Against a backdrop of rubble and garbage, a child hurls his body several feet in the air. He’s front flipping onto a discarded mattress, left idling in front of the remains of a destroyed building. The photograph, “Bathgate Avenue” by Mel Rosenthal — on display at the New York Public Library’s exhibit “Recollection: Thirty Years of Photography” — is typical of his work in the South Bronx during its darkest chapter. It’s an image of destruction, despair and exhilaration.
The South Bronx of the 1970s and 1980s was a fascinating and terrifying place. The area suffered such decay that any time a president (Ford, Carter, Reagan) visited New York; the mayor would take him on a tour of the blighted neighborhood in the hope he would be shamed into providing federal funds for the area.
Like a visiting dignitary to a third world disaster zone, the president would take in the sights: abandoned/burned tenement building (check), children living on the street (check), vandalism/fire/the scars of rampant drug use (check/check/check) and shake his head that such a place was in the United States. But Rosenthal noticed something else in the South Bronx, people getting by and even having occasional fun.
Rosenthal’s photos from the ‘70s and ‘80s reflect urban blight. The background is almost always littered with the devastation that made the South Bronx infamous, but it was rarely his subject. His photos — taken along Bathgate Avenue and other nearby streets — focus on people who found things in the devastation (at least temporarily) to entertain and amuse them. Sisters enjoying each other’s company, teenagers pretending to walk a runway, a daily domino game and a drink of water from a fire hydrant; happy moments against a looming backdrop of unhappy circumstances.
Rosenthal knew where to look, and what to look for. Raised in the South Bronx, he had watched as the borough slipped from a mostly middle-class hodge-podge of residential neighborhoods to a symbol for the chaos that flawed economic and infrastructure policies can wrack. Taken with an activist intent, his photos were tragic, fearful, awe-inspiring and even funny.
While many of his Bronx contemporaries — such as Ray Mortenson and Camilo Jose Vergara — photographed object symbols of decay or people whose faces screamed desperation, Rosenthal let his subject’s circumstances speak for them.
The kids playing baseball in an untitled photograph were just like any other young duo in the country, except that they used a parking meter as second base and where left field would have been was a burned and looted store. Depressing circumstances paired with upbeat resilience.
Check out “Bathgate Avenue” at the New York Public Library’s “Recollections: Thirty Years of Photography” gallery, now through January 2.