Defying Devastation: Bushwick Then and Now

Can you imagine how I felt when I found a picture of myself at the age of seven in Meryl Meisler’s exhibit of Bushwick in the 80s? What could I do but hunt her down to tell her that I am the girl in the blue shorts. That I know everyone in that picture. My mother is sitting on the garbage can; she’s still swollen from the stage four uterine cancer the doctors found the year before. My Millie’s mother, Doña Carmen, is the viejita, and Millie’s sister, Haydee, is sitting on the stoop. The women from the block are there with their children, Trisha and Annie and India. The girl jumping rope is my cousin, Brenda. And, him, the one your eyes are drawn to, the one staring unflinchingly at the camera, his is a face I can never forget, though I’ve tried to scour his memory so many times.

The result of that find is this exhibit, Defying Devastation: Bushwick Then and Now. It’s a follow up to last year’s exhibit, Defying Devastation: Bushwick in the 80s. This time we did it bigger and more beautiful. This time we made magic…

Writer Vanessa Mártir and photographer Meryl Meisler teamed up again after the extreme success of last year’s Defying Devastation: Bushwick in the 80s. In this year’s installment, Vanessa’s reflections of the neighborhood give voice to Meryl’s iconic images of urban decay at the Living Gallery as part of the third annual Bushwick Open Studios.

Between 1965 and 1980, there were over a million fires in New York City. The South Bronx is infamous for the aftermath of the Fire Wars but Bushwick was just as ravaged. Add the black out of 1977, the resulting riots, and the crack epidemic of the 1980s, and the result was a neighborhood that was a pile of rubble. This was the neighborhood Vanessa grew up in and that Meryl photographed while she worked as a teacher in a local school. But Meryl wasn’t interested in taking pictures of the crack vials that littered the gutter or the addicts who walked the streets; she sought to chronicle the families and the love that defied the devastation. Thirty years later, Vanessa, now a writer, found her seven-year-old self in one of Meryl’s photographs. The result of that find and their meeting is this second collaboration.



This is how the universe works… by Vanessa Mártir

You’re teaching at a high school in your old neighborhood, just around the corner from where you grew up, where your first love went to school and your sister and so many people you knew way back when. You’re telling your students about how different the neighborhood was 25, 30 years ago, when it was a pile of rubble. You tell them about the Fire Wars and the 1977 blackout and the riots. You tell them about the sirens that blared so loud and so often they became white noise. You tell them that the burnt buildings that didn’t crumble became crack buildings. You tell them about the one right across the street from your building. The one where those two girls were raped. You tell them about the lots and the junkyards. The piles of trash and mattresses and tires and license plates and plywood with rusted nails sticking out at all angles and the cars flattened and stacked like pancakes. You tell them about how you used to play in those lots and imagined that you were the female Indiana Jones saving the world from evil. You tell them about how a lot was cleared every summer, the trash piled in a corner, to make space for the carnival with its rides and gambling tables and food stands.

Before you leave, the teacher tells you about Meryl Meisler and the pictures she took of the neighborhood in that era. You’re suspicious because you’ve seen the sensationalized images, the pictures of the crack vials in the gutter and the fiends. The picture of that lady taking a hit from her crack pipe. You can see her baby just feet away from her in the next room. Yes, there was that but that isn’t all there was. Still, you give Meryl a chance. You check out the trailer on-line and the first thing you notice is that there are no pictures like that. There are pictures of families and children and love. Then you freeze. You rewind the frame and there you are in one of the images. You are the girl in the blue shorts. You are seven.

Later, after you’ve met Meryl and you’re prepping for your second exhibit with her at The Living Gallery for Bushwick Open Studios, she asks if you want to take a picture with your daughter in front of the building you grew up in—383 Palmetto Street. “A before and after,” she says. You agree though your stomach twists up and curdles everything you ate that day. You remember the little girl you were and how you vowed to give your daughter a different life. And that night, after you tuck your nena in and tell her a made-up-on-the-spot bedtime story, you remember that she is the reason you finally wrote that story. The story of that man in the window and what he did to you. You remember when she was six and running in the playground, you noticed how much of a baby she still was. And you remember yourself at that age and what happened to you. It hits you that you were just a baby too. And suddenly you know, 29 years later, that it wasn’t your fault. And you see that you’re already showing your little girl a different world.

Meryl Meisler
Meryl Meisler

The Love We Made by Vanessa Mártir

I want to tell you about the Bushwick of the before and the in-between. The picnics we had in the junk-yards, leaning on rusted cars and eating pastelitos and alcapurrias fried before the sun came up.

I want to tell you about the block parties. How we played double-dutch with cables salvaged from the burnt out buildings whose X-demolition squares became our batter’s box during games of stick ball. We stole electricity from the light poles to blast boom boxes so the boys could lay out cardboard boxes to do their head spins and windmills.

I want to tell you about the domino sessions where gender roles blurred and milk crates became chairs and knees were used to balance the splintered boards that the dominoes were slammed on. When even the kids celebrated the screams of Capicú.

I want to tell you about the carnivals. We knew they were coming when the trucks came and the garbage was pushed into corners by bulldozers. The rides went up overnight—a Ferris wheel, the Tilt-a-Whirl, even a Gravitron one year. The flying swings and the make-your-stomach-lurch ride where you were strapped in standing up and your body was sealed against the grated walls by the sheer force of speed as the ride went round and round and rose up off the ground. There were dozens of game stands, “win a prize” if you get the ball in the hoop, shoot water into a hole to get your evil clown face to the top. And the slew of gambling tables, Poker and Roulette and Black Jack. And food of all kinds, sweets like cotton candy, candy apples and turrón; giant vats of grease that fried bacalaítos and rellenos de maduro. Buckets of beer floating in ice water. So when the carnival left, the smell of greasy sweet lingered over the neighborhood for days.

I want to tell you about the impromptu jam sessions in the lots, on the streets, in the carnivals. The men with their instruments—conga drums, a guiro, a clave, a cuatro, and a haunting voice that crooned ballads that grabbed your heart and didn’t let go. Songs about the motherland, the homes they left, the women they loved, the longing.

And all the while, we built community. We made love in and out of the wreckage. That is how we defied devastation.

Cars & Steeple
Cars & Steeple, Meryl Meisler
Crane Then & Now, Meryl Meisler
Crane Then & Now, Meryl Meisler

 “Weird Nostalgia” by Vanessa Mártir

There was a time when you knew your piragüero by name and the owner of the bodega, Miguel, gave your mother credit when the food stamps ran out. The mint green steeple of the Lutheran church on the corner was your beacon and the rents were affordable though your landlord was a slumlord who hadn’t spent a dollar on the building in years, but there he was knocking on your door on the first of the month.

There was a time you watched the news and saw the stories about the war in Lebanon and what was left of Beirut after the bombings. You remember thinking, “That looks like my backyard.” You could walk down your street and name just about every tenant in every building. They were your neighbors. This was your community. And if you needed a bit of sugar or a babysitter or una tasita de café or un remedio for your daughter’s cough, you knew where to go and who to ask. You knew where to get hoja to wrap your pasteles and your Boricua neighbor taught you how to make arroz con dulce and you gave her your grandmother’s recipe for tortillas de harina.

Bushwick doesn’t look like it used to. There are condos and lofts and construction sites all over the neighborhood. Young, white hipsters walk the streets, enter buildings, apartments, theirs. And some look at you like you’re invading their land. Artsy bohemian types with long facial hair and paint stains on their jeans. The rubble and trash strewn lots are gone. There are garbage cans on every corner. And there are penthouses, yes, penthouses, in Bushwick!

But every so often, when you walk around aimlessly, when you get off the main avenues, walk away from the bulldozers and the cranes and the development that just went up with its terraces and Art Deco architecture, away from the cafés and juice bars, you’ll come across a block that reminds you of home.

One of the buildings is boarded up. Its front is charred where the flames licked their burn. Garbage is piled out front. A Tito Nieves salsa floats to your heart from an open window, the window bars red from rust, bringing back the scent of Budweiser and Old Spice cologne, the crunch of the latitas underfoot and the slam of dominoes on wooden tables. There’s a clothesline hanging from the third to the first floor. Three banderas, la Borinqueña, flap in the wind, and you remember love, games of Kick-the-Can, tamarindo piragüas, and the flowers on mami’s bata when she tended her garden with its tomatoes and peppers and sunflowers. You remember home.

It’s a weird nostalgia. The neighborhood is cleaner, there’s art on the walls and quaint cafés that sell $5 cappuccinos. There are juice bars and $15 burgers. A health food market with organic everything. And, there are playgrounds now. But you worry about the costs of this “revitalization.” You wonder why white people had to move here for it to happen. And you worry about your people; what will happen to them when the high rents creep up on their doorsteps? And when you hear there’s a movement to change the name of Avenue of Puerto Rico back to Graham Avenue “because there’s nothing Puerto Rican here,” a hipster said, you want to ask him: “Are you just trying to get us out or do you also want to erase the memory that we were ever even here?”


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