Danielle De Jesus is surprisingly level-headed when talking about how gentrification has affected her family and her community. The 27-year-old artist was born and raised in Bushwick and has seen the neighborhood change dramatically over the past several years. Her photographs, part of a one-day-only exhibition, “Made in Bushwick,” happening at the Living Gallery this Thursday evening, capture a neighborhood most newcomers might never have seen and the stark contrast between old and new.
Though Danielle admits that most of Bushwick might be well beyond repair at this point — in some ways the neighborhood might never get back to the one she knew growing up — she’s not wholly resistant to change. But she hopes her photographs will serve as a way for people to think about what’s in danger of disappearing and the impact unbridled real estate development can have on a community.
It’s kind of a funny story. I went there during Bushwick Open Studios a couple years ago and I left a piece of work up on the wall because they asked the public to post their stuff. And it was just a frame that I got at the dollar store and I put just a print inside, but it wasn’t the correct size of the frame, so I filled the rest of the frame with a statement about being from Bushwick and a photo of my mom and I. It was just really raw and really rugged looking. I left it there and never went back to pick it up. But they posted it on Instagram and asked if anyone knew who the artist was, so my friend who follows them tagged me. And then they contacted me and offered me a show.
There will be a few paintings. I didn’t want to put too many in because I didn’t want to distract too much from the photographs. There will be a few Etch A Sketches not related to Bushwick stuff but still related to Brooklyn.
Most of them are street photos. I know a lot of the people who are in the photos so it was really easy for me to say, “Hey, can I take your picture?” And being from there, it’s really easy for me to approach someone. So, some of it was set up and some of it wasn’t.
Yeah, that’s pretty much it. I just go out there and just see what I can get. Sometimes when I have my camera with me I see something that reminds me of the old Bushwick I knew and I’m like, I have to capture this because I might not see it anymore.
Oh yeah, it’s definitely coming towards Ridgewood. I don’t believe the changes are going to be as quick as it was in Bushwick because a lot of the homes are owned by the families that live in them, so it makes it a little bit difficult for the transition to happen there. But I am seeing it. I’ve been there for almost a year, and I’m seeing new buildings popping up and the fronts of the buildings changing, and the doors getting fancier.
But when I was in Bushwick, I felt like it was one day to another, I woke up and it was happening. I remember the first time I noticed it, I was sitting on the stoop with all my friends growing up, like we did every day. I remember the first time we saw a person who was clearly not from the neighborhood and he had the big beard, you know? [Laughs] And the big round glasses. He just stuck out like a sore thumb. And everyone stopped and stared at him, and I had sunflower seeds in my hand and a Honey Bun– which is sort of the typical snack I would say– and I remember this dude passing by and everyone stopped mid-conversation and stared at him until he disappeared into the distance and we just continued our conversation like nothing had ever happened. Like, what the heck? OK, whatever. And that was the beginning of it.
And eventually my mom and I were waking up early from construction, even in her own building. My mom was the only one left when the landlord was renovating the other apartments when we were there. And then we started getting crazy roaches and mice in the space because they had nowhere else to go! [Laughs] They were all kicked out.
In Bushwick I feel like there really is a clear divide between some of the arts initiatives and the existing community there, but do you think there are some art things happening– like obviously Living Gallery is a good example– but anything else that’s bridging the gap or trying to promote a more inclusive environment?
Um. Not that I know of, other than the Living Gallery. At first I thought it was weird they would open their space for parties and this and that, and then I was like you know what, that’s pretty awesome. Because a lot of the galleries and places that are opening in Bushwick and other places like Bushwick don’t open their doors to people from the community. They’re not making it a community space. It’s more like, this is our gallery. The fact that Nyssa [Frank, owner and director of the Living Gallery] is opening up the space is pretty cool and I don’t see it that often, which is really sad because that’s what should be happening.
But even I sometimes feel uncomfortable going into places. This bar named Tutu’s is also pretty good for that, they have a party downstairs that’s a dance party where they play hip-hop and reggae and Top 40, as opposed to just house music. And that’s pretty cool.
Well, I have to say the local supermarket. My mom isn’t in the greatest health, so she can’t go out to other supermarkets and look for ones that are less expensive. Our local supermarket has transformed completely, it’s not even the same one I grew up with. Nobody can even afford to get a cart full of food anymore. And she can’t find the traditional foods we grew up with, stuff from Puerto Rico that I have to buy in Ridgewood because the market doesn’t have them anymore. And seeing some of the bodegas go away and the thrift shops where families could afford to buy clothes for their kids, but now it’s all swanky and too expensive for them now.
I guess things like that, it’s really difficult to see them go. But more than anything it’s my neighbors. We had a real community going on and there’s something really magical about standing outside a building and hanging out, enjoying snacks, and talking till late at night. And knowing that you could sit at the front of the building and your friends are coming in an hour. I miss all of that, and the music, and knowing everyone– my mom’s neighbors change every few months now. She meets them and they’re gone.
Yeah, that’s what I’m hoping for. I’m hoping people will take a look at what Bushwick was once and maybe want to be part of it as opposed to changing things up. It’s already kind of too late for that, but I hope people will talk about the work and maybe see things they haven’t seen.
There’s one particular photo or little series of photos of this guy named Carmelo, he was living in a basement and he got thrown out. It’s really crazy to see how he was living and see that’s all that he had and that little bit was taken away from him and a few years later he passed away. He was living in my mom’s basement. And my mom’s basement is a slum. She obviously doesn’t own it, she rents, but she has the keys to the basement. So it’s like this guy can either sleep out on the street or sleep in the boiler room in the basement, which looked like something out of a horror movie. But it’s that type of stuff I want people to see, because they’ve probably never seen it.
A lot of people probably really did come over for cheap rent and now it’s becoming something else, but maybe people could see these are humans that were living here and everything was just kind of stripped away, whether they intended it to be or not. And it’s no one’s fault in particular, but it’s just the way the changes happen. Even now, my building I live in now you could look at as a product of gentrification and I wonder who lived here before? I wonder if they were bought out. I wonder if they got stuck in shelters or were they given a fair amount of money to move out. You know these people are going somewhere and I want my photos to make people think who was there? What was their story? when you’re sitting in your fancy living room. [Laughs]
“Made in Bushwick” opens at the Living Gallery (1094 Broadway in Bushwick) at 6 pm, Thursday, April 2 and is on view until 10 pm.