The northwest Bronx was never supposed to be this quiet.
With barren thoroughfares and shuttered storefronts, this neck of the woods is not its usual self. It’s a sobering reality reflected citywide as a result of city- and state-level decisions in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“The mood is strange,” said Frida Sterenberg, a photographer and Riverdale resident for the last two years.
On the occasions she has gone outside — whether to get supplies or a much-needed breath of fresh air — Sterenberg has seen a significant shift in the fabric of life around her, and to that end, she’s taken her camera with her.
A graduate of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism and a former photo intern for The Riverdale Press, Sterenberg has focused her eye on her immediate surroundings.
“I’m trying to pay attention to take this opportunity to do my own documentary of our experience,” she said.
Despite everything, Sterenberg feels beauty can still be found both in the lush natural landscapes and the socially distanced interactions between people.
“There is some wave of willingness to be kind,” Sterenberg said, “even if it’s just saying hi or waving at a distance.”
The city’s shutdown has also created a looser sense of time. The days blur together. Sterenberg remembers going out on a recent Thursday at lunchtime, but it could have been any day.
“It felt like Sunday at 7 a.m.,” she said. “It’s empty. It’s quiet. Few people walking around.”
The rapid deceleration of the pace of city life has engendered a renewed appreciation for the quotidian that wasn’t always present before this crisis.
“It seems that you rarely have the time to appreciate so much,” Sterenberg said of life before the pandemic.
What she also has found is a willingness in people to be photographed. Taking pictures in a public space can evoke a range of reactions, from complete indifference to rage. In her perambulations around the neighborhood, Sterenberg saw a surprising openness.
“There is a certain sense that people are understanding this is a special circumstance,” Sterenberg said. “I think perhaps because the situation is so drastic, so worrisome, so radically tragic, that people are less concerned.”
Her photographs paint a portrait of a community struggling under the weight of social distancing and other necessary public health measures. Before the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 took hold here, there was a steady rhythm to life — the afternoon school pickup rush, the hustle and bustle on West 231st Street and Broadway, sunny afternoons in Van Cortlandt Park and elsewhere.
Now, much of what makes this part of the borough thrive are now closed, and while there is a gloomy and eerie aspect to that, Sterenberg’s pictures tell a slightly different story. A woman sits on a park bench. Another waits for the bus. Flowers bloom.
Life moves on.
“The beauty of springtime and the birds, that’s what’s giving me hope at the moment,” Sterenberg said. “It’s good to remember that the planet is still moving.”