Left for Dead: Bushwick in the 1980s

In December of 1981, the week before Christmas, Meryl Meisler was offered a full-time job as an art teacher at I.S. 291 in Bushwick, Brooklyn. At the time, she was working part-time in East New York and the opportunity should have been ideal. But instead it gave Meisler pause. That’s because four years earlier, on July 13, 1977, while she was getting ready to go dancing at Studio 54, New York City experienced a widespread blackout. And what Meisler saw in the wake of that citywide panic left an indelible impression. “[The] afterimages of looting and fires in Bushwick were forever burned into my brain,” she said.

Meisler took the job anyhow, fears and all, and went on to teach in Bushwick for nearly 15 years. But when she first arrived, many of her fears were realized.

“Bushwick looked like a ghost town war zone,” Meisler writes in her artist statement (PDF) from Bushwick in the 1980s, a collection of her point-and-shoot photographs from that time period that were recently exhibited at The Living Gallery in Brooklyn. “I.S. 291 was one of the few functioning structures on the block; it felt like a hybrid school, shelter and prison. It was bewildering, kids trying to learn and enjoy day-to-day childhood life in the midst of chaos and despair, amazing teachers whose sense of duty provided structure and purpose within a shattered neighborhood’s cinderblock fortress surrounded by fallen timber, crumbled concrete, broken bricks, cooled ember vestiges after the ashes had blown away.”

“Shunned by the media’s eyes since the blackout, Bushwick seemed to have hit the skids,” Meisler writes. “To me the neighborhood’s natural light was so beautiful; kids were kids and the vacant buildings whispered stories.”

What the buildings also whispered were stories of a neighborhood in transition. Though it may be more apt to say that Bushwick was essentially in its death throes by the time Meisler arrived. In 1993 Lynette Holloway, writing for the New York Times, encapsulated Bushwick’s struggles:

After the blackout, residents who could afford to leave abandoned the area. But new immigrants were coming into the area during the late 1960s, early 1970s and 1980s, many of whom were from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and more recently Central America. However, apartment renovation and new construction did not keep pace with the demolition of unsafe buildings, forcing overcrowded conditions at first. As buildings came down, the vacant lots made parts of the neighborhood look and feel desolate, and more residents left. The neighborhood was a hotbed of poverty and crime through the 1980s. During this period, the Knickerbocker Ave shopping district was nicknamed “The Well” for its seemingly unending supply of drugs.In the 1990s, it remained a poor and relatively dangerous area, with 77 murders, 80 rapes, and 2,242 robberies in 1990.

Today the story in Bushwick is much different than what Meisler’s photographs from the 1980s depict; it’s even different from the issues addressed in Holloway’s 1993 Times article. As with so many neighborhoods in cities across the country that often go from neglected and abandoned to blank canvases, many Bushwick residents are currently pushing back against major developer interests and the crawl of gentrification. Some real estate agents have even gone as far as to rename fringe portions of Bushwick in an attempt to inflate rents (see: Bedwick).

As this cycle continually repeats itself in neighborhoods across America, however, two obvious constants remain: Developers benefit from the collapse of a community while the poor can always bank on eventual displacement.

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Empty Hive, April 1982. Click to enlarge. (Meryl Meisler)

Jump Rope (Vanessa's Family), June 1983. (Meryl Meiser)

Jump Rope (Vanessa’s Family), June 1983. Click to enlarge. (Meryl Meisler)

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Pampered Lot, February 1994. Click to enlarge. (Meryl Meisler)

(Photograph: Meryl Meisler. Caption: Boyz to Men, October 1982.)