Rosenthal, who was a guest artist at Yaddo in 1998, credits Yaddo's "intense tranquility" for allowing periods of uninterrupted work on the book.
In photographs and essays, In the South Bronx of America chronicles the devastation of the neighborhoods of the South Bronx in the '70s and early '80s when the area literally burned to the ground. Rosenthal's book discusses some of the reasons for the two decades of societal decay in a series of essays by Grace Paley*, Barry Phillips, Martha Rosler, and Rosenthal himself.
Yet despite the destruction, Rosenthal chronicles the lives, sometimes inexplicably vibrant, that unfolded in the midst of the rubble. There are entrepreneurial Cambodian refugees, African Americans and Latino residents who had supplanted the earlier "tribes" of Irish, Jews, and Italians that had formerly populated the neighborhoods of the South Bronx.
There are social clubs, family portraits, a Buddhist monastery, churchgoers in their Sunday best, and children playing in vacant lots, as well as the expected burned-out buildings. The cover photograph shows a woman seemingly dancing for joy on the streets on a sunny day. Many of the photographs are simple portraits of the residents, which Rosenthal would hang at various sites in the area, making his a migrating gallery of photographs. The publisher calls the book "a biting social criticism and a deep expression of optimism and hope."
William Jay Smith, the former poet laureate of the U.S. has said: "Not since Eudora Welty* photographed rural Mississippi in the 1930s has anyone caught so memorably a people and a place as Mel Rosenthal has done in this unforgettable record of the South Bronx."
*Grace Paley was at Yaddo in 1969 and 1975; Eudora Welty was at Yaddo in 1941, 1961, 1963, 1966, and 1968.
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