Camilo José Vergara is a photographer and the author of numerous books, most recently, Detroit Is No Dry Bones: The Eternal City of the Industrial Age (University of Michigan Press, 2016). His most recent writing on Detroit can be found at PublicBooks.org. More of his work can be found at camilojosevergara.com.
Street fashion trends spotted in this part of the Bronx often spread to the rest of the world. Its diversity and density make it beautiful and memorable.
The Hub is a crowded, segregated, and ethnically varied Bronx shopping district on East 149th Street and Third Ave. There are few better places than this crossroads, located in the poorest congressional district in the U.S., to document the evolution of urban poverty.
The surrounding pre-Great Depression buildings, with their Art Deco and Renaissance Revival styles, speak of better times and provide formal unity to this crossroads. Renderings for a planned green oasis meant to soften the chaos of the intersection surfaced in 2013, but Roberto Clemente Plaza remains unfinished, adding greatly to the congestion of the area.
The Hub is heavily surveilled, with hundreds of video cameras, security guards, and policemen visible inside their cars. When needed, large numbers of policemen can gather at the intersection in just a few minutes.
People’s faces often look hardened, alert, and energetic as they dash after the bus, eat pizza, cross the street, pass out leaflets, or preach. About a third of the passersby talk on their cell phones or take selfies.
Street fashion trends spotted in The Hub often spread to the rest of the world. Vie Riche, Pelle Pelle, and Savage are popular brands. So are the Chicago Bulls and the Bronx’s own New York Yankees. Tattoos typically feature stars, roses, rosaries, sphinxes, skulls, and inscriptions such as “Music is my life,” “Boricua,” and “Mom.” People passing by or waiting for the bus can be seen against store windows selling gold chains and earrings.
I was surprised at first by the sheer variety of African fashions. According to Census data complied by Queens College, the African-born population increased by more than 60 percent between 2007 and 2014 and consists of 10 percent of the Bronx’s foreign-born population. More than 16 different African languages are now spoken in the borough.
Some of the stores around The Hub function as tiny department stores, with various merchandise and services sold. A profusion of vinyl signs and merchandise lit with spotlights gives a striking look to these stores. Store lighting has become more powerful recently, and some blink like Christmas lights. At dusk, lights from inside stores illuminate passersby in unexpected ways.
The most popular ground floor stores in The Hub offer new phones, computer repair, video games, and bill payments. Banks, jewelry and furniture stores, nail and hair salons, and tattoo parlors follow in importance. The ATM space of Bank of America also provides temporary warmth and protection against the elements.
The old “ILGU, Union Made, AFL-CIO” sign on the corner of Melrose and East 149th Street has been replaced by one that reads: “Offices for Rent,” and indeed the presence of organized labor has diminished. A karate studio on Third Avenue closed and was replaced by Envy Nails.
The upper floors of offices in buildings around The Hub sometimes remain vacant and rundown for years. Stairways are dirty and dark. Clinics on the upper floors treat mental illness, addictions, and fibroids, while others facilities perform oral surgery, give physical therapy or recruit home health care assistants.
The number of street vendors selling produce, hot food, and clothing has skyrocketed in recent years. In 2017 I bought a surplus t-shirt with the inscription “Hillary Clinton: First Female President of the United States” for $1 from one of the street vendors.
I photographed Segundo, a retired Ecuadorian immigrant huckstering Chinese roach killer for $8 a box. Segundo keeps his merchandise in a handmade wooden box hanging from his neck, decorated with the American and Puerto Rican flags and a portrait of Che Guevara. His call is “Cucarachas, cucarachas!”
Disability is prevalent in Mott Haven. Many of my photographs include disabled people using walkers and wheelchairs. I don’t see signs of drug dealing, though, as I did in the past. And despite the poverty, I find few signs of despair in The Hub. I do see families holding hands, people speaking different languages, and laughter.
At dusk, a golden sky appears, the blinking lights of the jewelry displays flash, and people rush home—all of which makes The Hub beautiful and memorable.