(All photos: Meryl Meisler)

The ’70s were a wild time to be in Bushwick: following a major blackout in 1977, shops and homes were devastated in a wave of riots and looting. Meryl Meisler began teaching art at a public school there in 1981 and spent her early adulthood capturing both the hedonistic disco scene of Manhattan and the bombed-out streets of de-industrializing North Brooklyn. The native New Yorker’s snapshots, taken during the height of the city’s crack epidemic, will go on display Friday as part of Bushwick Open Studios.

“It wasn’t work, it was play,” Meisler explains, laughing. “It was my life.” She eventually accumulated boxes of photographs, which remained in storage for decades. In 2007, a stranger asked her to contribute to an exhibition at the Brooklyn Historical Society. “After the show was over I realized how amazing this body of work was,” Meisler recalls. “And there was so much of it.”

An exhibition of selected works from this period (both Meisler’s Bushwick stash and her disco nightlife shots) will appear this Friday as an exhibition for BOS, and also as a book, Disco Era Bushwick: A Tale of Two Cities. We spoke to Meisler, now in the Art Education department at NYU, about the significance of the photographs and the life behind the lens. Click through the slideshow to see the photos and share her musings.

<strong>High Hat</strong> (photo at top of this post) and <strong>DJ Spinning</strong> (photo immediately above)

High Hat (photo at top of this post) and DJ Spinning (photo immediately above)

I felt like this was a very defined period: in one small place in one city, in a span of a few years—such distinct, almost polar opposites [Bushwick and Manhattan], within two miles of each other. And yet they’re not! Because the way I’ve placed the work you’ll see someone could be raising their arm up at the elbow and somebody else is raising their arm up at the elbow—they seem to echo each other, compliment each other.

You know when we talk about a tale of two cities now, the haves and the have-nots, it’s an epic tale, it continues. It’s a human condition, but one that we have to always continue to work on.

This was a reality that I was in: one thing, one experience—my work in Bushwick—informed how I saw the rest.

<strong>Boyz to Men</strong>

Boyz to Men

Most people who think of images of Bushwick in the '80s and '70s think of drugs and crime. And that’s not what I sought out. I sought out people finding the joys of life. I avoided the drugs culture, although I did photograph that in the disco scene.

I worked in the neighborhood for 14 years, I was there for the long haul. I was taking note of the things that I found uplifting. People are survivors. It’s instinct to play and to be friendly, to take joy and to strive upward. I think that’s natural.

<strong>Last Wall</strong>

Last Wall

In ’81, we already saw that they were taking down burned-out buildings and starting reconstruction. I photographed a whole lot of housing going up. So, there were new buildings in 1983, but it takes 20 years to build a community. A building does not make a community; rebirth is not just a physical thing. It’s people wanting to be in the neighborhood, taking pride in it—wearing shirts that say “Bushwick!”

Nothing stays the same. This we know from life; when you look in the mirror, when you take a picture, visit places you’ve been before. Nothing stays the same. But change can also be good, a positive. Life is a cycle; but it takes a lot of human effort to make those cycles happen.

When I walk around Bushwick now, I feel very at home. When I went back in 2007, I felt very much like, "I know where I am." And I saw the change; I thought it was positive. Where there were empty lots and garbage, now I saw houses. Hey—it’s happening! It’s a happening place now. But I also like to go into a bodega, go to a restaurant that’s been there for 20 years, and have a café con leche.

<strong>Awake! La Atalaya [The Watchtower]</strong>

Awake! La Atalaya [The Watchtower]

This was taken right by Myrtle-Wyckoff station. Even at the time when I took the photograph, it looked like a throwback. It looked like "Guys and Dolls." The Salvation Army people standing at the corner.

At that time she reminded me of a very old-fashioned look. But even now—I was just in Long Island visiting family the other day, and there are people with The Watchtower [a Jehovah’s Witness illustrated magazine] there that reminded me of the same thing. I have literally gone to that same spot in Bushwick, at Myrtle-Wyckoff, and there was a man standing in the same spot with The Watchtower literature. And I took a picture of him; almost like I was having a replay, a time-warp!

That’s my next project—I want to go back and find other people in the photographs and see what they’re up to now.

<strong>Sherlock’s Shadow</strong>

Sherlock’s Shadow

That was probably off of Palmetto Street, I’m not exactly sure of the cross-street—it’s a little towards Ridgewood. And he was just there. Immediately he looked like Sherlock Holmes to me, wearing a sheepskin jacket, which was very popular at the time, and he was just like that. There.

A couple of times when I’ve shown that picture, people thought it was me—people thought it was a self-portrait! That picture I’ve actually painted on. At some point I was like, what am I going to do with all these pictures? I can’t take a million of them. So I started painting on some of them. But that’s the real shadow, there’s nothing altered in it.

That’s something that’s always intrigued me about Bushwick, and that’s why I’m not surprised that there’s all these artists now—because the low scale of the buildings means there’s beautiful light!

They did a really good job in rebuilding, to make new buildings fit in the scale of the older ones, so they’re not towering infernos. There are very few buildings over five or six stories and its very, very beautiful light.

<strong>Beauty Salon</strong>

Beauty Salon

The last time I showed that would’ve been 1984. I love that. When I saw it, when I saw the little boy there, I thought—Walker Evans. At that moment, I recalled Walker Evans. It looked like a picture that he would’ve taken. I think that’s a beautiful image.

I was most inspired by Diane Arbus, and Henri Lartigue—he was a French photographer and he photographed as a child. He photographed his family, his friends. I feel like my work goes back and forth between the two of them.

Lartigue's work was almost like a snapshot in some way. Whereas Diane Arbus was more, not staged but a stable moment. Henri Lartigue photographed people in action. Walking the streets of Bushwick at the time, with the children, I thought of Helen Levitt’s work; and I was wholly conscious of Walker Evans in this moment, at the beauty parlor.

<strong>The Schoolyard Fence</strong>

The Schoolyard Fence

That’s one of the more recent ones that I just scanned and I thought it was such a strange picture. I started getting out the photographs in 2007 and I feel like I have to look at them again and again and again to see the subtleties. And that’s a very special moment.

I knew these kids: they were my students. They were just hanging out and talking. And the schoolyard—I mean, there were no playgrounds at the time. All the playgrounds were destroyed. And they were hanging out just doing their teen thing. And he’s looking at the girl—a little flirting. That’s one thing I remember: even though the neighborhood was a wreck, the kids were spotless. Spotless. So into style, so well groomed. They would’ve killed somebody if they stood on their sneakers, or took their jacket. They had such style. They’re beautiful. They really have a lot of pride. It’s a very subtle picture in some ways. I’m so glad I didn’t throw these away!



(Photo: Meryl Meisler)

“A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick,” May 30 to Sept. 10 (opening reception May 30 from 7 p.m. to 4 a.m.) at Bizarre Black Box Gallery, 12 Jefferson St, Bushwick