The first time a Great Blue Heron landed in front of him, Charles R. Berenguer Jr. was shocked. What was the majestic bird doing in the Bronx of all places? “Capturing this moment was something only people on WNET or National Geographic did,” he wrote. “It just didn’t happen in a concrete urban environment.”
Berenguer went on to demonstrate that wildlife does thrive in the city, becoming the Audubon of the Bronx River. He took hundreds of striking photographs of birds before his death in April, a victim of the coronavirus at the age of 70.
His death was announced on a GoFundMe page established by his family to defray his funeral expenses and those of a son Matthew, who died days later.
Berenguer’s photographs of birds soaring, hunting, swimming and at rest captured the river’s beauty and its role in connecting New Yorkers to the natural world. “I was born to this area as were the people who lived here 9,000 years ago. We share the timeless continuity of the natural sacredness that exists,” he wrote of a photo of a red tail hawk taken at the river in 2014.
An ardent environmentalist, he placed his camera at the service of the Bronx River Alliance and other environmental, cultural and community organizations that worked to rescue the river from a history of pollution and neglect.
“This is the Bronx River. We are lucky to have it restored,” he wrote of a photo of the river as it ran through the New York Botanical Garden. “Recognizing our relatedness & rootedness with the earth is necessary to fully understand ourselves.”
He also expressed indignation at the continued mistreatment of the river, posting a photo of an egret landing on a heap of floating garbage, and wondering in another photo of floating trash “if the community upstream in Bronxville and Scarsdale would tolerate this unseemly sight for very long.”
And he worried: “Will the birds that are common today become scarce as climate change progresses. Cherish the ordinary.”
In addition to birds, his lens caught flowers, insects and landscapes and captured the joy of youngsters dancing at Concrete Plant Park, the effort of young workers at Rocking the Boat, the on-river performances of Angela’s Pulse, and the alliance’s Bronx River Flotilla.
He “used his craft to bring awareness to all the positive things that were going on the Bronx River,” said his wife Marilyn.
His sense of wonder was also at work in guiding him to his subjects. To accompany a photo of a large milkweed bug taken at Waterwash, he wrote, “My childhood was spent outdoors playing, exploring, in the back yard or the woods nearby… It was never boring. There was always the undiscovered to be found… This fertility of wonder and imagination is a gift . . . one that needs to be recovered when we get older.”
Part of that childhood was spent living near the Bronx River, he told his friend Damian Griffin, a teacher who was education director of the Bronx River Alliance when he and Berenguer met. Griffin was talking to students at Concrete Plant Park about development in the Bronx, good and bad, he recalled, when Berenguer walked up and told the group how the home his father had bought in the West Farms section had been taken by eminent domain so Robert Moses could build the Sheridan Expressway.
After the family lost their Bronx home, they moved to Mt. Vernon. When Berenguer returned to the Bronx in 2001 he found a home near the river, a short walk from Concrete Plant and Starlight parks. “His subject matter changed greatly when he was exposed to all the beautiful areas that many haven’t realized existed in the Bronx,” his wife recalled. From a lifetime of photographing urban landscapes and people in the streets and subways, he turned to the natural environment.
His photographs and his constant presence at the river made him “one of those people who becomes a kind of a guardian of parks,” said Linda Cox, the former executive director of the Bronx River Alliance.
Charles R. Berenguer Jr. was born in Manhattan on Feb. 17, 1949, the son of Charles Sr. and Marcelina (Negron) Berenguer, who moved to New York from Puerto Rico in 1930, according to Marilyn Berenguer. He attended the Mt. Vernon public schools and Bronx Community College and worked as a computer programmer for the Brunswick furniture company and later with developmentally challenged adults at United Cerebral Palsy.
In addition to his wife Marilyn, he is survived by a son Jonathan, a daughter Natasha, and three grandchildren, Gilberto, Jazmine and Mayra Romero. Both Marilyn Berenguer and Damian Griffin commented on his love for his grandchildren. The photographs of them he posted on Facebook are as arresting as his photos of birds.