In the 1970s, Crotona Park's Charlotte Street was a fiery wasteland following rampant arson that not only gutted that street but the dozens of low-income communities in the Bronx. Photographer Camilo Vergara has captured the history of Charlotte Street's highs and lows, telling the story of the three-block stretch in the South Bronx without words. Vergara's work of photographing inner city communities and urban transformation has spanned decades, and is now comprised of 250 photographs preserved at the New York Public Library—within that collection are these four photographers that detail Charlotte Street’s evolution.
Vergara photographs his chosen locations annually, and this striking collection shows the street from the same vantage point over time, capturing its transformation, from a hollowed out 1970s stretch, to a city suburbia.
A tiny tree-lined working class community now comprised of modest ranch and two-story homes, Charlotte Street rose like a phoenix from the ashes following the years when shady landlords intentionally set fires to residential buildings. They often hired arsonists, sometimes minors, to torch their buildings at $20 a pop to collect insurance, leaving Black and Puerto Rican tenants without a home. By the time the landlords were done with Charlotte Street, it appeared war-torn, leaving behind an apocalyptic image of abandoned buildings, shards of glass, and smoldering rubble.
That trend engulfed the South Bronx for a decade, leading the FDNY to stop sending crews to knock out flames and close firehouses in parts of the borough entirely. The decade-long fires also led to the famous, though anachronistic, phrase from New York Yankees sportscaster Howard Cosell in 1977 that defined the moment: “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning.”
The fires led to a personal visit to the Bronx by President Jimmy Carter in October 1977. Among his stops was Charlotte Street, declaring the now sleepy section of the Bronx “the worst slum in America,” and a symbol of urban blight. A few years later Ronald Reagan would visit.
The ashy rubble was eventually replaced with livable homes, thanks to community groups that campaigned for change, including the Mid-Bronx Desperadoes, headed by Genevieve Brooks, and urban planner Ed Logue, hired in 1978 to run the city's South Bronx Development Office.
According to CNN, "Logue and Brooks dazzled [Local Initiatives Support Corporation director] Anita Miller with a vision of white picket fences. She agreed [to] take a gamble and put up the $125,000 the groups needed to purchase two model homes," which were "trucked over the George Washington Bridge one night in 1983." A few years later, there were 92 homes on the site, rebranded Charlotte Gardens. The homes sold quickly, and 90% of the buyers were low-income residents of the Bronx, who were able to purchase the homes, valued at around $110,000, for half the price — "the difference was funded through federal dollars, but the City of New York and various foundations also helped subsidize buyers."
Elizabeth Cronin, Assistant Curator of Photographer at the NYPL, told Gothamist, “Its stark transformation into a well-kept neighborhood came to symbolize the great success of urban renewal. Vergara's photographs are a powerful reminder of how cities change over time. They are changes that we all witness, but when we are pressed to recall what was once there or how it has changed, we often cannot do it. With the aid of photographers like Vergara, these changes become much clearer and are not forgotten.”
As part of our month-long Dear NYC series, we're looking at New York City gems hidden away at the New York Public Library. The NYPL’s four research centers offer the public access to over 55 million items, including rare books, manuscripts, letters, diaries, photographs, prints, maps, ephemera, and more. Integral to these robust collections is the Library’s extensive material related to New York City, and as NY works to come together, cope, heal and recover from the 2020 pandemic, economic uncertainty, and the many issues that divide us, it is important to look at that history and remember: New York is resilient. New York is strong. New York has seen its share of hard times. And, as always, with Patience and Fortitude (the names given to the Library’s beloved lions in 1933 by Mayor LaGuardia for the virtues New Yorkers needed to get through the Great Depression) we will get through it, together.