francia explained:

I used the slow motion because after listening to the audio interviews I realized how much the subjects were reflecting about their lives, their work, their love of their craft, and their families back in their countries. The slow-motion helps to intensify those memories/moments and also makes us focus on the actual work. Showing the details of the manual work was definitely one of our goals.

Tony Ramos giving one of his customers a haircut in a barber shop located at 1476 Jerome Avenue. Tony lives and grew up in the neighborhood where he works, been working at the shop for the past 3 years. Photo taken August 2015 by Berthland Tekyi-Berto/Bronx Photo League.
“Tony Ramos giving one of his customers a haircut in a barber shop located at 1476 Jerome Avenue. Tony lives and grew up in the neighborhood where he works, been working at the shop for the past 3 years.” Photo taken August 2015 by Berthland Tekyi-Berto/Bronx Photo League

There is a clear political aspect to the show, a celebration of Jerome Avenue as it is, not as it might be. The location is also an obviously political choice, as is the work of the Bronx Photo League in general. Comprised of Bronx-based photographers, the group references by name the Photo League, a politically conscious 20th-century collective of NYC-based photographers. Bronx Documentary Center co-founder Michael Kamber offered Hyperallergic insight into the goals of the exhibition:

To see high quality, in-depth documentation of a working class and poor community is rare. To see such documentation by members of the community, exhibited in and for the same community, is pretty much unheard of … Four hundred people attended the opening and we have school classes and neighborhood residents stopping in daily. This would not have been possible if we held this show in Chelsea or Soho. As cultural curators, we need to think carefully about these issues if we are going to help diversify the population that creates art, culture and documentary practice and the population that consumes it.

Even with the obvious nature of the show’s agenda, Jerome Avenue Workers Project doesn’t slide down the rabbit hole of social realism; the composition of each portrait speaks as much to its subject as its caption does. Despite being shot by a number of different photographers, the image’ subjects all exhibit a similar lack of self-consciousness; they are captured either unposed or only casually posed, in the middle of action or still, in front of their workplace, business, or neighborhood spot. The lack of formality suggests the rhythms of work and community life, no captions necessary. The exhibition — which captures the immigrant experience, a life of hard labor, family ties, and “American dream” successes and disappointments — would make for emotional viewing even if the viewer had no knowledge of the proposed rezoning.

Isabel Kahlife came to the Bronx 24 years ago from Ponce, Puerto Rico in search of a better economic future. She has worked at the 99 Cents USA store, located at 1370 Jerome Avenue, as a cashier for the last two years. Ms. Kahlife worries the possible city rezoning of Jerome Avenue will adversely affect the residents of the area who shop at her store on a daily basis. Photo by Rhynna Santos/Bronx Photo League.
“Isabel Kahlife came to the Bronx 24 years ago from Ponce, Puerto Rico in search of a better economic future. She has worked at the 99 Cents USA store, located at 1370 Jerome Avenue, as a cashier for the last two years. Ms. Kahlife worries the possible city rezoning of Jerome Avenue will adversely affect the residents of the area who shop at her store on a daily basis.” Photo by Rhynna Santos/Bronx Photo League
Josè Cruz, a mechanic at Diffo Auto Glass & Flat Fix, 1510 Jerome Avenue. Josè has been working on Jerome Avenue for 25 years--he fled the civil war in his native El Salvador in 1990. Photo taken June 27th, 2015 by David “Dee” Delgado and Michael Kamber/Bronx Photo League.
“Josè Cruz, a mechanic at Diffo Auto Glass & Flat Fix, 1510 Jerome Avenue. Josè has been working on Jerome Avenue for 25 years–he fled the civil war in his native El Salvador in 1990.” Photo taken June 27th, 2015 by David “Dee” Delgado and Michael Kamber/Bronx Photo League
Rebecca, originally from Ghana, works part-time at the GOD IS WONDERFUL Hair Weave & Braiding Center at Jerome and 183rd street which her sister Beatrice has owned for over ten years. Rebecca has been married for two years: she and her husband are both studying health care and she aspires to be a doctor. Photo taken August 2015 by Adi Talwar/Bronx Photo League.
“Rebecca, originally from Ghana, works part-time at the GOD IS WONDERFUL Hair Weave & Braiding Center at Jerome and 183rd street which her sister Beatrice has owned for over ten years. Rebecca has been married for two years: she and her husband are both studying health care and she aspires to be a doctor.” Photo taken August 2015 by Adi Talwar/Bronx Photo League
Raymond Herskovits inside of his miniature storefront, Mel's Locksmiths at 4 East 170th Street. Raymond is a third generation locksmith; his grandfather first opened the shop in 1932. He no longer resides in the Bronx, but commutes six days a week from his home in New Jersey to open his shop. Photo taken August 2015 by David “Dee” Delgado/Bronx Photo League.
“Raymond Herskovits inside of his miniature storefront, Mel’s Locksmiths at 4 East 170th Street. Raymond is a third generation locksmith; his grandfather first opened the shop in 1932. He no longer resides in the Bronx, but commutes six days a week from his home in New Jersey to open his shop.” Photo taken August 2015 by David “Dee” Delgado/Bronx Photo League
An Imam from the large Muslim community along Jerome Avenue. Photo taken August 2015 by Edwin Torres/Bronx Photo League.
“An Imam from the large Muslim community along Jerome Avenue.” Photo taken August 2015 by Edwin Torres/Bronx Photo League
An unnamed client takes a cigarette break from the hair dryer at Bellissima Beauty Studio at 2175 Jerome Ave. Photo taken August 2015 by Melissa Bunni Elian/Bronx Photo League.
“An unnamed client takes a cigarette break from the hair dryer at Bellissima Beauty Studio at 2175 Jerome Ave.” Photo taken August 2015 by Melissa Bunni Elian/Bronx Photo League
Installation view. Photo by the author.
Installation view, ‘Jerome Avenue Workers Project’ (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Jerome Avenue Workers Project continues at Vasquez Muffler (1275 Jerome Avenue, the Bronx) through October 18.

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