The crowd watched as a Hispanic woman scooped a generous amount of her own cherry-flavored helado de coco, slush ices, into a paper cup on the projected screen. Her helados provided a relief to her customers from the summer heat. She pushed her cart down the street and greeted her usual customers who help her make about $100 or $150 a day. She is one of the subjects of the Jerome Avenue Workers Project.
The Bronx Photo League celebrated the launch of their new book, “Jerome Avenue” at the Bronx Documentary Center on November 5. The book is the Bronx Photo League’s first collective project, created over the summer, and documents the small business workers of the Jerome Ave. section of the Bronx through photos.
The project—which includes the book, short videos of various workers, and a website—grew out of concern over the city’s plans to rezone a 73-block area along Jerome Avenue. David Dee Delgado, a Hunts Point resident and one of the photo group’s founding members, explained that although the area was slated to be rezoned from commercial to residential, the city kept pitching it as a study at first.
Of the many faces he photographed, Delgado, 41, remembers a Jewish locksmith the most. The elderly man runs a family-owned locksmith shop that’s been in business since 1924 and witnessed the crack epidemic to the infamous “the Bronx is burning” era.
“We wanted to give gentrification a face, people look at is as a number,” Delgado said. “But there’s never a face attached to it.”
The photographers had the added task of informing the residents about what was going on. League member Melissa Bunni Elian met a priest who said “no” when a developer offered $16 million to purchase the church his organization owns. Chains were put on the doors of the church at one point to intimidate them, but the church—a vital resource for the community—is still there. “What I think I take away the most is how precious these small businesses are,” Elian said.
At 7:15 p.m., the chatter and laughter of everyone filled the room. The photographers and attendees maneuvered their way through narrow passages between people and photos of a poverty-stricken past from another exhibit. “I think if gentrification was a simple issue then it would have been figured out by now,” said Anna Nathanson, an employee at BronxWorks’ Home-Base program. Photography, she said, is a powerful medium for communicating the human aspect of these struggles.
“I think this was a gem, because I had to get up high to get it,” fellow group member Adi Talwar said, pointing to his double-spread photo of a community prayer at a mosque on Mount Hope Place. Talwar saw the photo as a piece of history, because the neighborhood will change. “One thing that gets highlighted is the diversity in the area,” Talwar said. “You have people from everywhere. It is really, truly an immigrant neighborhood.”
Soundview resident Rhynna M. Santos, the only woman from the Bronx in the group, said she had an emotional interview with an undocumented worker from Mexico, whose wife was pregnant with their second child at the time. Santos, 44, said the man was always working and doing weekly video chats with his family.
“As he’s telling me this story he starts tearing up,” Santos said. “I really was shocked, because this was some really intense dude, I wasn’t trying to get him to break like that.” She added that she learned the importance of charity and the respect that comes when people open up their lives to a stranger.
But all the radical changes happening all around her haven’t deterred Santos from thinking the South Bronx is a great place to be, she said. “ Living here you have to do a lot with a little,” she said.
The books were printed in New York and can be purchased at the Jerome Avenue workers website: http://jeromeaveworkers.com/product/jerome-avenue-workers-project-book/