Boswijk: A Bushwick Archive
From the Jefferson Street station in the North Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick, the L Train makes nine stops in the 20-minute ride to Union Square in Manhattan. To get to the Jefferson Street stop from my apartment on Suydam Street, I must walk north through Maria Hernandez Park. The largest green space in Bushwick, Maria Hernandez Park is integral to the neighborhood community. This park has made the greatest impact on my living experience in Bushwick. It’s distinctive as a community space for many different people, both old and newly-arrived. My work in photography is focused on the neighborhood surrounding Maria Hernandez Park. My goal is to capture the spirit of this place and its people.
Maria Hernandez Park is a small square park just under seven acres, and provides a space of tranquility for the neighborhood. On a typical summer evening walking through the park at sunset, it’s not unusual to see any number of people merely enjoying life… a large group of family and friends playing volleyball, couples relaxing on the grass, joggers, a game of handball, an older woman selling piragua (snow cones), and skateboarders.
In 1638, the area that is now Bushwick was purchased by West Indian Company from the Native Americans. The Dutch settlers formed the town Boswijk, meaning “heavy woods” or “town of woods.” By 1888, the construction of the Myrtle Avenue Elevated Railroad, (now the JMZ) spurred industrial and residential development in the area. Bushwick remained a working- class industrial neighborhood throughout the 20th century. In the 1930s and '40s the German population started to move out and was replaced by Italians. During the '50s, '60s, and 70s, as wealthier people migrated to the suburbs after World War II, the neighborhood demographic included rising populations of African-Americans and Latino immigrants.[i]
In the late 20th century, Bushwick suffered immensely from years of neglect, housing abandonment, arson and a drug epidemic. The 1970s were a turbulent time for New York City. After years of neglect and cuts in social services, the industrial streets of Bushwick were deteriorating. In Meryl Meisler’s 2014 photo book, A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick, Bushwick historian John A. Dereszewski explains the dynamics affecting Bushwick in the 1970s. He writes, “The central core of Bushwick was experiencing deep and critical decline. Rapid population change was occurring in the inferior housing stock that was now occupied by an extremely poor population. The mostly non-resident owners of these properties were providing minimal maintenance and allowing building conditions to deteriorate. By 1970, a pattern of housing abandonment, frequently accompanied by arson, was already occurring and would only accelerate as the decade continued.”[ii]
In July 1977, a massive fire broke out on Knickerbocker Avenue and Bleaker Street that left Bushwick nearly burned to the ground. The mostly black and Latino neighborhood was devastated from the looting and frequent arson that followed. The “all hands fire” garnered extensive media attention and put Bushwick on the map.
Today Bushwick is home to over one hundred thousand residents. The neighborhood is predominantly Puerto Rican, although it does have a significant African-American and Dominican population. Nearly seventy percent of the population is Hispanic, mainly Puerto Rican and Dominican, with a sizable South American population. Bushwick is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the New York City area. Fifty-six percent of Bushwick households earn less than $39,000 and 33% earn less than $18,000. Over 86% of Bushwick residents are renters. Nearly a quarter of Bushwick households spend more than half of their income on rent.[iii]
The gentrification of Bushwick gained momentum in the early 2000’s and has intensified in the past few years. Lance Freeman, in his 2006 bookThere Goes the ‘Hood, cites William Van Vliet’s definition of gentrification, “The process by which central urban neighborhoods that have undergone disinvestments and economic decline experience a reversal, reinvestment, and the in-migration of a relatively well-off middle and upper middle-class population.”[iv]
Gentrification reflects large social issues prevalent throughout America, such as income inequality, discrimination, and unregulated housing. The lack of regulation amongst property owners has driven up prices without creating enough affordable housing to meet the needs of many families throughout the five boroughs. Additionally, property owners make ‘gut renovations’ on the many existing row houses in Bushwick, involving the illegal eviction of residents in order to strip the interiors and create a desirable aesthetic for prospective higher income tenants. Gut renovations rarely reinforce the structural integrity of the building, improve fire safety, or the building’s energy efficiency. More often than not, some paint is slapped on the wall, and new hardwood floors and appliances are installed.
Through my photographs, I intend to give voice to the dichotomy between past and present in Bushwick. As physical evidence of change, I intend these photographs to be seen as proof of the past in comparison to the on-going gentrification and transformation of a community soul. Meryl Meisler’s photographs allow us to peel back the layers of time to see how far Bushwick has come since that night in July 1977. Decades from now, my photographs will be visual artifacts from this “present”.
[ii] Meisler, Meryl. A Tale of Two Cities : Disco Era Bushwick.1st ed. Brooklyn NY: Bizarre Publishing, 2014. 11.
[iii] "Make the Road New York | Who We Are." Accessed February 1, 2015.http://www.maketheroad.org/whoweare_aboutourcommunity.php.
[iv] Freeman, Lance.There Goes the 'Hood: Views of Gentrification from the Ground up. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2006. p. 29.