A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick in Photos

October 16, 2014 at 2:21 pm

MetroFocus reporter Jenna Flanagan retraces teacher and photographer Meryl Meisler‘s walk from the subway to work in a formerly decimated part of the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Meryl Meisler first stepped off the subway at  the intersection of Myrtle and Wyckoff Avenues in December of 1981. She was about to start a full-time job as a public school art teacher in the neighborhood that hadn’t recovered from the riots four years earlier.

“Almost everything is boarded up. I don’t think I even saw anyone on the street. It looked like there was a war the week before, and it was just quiet, and in my head I thought, ‘Perhaps the other art teacher was killed,'” said Meisler. “The neighborhood itself was obviously traumatized, but there was unbelievable resilience in the children. Here are these kids coming in every day, and they were beautiful. They really had a lot of pride, and a lot of passion.”

After years of documenting the 70s disco club scene in Manhattan, Meisler decided she needed to document what she was seeing on the streets of Bushwick.

“I bought one of the first cheap point-issue cameras, and just walking to school from the subway and walking back, I would take pictures of things that I found uplifting. I usually do ask permission photographing, and most people say yes because I think they saw I was recognizing something fabulous about them,” said Meisler.

“Certainly saw my share of drug addicts and alcoholics. That’s not what I want to photograph. I looked for people that I thought were fantastic. Or a building that told a story, and the lighting was part of it as well. There was so much natural light. It was gorgeous natural light. It took looking at the disco work now that like I was in an artificial environment, at nighttime with a flash and here, ‘Ah, this beautiful natural light.'”

Meisler kept her photo project private for decades. In 2007, she showed some of them in local galleries and then she got the idea to pair them with her images from the 1970s nightclubs.

“I just knew immediately it’s a tale of two cities. This was my experience, and this is how these worlds came together, and this is how they need to be,” she said. “It was like a concentration game. I saw an image, in my negatives, and I said: match! Match set! So, putting match sets together. There was no time to think, just do it fast. Grace Jones standing like that: match with the girl in the graduation outfit. I knew that! Match set, immediately. And when I saw the Studio 54 pictures, because I never really looked through these at all, and I said this, ah, that goes with the kids.”

As reporter Jenna Flanagan retraced Meisler’s commute from the Myrtle Wyckoff station up Palmetto Street, she was still taking pictures. She photographed one young man who appeared to be meditating while sitting on the curb.

“That was a perfect example of how friendly people are,” Flanagan said to Meisler. “I’m wondering if having been a teacher gave you that ‘in’ for the community? Because in some of those shots it almost looks as if the kids – even if they didn’t know you – seemed somehow familiar with you.”

“Well, if you were in a neighborhood for a while, you see kids grow up, and you know the next generation, and you know their cousins. You know, that’s part of being part of a school community,” Meisler replied.

Meisler never tires of talking about Bushwick or the kids in the family she came to know. She retired from teaching and now lives in Manhattan, but she still returns to Bushwick.

“This is a place where I came to do a job, and found myself,” Meisler concluded.

Meisler hopes to follow up her book A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick by tracking down and photographing as many of the young people that appeared in her photos to find out, what became of the kids of disco-era Bushwick.