Defying Devastation: Bushwick in the 80s

The first night of Bushwick Open Studios saw many thrilling openings, but a highlight among them was Defying Devastation: Bushwick in the 80s at The Living Gallery at 1087 Flushing Avenue. The show features photographs by Meryl Meisler, accompanied by stories from Vanessa Martir, who grew up in a bleaker era of Bushwick as seen in Meryl’s photos.

I recently spoke with Meryl as she installed Defying Devastation at The Living Gallery. The self-described “habitual photographer” documented the devastation she saw on her way to and from work when she began teaching art here in 1981. At the time, Bushwick was a poor and crime-ridden neighborhood, with many abandoned buildings literally in ruins. “Coming to Bushwick from my background – growing up in Long Island and living in the City – when I arrived here I had certainly never seen anything like it in my life. It was very different from the world I had been photographing.”

However, it wasn’t the desolation and violence of Bushwick that Meryl was interested in documenting, as much as the beauty among the ruins. “You do not see photos of crackheads. I did not photograph people who were really high and seemed dangerous. I did not go into buildings that were condemned. I did not step on the crack vials… I guess looking back, I photographed things that I found uplifting. Why I even chose to stay and work here, and what I enjoyed about it very much was the human spirit. The beauty that I did see – in the light on the buildings, and the people, and things coming up out of nowhere – things that I found personal delight and curiosity in is what I recorded.”

In 2011, thirty years after she began photographing Bushwick, Meryl displayed them in a show at Soho Photo Gallery. An online feature about the show prompted writer Vanessa Martir to get in touch Meryl after Vanessa recognized herself in one of the photos. As Meryl tells the story, Vanessa had been talking to a class of students from Bushwick High School about how much Bushwick had changed since her childhood, when the teacher recommended that she check out the Bushwick Daily feature of Meryl’s show. “So she’s watching this audiovisual slideshow and there’s she is! That’s her! [Meryl points to a photograph of a young girl playing jump rope.] It just blew her mind. It totally threw her for a loop.”

When Meryl and Vanessa met they felt an immediate connection over their shared histories. “We hit it off immediately. Because my pictures tell her story. Her stories tell my pictures.” It wasn’t long after they met that they decided to put on a collaborative show featuring Meryl’s photos and Vanessa’s stories.

Nyssa Frank, the owner of The Living Gallery, loved the idea so much that she agreed to host Meryl and Vanessa’s show for Bushwick Open Studios before her gallery had even opened. “They exemplify everything I want to do. I really want to bridge this gap between the “us and them” mentality, in the sense of young white people coming in and living in Bushwick, the gentrification that’s happening… I really want to celebrate the community and give the community a platform.”

The Living Gallery is hosting several events throughout the weekend for Bushwick Open Studios. Tonight, Vanessa will perform a reading of her stories inspired by her childhood in Bushwick and Meryl will do a gallery talk. Other BOS weekend events include live salsa music with a performance by the PS123 Ballroom Dancers, Latin, African and Hip-hop dance by El Puente, DJ sets by Bushwick’s own Wilson Meredith, and a bike tour of local farms culminating with a beer and food tasting at the Gallery.

You can check out Defying Devastation: Bushwick in the 80s during BOS weekend and through June 25. For more information, visit the-living-gallery.com or merylmeisler.com.

All photographs by Meryl Meisler. Written by Lili Rusing (@lilirusing).

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