Award-Winning Author Woodson Recalls 1970s Bushwick as Beautiful, Brilliant, Risky

Photo via jacqueline_woodson

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Brooklyn native and Newbery Medal winner Jacqueline Woodson’s new novel takes the reader to a Bushwick of old — her aptly titled Another Brooklyn is a coming-of-age story set in the borough in the 1970s. The novel has already garnered accolades since its release, earning the #1 Indie Next Pick by the American Booksellers Association. Brownstoner caught up with Woodson to talk about her feelings about Brooklyn and her inspiration for the novel.

Brownstoner: How was growing up in Bushwick different from the other two places you lived in your youth — Columbus, Ohio, and Greenville, S.C. — and was it at all similar?

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Jacqueline Woodson: I left Columbus when I was an infant and didn’t return until I was well into my teens. Greenville, of course was much more rural. The section I lived in, Nicholtown, was all African American. The houses were small, brick-framed homes, often with a gardens in both the back and front and there was a quiet to the place — maybe because the summers were so hot. Maybe because southerners tend to be softer-spoken, I don’t know. But it was the country and it was green and quiet. Before the city came into the neighborhood and planted trees in the mid-to-late ’70s, Bushwick was wood and cement. Wood-framed houses, cement sidewalks, nearly treeless. The people were black and Latino (after white flight) and the neighborhood was very much alive. There always seemed to be music playing somewhere or kids yelling in the streets as they played tag or double Dutch or kick the can. Kids literally played in the streets in Bushwick in the ’70s, and cars and people respected that.

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Broadway in Bushwick in the 1970s. Photo by Danny Lyon via National Archives

If a bunch of boys were playing spinning tops in the middle of the street, cars would stop, wait for the boys to gather up their tops and move to the curb. If a group of girls were playing rope on the sidewalk, grownups would step into the street to not disrupt their game. Bushwick and Greenville were similar in that people looked out for each other. In Bushwick, women brought pillows to the window and propped themselves on their elbows. They would look out the window for hours and hours, knowing everything people were doing. If a child misstepped, they yelled out to them or stepped inside to call the child’s mother. In Greenville, we had the porches to sit on and watch the world but it was still the same thing. There was a connection between people, a “we’re all in this together” ness.

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Bogart Street in the Bushwick loft area. Photo by Mary Hautman

Brownstoner: Did writing Another Brooklyn reveal any newfound feelings you have for the borough?

JW: No — I’ve always loved Brooklyn. What writing Another Brooklyn helped me get to was my deep love of Bushwick and a desire to have it remembered as a place that launched some amazing people, a place where people were living and thriving long before other people “discovered” it.

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Maria Hernandez Park, 2015. Photo by Cate Corcoran

Brownstoner: Do you find certain Brooklyn neighborhoods more inspiring than others?

JW: Another Brooklyn takes place in Bushwick. I live in Park Slope. Both neighborhoods inspire me for very different reasons. I’ve also written books for young adults that take place in Canarsie (Feathers), Fort Greene (If You Come Softly), and other places in the city.

Brownstoner: How does Another Brooklyn speak to the ways Brooklyn has changed since your youth, if at all?

JW: Another Brooklyn is a novel about four girls coming of age in the 1970s told from the perspective of a 30-something-year-old looking back on her childhood. So it’s a novel but it’s also a biography of a Bushwick that no longer exists as it did, a place that was once “Another Brooklyn.” In the book, I talk about white flight, the 1977 blackout, Son of Sam, etc. — all the things that were happening in and around that place during that time. So it doesn’t speak to the Bushwick that exists today even though I’m in that Bushwick often (I still have the house I grew up in and still have friends in the neighborhood). That new Bushwick (at least the block I grew up on and many of the surrounding blocks) is now tree-lined and beautiful.

Brownstoner: Why did you write this book?

JW: I needed Bushwick remembered.

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