Down under the subway tracks along Jerome Avenue sits a bustling collection of auto-body shops and poultry slaughterhouses. For block after block, these lively Bronx businesses spill out of their simple one- and two-story warehouses, filling the sidewalks and street with a constant parade of cars and customers. As the 4 train rattles overhead, shafts of sunlight slant down below the tracks, illuminating a classic New York City streetscape.
Soon, however, two miles of this busy avenue will be completely transformed. Last week, the City Council passed a rezoning measure that will affect 92 blocks around Jerome Avenue between 165th and 184th streets. The plan for the area will allow developers to demolish the low-rise warehouses here, replacing them with new residential buildings, some rising up to 145 feet tall, plunging the avenue into darkness.
In the days after the rezoning was passed, there were no immediate signs of change along Jerome Avenue, where business continued as usual. But with its vote, the City Council has unleashed a wave of change that will soon sweep over the community, leaving residents fearful of rising rents, displacement and gentrification.
The physical changes coming to Jerome Avenue’s streetscape will be enormous, but the accompanying social changes could be even more disruptive. Besides the hundreds of auto-body shops located under the tracks, the newly rezoned area also encompasses a diverse array of neighborhood institutions, ranging from churches and mosques to barbershops and botanicas.
Scattered amongst them is a wide array of unique restaurants, including Ebe Ye Yie, “a beacon of Ghanaian cuisine,” and His People’s Halal Kitchen, which has served as “a kind of community center” for one neighborhood mosque since 1986. When the buildings that house these social hubs are demolished and rents begin to rise, many of these businesses will be forced to relocate or close.
For a deeper look into what may soon be lost along Jerome Avenue, the Urban Justice Center is opening a new exhibit today, with a collection of photographs by the Bronx Photo League. Originally taken in 2015 as part of the Jerome Avenue Workers Project, the exhibit’s 22 portraits are a timely snapshot of this endangered community, visiting dollar stores and muffler shops to tell the stories of local workers.
The project came about when the league, a group of 18 photographers associated with the Bronx Documentary Center, sat down to discuss their concerns about rezoning and gentrification in their borough. “We obviously saw what happened in Manhattan, what happened in Brooklyn and what’s happening in Harlem, and we became very concerned,” says Rhynna Santos, one of the league’s photographers. “This was the beginning of the ending of what Jerome Avenue is today. And not just the buildings, but a real huge shift in the people who actually live there. And so we all decided as a group to document these people before they were gone.”
For Santos, the league’s images of Jerome Avenue have already taken on new meaning since the passage of the rezoning. “This is exactly the worst-case scenario, which is that now, it becomes a history book,” says Santos. “These images are living proof of the hard-working, beautiful community that exists there still to this day, but sadly not for much longer. It’s important to pay homage to these people, because these people are us. Every image is us, the best of us.”
The Jerome Avenue rezoning is one of more than a dozen similar plans that are being developed by the De Blasio administration, mostly in low-income and minority neighborhoods similar to Jerome Avenue, including East New York, Far Rockaway, and Inwood. However, it was during the reign of the previous mayor, Michael Bloomberg, that rezoning truly began to be used as a tool for radically reshaping the city. During the 12 years of the Bloomberg administration, 37 percent of New York City was rezoned, resulting in one of the largest physical transformations of the urban landscape since the days of Robert Moses.
At least 120 rezoning proposals were approved by the City Council during this period, and the results have not always been pretty. During the Bloomberg administration, hundreds of unique old buildings were demolished, thousands of residents displaced, countless small businesses shuttered, and the number of manufacturing jobs in New York City was cut in half. Across all five boroughs, rezoning has allowed gentrification and new development to rip apart the fabric of numerous communities.
A harsh reevaluation of the city’s use of rezoning is currently underway, with even the City Council criticizing the De Blasio administration “for concentrating neighborhood rezonings in low-income, minority neighborhoods,” according to Crain’s. Other critics have gone even further, describing the use of rezoning as a systemically racist practice that has increased segregation in New York City.
“Race has everything to do with it,” Tom Angotti, the co-author Zoned Out! Race, Displacement, and City Planning in New York City, told CityLab in a 2017 interview. “Zoning is a systemic policy to protect neighborhoods that are predominantly white and homeowner neighborhoods—the whiteness is more important than home ownership, actually. It’s done to promote development when it is economically of interest to developers in communities of color.”
For Jerome Avenue, which runs through the heart of “some of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods,” the impacts of this rezoning will begin to unfold over the coming years. The city’s Jerome Avenue Neighborhood Plan has been touted as an opportunity to create new affordable housing, infrastructure, and jobs in the area, but the full cost of these improvements is yet to be determined. Whatever the result, we can only hope that the avenue won’t end up suffering the same fate as some of the city’s other auto body neighborhoods.
These include the landscape of Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn, which was rezoned in 2003, replacing garages and gas stations with luxury residences and creating “a boring thoroughfare with ugly buildings and more traffic,” and neighborhoods like Manhattanville in West Harlem, where Columbia University has wiped away entire blocks of mechanics and slaughterhouses, and Willets Point in Queens, where a once-thriving collection of car repair businesses has been mostly reduced to flooded fields of debris.
For Jerome Avenue, the changes are still to come. But soon enough, the photographs may be all that remains.
The elevated platforms of the 4 provide a unique overview of Jerome Avenue’s landscape before it is transformed by new construction. In the years to come, this vista could completely vanish, as new buildings hem in the subway tracks.
Many of the structures currently standing alongside the elevated subway are simple one-and two-story warehouses. These provide a kind of buffer between passing trains and residential buildings, which are set further back. Very few residences here are located immediately adjacent to the screeching train tracks.
At the southern end of the Jerome Avenue rezoning area, near East 168th Street, the elevated tracks diverge away from the avenue, leaving an open triangle of gas stations and tire shops. The new zoning regulations allow for 145-foot-tall residential buildings to be constructed along the blocks near here, according to YIMBY.
One of the avenue’s many live poultry markets is located here, near a storefront church and a falafel shop. It would be surprising if these chicken slaughterhouses were allowed to remain as the area becomes increasingly residential.
Two blocks north at East Clarke Place is one of the first shopping districts in the Jerome Avenue rezoning footprint. Two dozen small businesses are clustered into one-story buildings around this intersection, including a driving school, botanica, panaderia, and barber shops. The new zoning regulations allow developers to replace them with 120-foot-tall buildings.
A long stretch of auto-body shops and garages is located several blocks to the north, along both sides of Jerome Avenue from 171st Street to Mt. Eden Avenue. Building heights here are now allowed to be from 75 to 120 feet high.
Though humble in size, several of the warehouses here have unique architectural elements, like this brick garage at the corner of 172nd Street and Jerome Avenue, which dates back to 1930. As part of the rezoning, the city will create “a fund of $1.5 million to help owners of area auto body shops relocate” to other neighborhoods.
As the avenue continues north, the elevated tracks pass over the Cross Bronx Expressway. The South Bronx is “home to some of the highest asthma hospitalization rates for children in the city” due to truck exhaust, according to the New York Times. The new zoning will allow for 75-foot-tall buildings adjacent to the expressway.
The avenue here is sunken down from the neighborhoods around it, with apartment buildings elevated above it on a rocky escarpment. If a new series of towers is built next to the subway line, it could block off the sunlight from hundreds of older apartments.
John’s Boxing Gym, located on Jerome Avenue near Clifford Place, is a local institution that was forced out of its previous Bronx home after 30 years, when the city sold its land to a private developer.
A wide variety of small business are located on the side streets that intersect with Jerome Avenue, like this dense cluster of shops along Mt. Eden Avenue. This block has been rezoned to allow for 120-foot residential buildings.
His People’s Halal Kitchen, on Mt. Hope Place, has served the community for over 30 years. It sits on a block that will now allow buildings of 65 feet and higher.
Numerous botonicas, markets, grocery stores, and religious supply shops are located up and down the rezoned section of Jerome Avenue, including Tassala Gaskiya African Market, which is located in a strip of stores that also contains a pawn shop, a bakery, a party supply store, and Botanica Rey Del Sol.
Ebe Ye Yie, known for its fufu, jollof rice, and peanut butter stew, is located at the northern end of the Jerome Avenue rezoning area, near 184th Street. The restaurant and its one-story neighbors, including a laundromat and a Salvation Army store, could be replaced by 75-foot buildings.
The majority of businesses along Jerome Avenue are automotive and industrial, including this classic service station near 181st Street, which dates back to 1931. This entire lot can now be replaced with a 75-foot-tall building.
Currently, the staggered building scales on Jerome Avenue allow for more sunlight to penetrate under the tracks, creating a less claustrophobic experience for visitors. What will the streetscape be like when a variety of towers has been built?
Several examples of new development have already crept up to the edges of the rezoning boundaries, giving a sense of what may soon replace the local warehouses. Like Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn, there is no unified vision for building styles here.
For now, the space under the tracks still has its sunny days, when the shadows create strange designs of their own. Living next to the elevated subway, however, can create some unique annoyances.
Above the tracks, at the northern end of the Jerome Avenue Rezoning. Today, only a few buildings peek out over the subway line, but in a decade, the view here will be much different.
Nathan Kensinger is a photographer, filmmaker, and curator who has been documenting New York City’s abandoned edges, endangered neighborhoods, and post-industrial waterfront for more than a decade. His Camera Obscura photo essays have appeared on Curbed since 2012. His photographs have been exhibited by the Museum of the City of New York, the Queens Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the NYC Parks Department, and inside the Atlantic Ave-Barclays Center subway station.