(Mel Rosenthal/Museum of the City of New York)

Intentional neglect of the neighborhood reduced it to rubble in the 1970s and 1980s. Mel Rosenthal photographed those who lived through it.

Between 1976 and 1982, South Bronx native and photographer Mel Rosenthal chronicled a neighborhood very different from what it is today. During that period, the South Bronx was burning to the ground—literally. But contrary to popular belief at the time, it wasn’t arson destroying the neighborhood; it was calculated neglect by the city.

The seeds of this treatment of the South Bronx were planted in a 1970 memo sent by Daniel Patrick Moynihan to President Richard Nixon. In it, Moynihan, who was Counselor to the President for Urban Affairs at the time, wrote:

You are familiar with the problem of crime. Let me draw your attention to another phenomenon, exactly parallel, and originating in exactly the same social circumstances. Fire. Unless I mistake the trends, we are heading for a genuinely serious fire problem in American cities. In New York, for example, between 1956 and 1969 the over-all fire alarm rate more than tripled, from 69,000 alarms to 240,000. These alarms are concentrated in slum neighborhoods, primarily black.

Even though these fire alarms weren’t always triggered by building fires—sometimes they were set off by trash fires or other emergencies—Moynihan, bolstered by flawed data, suggested that the alarms were indicative of arson by slumlords and criminals that overran these neighborhoods. “The time may have come when the issue of race could benefit from a period of ‘benign neglect,’” Moynihan concluded in the memo.  

The “benign neglect” memo was interpreted in the context of Moynihan’s 1965 report titled the “The Negro Family,” which, as Ta-Nehisi Coates explains in The Atlantic, was widely taken an exposé on the supposed pathological and sociological failures of African Americans. It was “portrayed as an argument for leaving the black family to fend for itself.”

In New York City, Moynihan’s “benign neglect” recommendation was manifested as a policy called “planned shrinkage," the work of the then-commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, Robert Starr. It was “a form of triage, it dictated the withdrawal of essential services from sick neighborhoods, which were seen as unable to survive or undeserving of survival,” Deborah Wallace and Rodrick Wallace explain in their 2001 book, A Plague on Your Houses: How New York Was Burned Down and National Public Health Crumbled. The retracted services included responses to fires and fire-safety inspections. When added to the cocktail of flawed urban policies in the neighborhood, the results were devastating. FiveThirtyEight summarizes:

Between 1970 and 1980, seven census tracts in the Bronx lost more than 97 percent of their buildings to fire and abandonment. Forty-four tracts lost more than half. The results were staggering—blocks and blocks of rubble.

The post-apocalyptic-seeming landscape of the South Bronx during this time is striking in Rosenthal’s photos, of which 42 original prints are now on display at an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York. But what really stands out is the humanity of the South Bronx residents who lived through that nightmarish chapter of history. From the MCNY blog post about the exhibition:

His work is not only moving documentary about the resilience of people living in challenging circumstances, but also an activist’s critique of government policies that wrote off entire communities.

”In the South Bronx of America” runs through October 16 at the Museum of the City of New York. Check out some of Rosenthal’s beautiful photos below:

(Mel Rosenthal/Museum of the City of New York)
(Mel Rosenthal/Museum of the City of New York)
(Mel Rosenthal/Museum of the City of New York)
(Mel Rosenthal/Museum of the City of New York)
(Mel Rosenthal/Museum of the City of New York)
(Mel Rosenthal/Museum of the City of New York)
(Mel Rosenthal/Museum of the City of New York)

H/T: Untapped City

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