Celebrating the People at the Heart of the Bronx’s Lively Jerome Avenue

Left: Raymond Herskovits inside 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. Right: An unnamed client takes a cigarette break from the hair dryer at Bellissima Beauty Studio at 2175 Jerome Ave.

Left: David “Dee” Delgado/Bronx Photo League. Right: Melissa Bunni Elian/Bronx Photo League.

At this point, a rezoning plan for a 57-block stretch of the South Bronx’s Jerome Avenue—which would bring in high-rise residential towers and rising rents, likely pushing out local businesses and residents—is still just a gleam in the city’s eye. But the 16 members of the Bronx Photo League are preparing for the worst. When they saw the writing on the wall for the sort of development that has transformed other New York neighborhoods, they started a project to put faces to the people who’d be adversely impacted by the changes. “The Jerome Avenue Workers Project,” which is on view at Vasquez Muffler on Jerome Avenue through Oct. 18, is the group’s first major exhibition.

“I think too much of what is called art today is created and shown in SoHo and Chelsea for a wealthy crowd. And I think what’s groundbreaking about this show is it’s created in the community by the community and being presented to the community. It’s every bit as good and every bit as powerful,” said Michael Kamber, who founded the Bronx Documentary Center and the Bronx Photo League.  

Left:  An imam from the large Muslim community along Jerome Avenue. Right:  Rebecca, originally from Ghana, works part time on Jerome and 183rd street at the God Is Wonderful Hair Weave & Braiding Center, which her sister Beatrice has owned for more than 10 years.

Left:  Edwin Torres/Bronx Photo League. Right:  Adi Talwar/Bronx Photo League.

Left:  Tony Ramos giving one of his customers a haircut in a barbershop located at 1476 Jerome Avenue. Right:  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.

Left: Berthland Tekyi-Berto/Bronx Photo League. Right: Rhynna Santos/Bronx Photo League.

Kamber, a freelance journalist and photojournalist, started the league in 2015 to help present a counterpoint to the stories told by outsiders who often parachute into the borough for a quick assignment.* Bronx photographers know their home better than any outsider could, Kamber figured, and they could present the place fairly, if not always glowingly. For Rhynna M. Santos, a league photographer who also curates the Instagram feed Everyday Bronx, joining the league two years ago was meaningful on both a personal and a professional level. 

“Before that, I felt I was the only photographer in the Bronx. I had never been in a room that was full of people of color that had the same interest that I did in photography. That had never been my experience. I always had to go on the 6 train downtown to get my art and photography fix,” she said. 

Today, when Santos and her neighbors visit Vasquez Muffler, they can not only get their photography fix in their own borough, they can see their work celebrated. Starting this July, members of the League roamed Jerome Avenue in small groups, stopping in auto repair shops, botanicas, barber shops, and other places of business to record interviews with hardworking tradespeople and residents—many of them lower-income immigrants—and photograph them with medium-format Hasselblad cameras, which most of the photographers had never used before. 

“As much respect as I felt I had for these workers before this, I have so much more respect now. I want other people to also feel connected to them. These are human people that matter regardless of how much they make or whether they wear a nametag. We should think of them as important,” she said. 

Left:  Kevin Mendoza and Pepe at Fordham Glass & Windows on Jerome Avenue and 183rd Street. Kevin is retiring soon and Pepe will take over the business. Right:  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. 

Left:  Jonathan Santiago/Bronx Photo League. Right:  David “Dee” Delgado and Michael Kamber/Bronx Photo League

Left:  Gino Matías, 57, standing on the porch off his office trailer located on 1544 Jerome Avenue. Mr. Matías has been renting this property for more than 10 years after his father-in-law retired from the automobile business. Right:   Tessie Polygerinos at Munchtime Diner on 170th Street between Jerome Avenue and Townsend Avenue. Her husband, Laki, has owned the diner since the 1960s.

Left: Jesus Emmanuel/Bronx Photo League. Right:  Trevon Blondet/Bronx Photo League.

Many of the people the league photographed hadn’t heard about the potential rezoning, but when they were informed, Santos said, they were immediately concerned about employment and displacement. For Santos, the issue isn’t just about dollars, it’s about valuing a people and a way of life. 

“Are people of color important? Are lower-income people important? Is our culture important? Is what we’ve done and survived with important? Or are we just trying to make other people feel comfortable with changing how an entire neighborhood looks like and who gets to live there? It’s unfair because people deserve to be valued, and if change is going to come it should benefit everyone, not just a few.”

Left:  Giovanni Ortega is the co-owner of Mount Eden Muffler located at 1546 Jerome Avenue. He came from the Dominican Republic where he used to work as a aircraft mechanic. Right:  Cesar Vaez at J.D. Auto Glass at 2195 Jerome Avenue. Cesar, the manager, emigrated from the Dominican Republic to the Bronx when he was 14. Now 25, Cesar supports his family, including two children, from his wages at J.D. Auto Glass.

Left:  Jesus Emmanuel/Bronx Photo League. Right:  Edwin Torres/Bronx Photo League.

Correction, Oct. 14, 2015: This post originally misstated when Michael Kamber started the Bronx Photo League. He started it in 2015, not 2011.