Muscle Boy and The Little Rascals of Palmetto Street. Bushwick, May 1982. © Meryl Meisler Photography
There was a time before Brooklyn became a brand when Bushwick’s key concerns weren’t affordability and displacement but an ever present state of being on fire.
The Bronx was burning and so was Bushwick. Violent crime rose far higher than the condos of today, and block-long stretches of homes reduced to rubble were common.
Photographer Meryl Meisler was able to capture a far lighter side of the period, photographing neighborhood youth enjoying a far more dangerous, but also a freer Brooklyn.
The photographs she took of Bushwick in the early ’80s when she was working as a teacher in the neighborhood are the most extensive documentation of the place and time. Meisler has recently published two books, Paradise & Purgatory: Sassy ’70s Suburbia & The City and Disco Era Bushwick, and is working on a third, Bushwick Landscapes.
Her work has been exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum, Dia Center, the Whitney and MASS MoCA. She spoke to Brownstoner about her work and inspiration.
Brownstoner: Do you think Brooklyn has become less photogenic since the 1980s?
Meisler: Brooklyn is an incredible borough in a fantastic city filled with amazing people from around the world. It is constantly changing and influenced by the influx of diverse people from all walks of life. Personally, I am not a fan of the big box store, cookie cutter mall style mindset that devours the unique characteristics of neighborhoods and destroys small businesses. Seen one, seen them all; they are the antithesis of photogenic to me.
I was a full time public school art teacher at I.S. 291 on Palmetto Street in Bushwick from December 1981 to June 1992, and then taught at the Rosa T. Weatherless Alternative School on Bushwick Avenue until I went on sabbatical in September 1994.
I carried a point and shoot camera almost every day and photographed what I found unusual, interesting and uplifting on my way to and from my job. Researching Bushwick’s rich history became a fascination for me, and the driving force behind my curriculum working with middle school students.
As a teacher in Bushwick, were you inspired to some degree by the sense of fear or was it completely negative?
I was not inspired to photograph or teach by a sense of fear (other than the fear of not being able to pay my bills without a job). I am inspired then and now by interest in what came before, the resilience of the human spirit, hope, and humor. I know very deeply and personally about despair and tragedy; those are not the moments I choose to photograph; the pain is too great.
Did you pose the people in your photos?
Generally, people pose themselves. I photograph their poise. If it is a group photo, and it is the intention or desire for everyone in the group to be visible, I might suggest someone move one way or another so another person’s face is visible.
Tell me about the photo of the boy with the roller skates. Did you know him?
I didn’t know the boy with the roller skates. I was walking to the subway, passing by a small grocery store and this boy was seated, putting on his skates, bathed in sunlight. Usually I ask to take a photo, this time I just took it, wanting to catch the beautiful “Norman Rockwell” reminiscent moment of a kid trying on their new pair of skates.
After Bushwick, do you have a second favorite Brooklyn neighborhood to photograph?
In general, I don’t go places to take photographs, I photograph where I am going. So, my street photographs are of the places I’ve lived or paths between where I live, work and wander. Next to Bushwick, some of the other neighborhoods I photographed with intensity were the Upper West Side and the walk between the school where I taught near Stuy Town and Chelsea from 2002 to 2010.
Do you live in Brooklyn?
As an artist and (now retired) public school teacher, without “deep pockets,” affordable housing opportunities have made it possible for me to live in NYC since 1975. I lived in a rent-stabilized apartment in Park Slope from 1984 to 2002. From there I moved to Penn South in Chelsea, a working socialist model limited-equity, affordable-housing-community-stabilized apartment.
When is your new book Bushwick Landscapes coming out? How does it compare to Disco Era Bushwick?
Bushwick Landscapes will be an ebook. It is on hold for now. As a printer’s daughter, I am really more interested in producing beautiful, hard-cover bound books. I am focusing on the publicity, promotion and sales of my new book Purgatory & Paradise Sassy ‘70s Suburbia & The City (Bizarre Publishing 2015). Sassy ‘70s is actually the prequel to Disco Era Bushwick.
It is a photographic memoir, a coming of age story about the Long Island suburbs where I grew up, and moving to NYC in the ‘70s. The reactions to the photos of Bushwick in the ‘80s, questions of why I found humor and loving relationships amidst a community in strife, why I see and photograph as I do are influenced by where I come from socially, spiritually, emotionally and physically.
The School Yard Fence Face to Face. Bushwick, May 1983. © Meryl Meisler Photography
Boyz to Men. Bushwick, October 1982. © Meryl Meisler Photography
Jose and Classmate in Schoolyard Chillin’. Bushwick, June 1982. © Meryl Meisler Photography
Pink Twins. Bushwick, circa 1983. © Meryl Meisler Photography
Handshake. Bushwick, September 1984. © Meryl Meisler Photography
Neighbors Chat Through Window. Bushwick, June 1982. © Meryl Meisler Photography
Beauty Salon. Bushwick, circa 1984. © Meryl Meisler Photography
High Hat Hands Raised. Bushwick, April 1982. © Meryl Meisler Photography
Roller Skates. Bushwick, circa 1984. © Meryl Meisler Photography
Boy in a Tire. Bushwick, 1984. © Meryl Meisler Photography
Sherlock’s Shadow. Bushwick, circa 1984. © Meryl Meisler Photography
Man Holding Crutches and OJ With Bushwick HS in Background. Bushwick, May 1982. © Meryl Meisler Photography
Open Jaw Bulldozer. Bushwick, April 1983. © Meryl Meisler Photography
Additionally, Meisler has upcoming book presentations and signings (2 out of 3 in Manhattan, alas) on Wednesday, November 11, from 7 to 9p.m. at the Christopher Stout Gallery (299 Meserole Street) in East Williamsburg, as well as Monday, November 16, from 4 to 6 p.m. at the B&H Event Space (420 9th Avenue), and Thursday, November 17th, from 7 to 9 p.m. at Breslin Liberty Hall (16 West 29th Street).
[Photos: Meryl Meisler]
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