Jerome Avenue stretches upwards through the south Bronx, keeping pace with the elevated tracks of the 4 train. Below the rumbling subway cars, the 73-block thoroughfare is lined with small factories and mechanic’s garages; it’s one of the last truly working-class neighborhoods in New York.
In September, the city approved a plan to rezone the two-mile span of Jerome Avenue as a mixed-use residential site. Under the proposal, the area could see the development of 3,250 apartments and 35,000 square feet of retail space, according to Curbed, displacing roughly 146,000 square feet of auto shops, warehouses, and garages. Of the around 200 auto shops currently in business along Jerome Ave, the The Village Voice adds, only around 20 would remain once the rezoning takes effect.
“The prevailing narrative is always that developers are coming in and taking over an abandoned neighborhood,” says Mike Kamber, the founder of the Bronx Documentary Center (BDC) and the director of the Bronx Photo League. “There’s never the sense that anybody has been displaced, or anything had been lost.”
The Jerome Avenue Workers Project makes rezoning’s threat to the Bronx neighborhood impossible to ignore. Under Kamber’s direction, the 18 members of the Bronx Photo League captured, in striking black-and-white portraits, the people whose lives revolve around industrial Jerome Avenue. The resulting book was published this month.
Along Jerome Avenue, the rezoning would eradicate roughly 1,500 jobs. The neighborhood around Jerome is one of the poorest in the United States, and sustained by an industrial economy that’s swiftly disappearing in New York. “These are people who are hanging on by the skin of their teeth,” Kamber says. “They’re immigrants; many of them don’t speak English. They don’t have bank accounts; they don’t have money saved. They feel there’s no place left for them in New York once they get pushed out Jerome Avenue.”
Beginning last summer, the Bronx Photo League covered the length of the thoroughfare, talking to auto workers and cashiers, woodworkers and mechanics. “Everyone on Jerome Avenue is working with their hands,” Kamber says. In the eight months of photographing Jerome, Kamber doesn’t recall seeing anyone behind a computer.
“This is not a thoughtful change,” says Rhynna Santos, a Bronx Photo League member. “The redevelopment does not take into account the neighborhood and the people who live there.” The people of Jerome Avenue, Santos says, are the working poor. “These people are so underrepresented politically and in our society, and we don’t give them time,” Santos says.
At the beginning of the Jerome Avenue Workers Project, Kamber brought out two Hasselblad cameras for the 18 photographers to share. The cameras are antique and notoriously difficult to use; Santos said she was intimidated to shoot on them. “But the beautiful thing about the Hasselblad is that you have to take time,” Santos says. Setting up the cameras requires the thoughtful attention that the Bronx Photo League wanted to bring to the workers of Jerome Avenue.
Following the September announcement of the rezoning plans, activists are pushing back against the proposals, calling for more affordable housing and increased protections for the area’s auto workers. “If the city is going to come in and throw up millions of dollars worth of developments, there needs to be a system in place to protect the people already there,” Kamber says. “This is a case where government could work to integrate people—through training programs, through efforts to keep them in place,” he adds. “Some of these people have put in decades on Jerome Avenue. They shouldn’t be forced out.”
Santos hopes that the photographs will give the perspective of the neighborhood “a certain level of legitimacy that it didn’t have before.” People in these communities,” Santos adds, “have not been given a stake in history. A photograph is a statement of existence: it says that we’re here, and we can’t be ignored.”
Jerome Avenue Workers Project, $35, at the Bronx Documentary Center.