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.
Decades after photographing its abandoned buildings and makeshift playgrounds, Camilo José Vergara sees an unmatched contrast between past and present in the economically devastated borough.
Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of Camilo José Vergara’s Crossroads project. Previous stories covered Newark’s “Four Corners,” the Bronx’s “Hub,” Harlem’s 125th and Lexington, and Bed-Stuy’s Fulton and Nostrand.
I have long been drawn to the intersection of Southern Boulevard and Westchester Avenue in the Bronx, the heart of a Latino neighborhood as seen in its urban forms, folk art, signage, fashion, and interactions.
In the 1980s and parts of the ‘90s, the area was a center of drug dealing and full of memorials to people who had met violent deaths. During this time, store signs depicted scenes of rural life in Puerto Rico. Common motifs on murals and other signs included waterfalls, huts, hills, boats, roosters, the rising moon, palm trees, and the Puerto Rican flag. One particularly memorable mural depicted a pig-roast by a brook in the hills of Borinquen.
In the early 1990s, the subway’s old “Redbird” cars ran up the elevated Simpson Avenue Station, and past a smoking Joe Camel billboard. Fires raged and burned buildings stood in ruin. I saw dogs sleeping on a discarded couch in a vast, empty lot facing the 41st Police Precinct, famously nicknamed “Fort Apache” because it recalled a besieged army outpost in Native American territory. When I photographed it at the time, the nearby Boulevard Theater was playing the 1971 Mexican hit, “El Profe” with Cantinflas. And the San Juan Health Center, founded by Dr. Richard Izquierdo, took care of local heath needs in a busy triangular site north of the subway station.
Today, the Redbirds are harboring fish on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Abandoned buildings and empty lots have disappeared, and with them the wild dogs. The discarded box springs and mattresses that children once jumped and played on are gone, but they have yet to be replaced with playgrounds. A refurbished precinct station surrounded by townhouses is now the Bronx Detective Bureau. A stretch of Westchester Avenue has been named after Dr. Izquierdo in his honor. The Boulevard Theater is now a Planet Fitness branch. Billboards no longer feature cigarette ads since the federal government’s permanent ban on them in 1999.
More than two thirds of the neighborhood population today have Puerto Rican, Dominican, Mexican and other Latino roots. Drug dealing is hard to detect and there is only one drug treatment program in the neighborhood, Odyssey House. I no longer see an inordinate number of beggars, broken windows held together with masking tape, boarded up buildings, or children building play houses in vacant lots. Yet more than 40 percent of the households here have incomes below the poverty level—one of the highest rates in the city.
The proliferation of street vendors is a recent development. A man sells “Rompe Pechos,” a popular cough medicine. Another man sells oils that go by such names as “Lick Me All Over” and “China Musk.” A Mexican woman sells ice cream, while another, dressed in traditional African attire, sells purses and sunglasses. Several fruit stands sell mangoes, bananas, and watermelons. A man with a sandwich board advertises a local hamburger joint while another passes out cards saying, “Se Rentan Cuartos” (“Rooms for Rent”). The intersection is also a favorite place for teenagers to congregate and socialize.
A man pointed out to me a police surveillance box posted high on the southeast corner of Southern Boulevard and Westchester Avenue. He called the box “El Hermano Vigilante,” his Spanish version of “Big Brother,” and explained that the box can detect the cell phones of people passing by and stream recordings to the Police Department.
Nowadays, much of the old murals depicting a longed-for return to peaceful rural life and the Puerto Rican flag have been replaced by symbols of sports teams, American flags, and bold global fashions. At no other intersection that I’ve documented have I felt the contrast between past and present so strongly—a devastated 1980s Bronx of fires and ruins and the new Bronx that still has its struggles but is exemplified by this lively, peaceful crossroads.