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