Mel Rosenthal (born 1940) grew up in the South Bronx. When he returned to the area 20 years later, after receiving a Ph.D. in English Literature and American Studies from the University of Connecticut and a stint working as a medical photographer in Tanzania, he discovered an alien landscape of destruction and affliction. The burned-out buildings and rubble-strewn vacant lots have since become a visual shorthand for the urban decay of the 1970s and 1980s. Rosenthal began documenting the area and its residents, many of them native Puerto Ricans, creating a series of photographs that were eventually published in 2000 in the book, In the South Bronx of America.
In what is today roughly Morrisania and East Tremont, in the vicinity along Bathgate Avenue, Rosenthal photographed people who lived, played, loved each other, struggled, and sometimes protested in the midst of an environment that was elsewhere rendered in horrified, sensational headlines.
In 1976, Roger Starr, Commissioner of Housing Preservation and Development, proposed a course of “planned shrinkage” that would allow the city to abandon what were considered blighted areas, especially in the South Bronx. This abandonment took the form of withdrawing public services such as libraries, public transportation, and, perhaps most notably, fire services. “The Bronx is burning” was a literal, not a figurative phrase.
The attitudes behind these policies were presaged by Starr in his 1966 book Urban Choices: the City and its Critics. In one passage he wrote, “Since they have no property, their only marketable asset is hardship…. [S]ome of the people displaced by urban renewal might just be exaggerating the sense of deprivation they feel over their ‘lost homes.'”
Starr and his supports believed that planned shrinkage would make way for future middle class housing, or, in the case of the neighborhood documented by Rosenthal, industrial development. And indeed, this area today is characterized by low-slung warehouses.
The city administrators’ beliefs about the people who lived in these areas and their “exaggerated” attachment to their communities are belied by Rosenthal’s photographs. The images capture the individuality and the humanity of those few earlier residents who remained, and those from a new generation who made their lives there.
His work, then, is not only a moving documentary to the resilience of people living in challenging circumstances, but also an activist’s critique of government policies that wrote off entire communities.
The Museum of the City of New York received 42 original prints from the Bronx series as a gift from Rosenthal’s wife, Roberta Perrymapp. We recently finished digitizing and cataloging them. View all 42 on the Museum’s Collections Portal, along with his later photographs of Arab Americans in New York City.