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In the South Bronx of America: Photographs by Mel Rosenthal

Art Scene

In the South Bronx of America: Photographs by Mel Rosenthal

What do you have when you have nothing? You have each other. In a hallway exhibition on the third floor of the Museum of the City of New York, this life lesson is shown in Mel Rosenthal’s photographs that captured a vibrant humanity amidst the desolation of the South Bronx of the 1970s and aughts.

Mothers and daughters, groups of friends, domino players, church congregations and social club members who lived through the area’s decline into what many have characterized as a war zone were documented by Rosenthal, “To give a public face and a voice to those who had been left behind.”

Mel Rosenthal Mother and Daughter

Mel Rosenthal Bronx

Although Rosenthal was a native of the Bronx, he was living abroad in the early ‘70s when the area lost manufacturing jobs, municipal services and property values. Arson became a common occurrence and many of his South Bronx neighbors disappeared. Both shocked and motivated upon his return, he began to develop a body of work that was later published as the book, In the South Bronx of America (2000).

Mel Rosenthal Man in a rundown building

The selection of images on view at the Museum of the City of New York’s exhibition, In the South Bronx of America: Photographs by Mel Rosenthal, culled from the book, were shot in black and white between 1976 and 1982.

The camaraderie of community, human interaction and imagination can be seen in an image of four domino players shot close up at a wide angle. In the foreground, one man’s engagingly strong eyes look out of the picture frame into the viewers (and Rosenthal’s) gaze with a distant trace of a smile, or perhaps laughter, emanating from his pursed lips.

Mel Rosenthal Men playing dominos

Group play can also be found in an image of four teenagers perched like majesty amidst the rubble of what looks like a dozen destroyed apartment buildings. Two teens, sitting on a large boulder as if it were an archaeological find, smile for the camera, while the other two subjects are caught mid-laughter in what feels like an interrupted joke. Preparing for a cleanup of the grounds so a community garden could be built, the revelers seem unperturbed by the overwhelming destruction of their surroundings.

Mel Rosenthal Group clearing rubble

One image that seems to aptly describe the precarious position of these particular New Yorkers is, “Life Carries On in the War Zone.” Framed in a broken window and shot from the interior of the building looking out onto the street, a lone child biker pedals through the image. Riding a coveted 1970s banana seat bike with tall u-shaped handlebars, the young man steers through an intersection filled with debris, a backdrop of burnt out buildings, and what appears to be a family of stragglers in the distance.

Mel Rosenthal Kid bike riding through the Bronx

Perhaps in the way that only an insider or native can convey, Rosenthal captures images of human beings with their spirits in tact, despite the unforgiving civic neglect of their surroundings.

Mel Rosenthal Exhibition

For more on this topic, see internationally acclaimed director, Baz Luhrmann’s 2016 Netflix original series, The Get Down; a fictional take on the era that encapsulates much of the same vitality as Mel Rosenthal’s real-life images.

Photos by Anders Jones