A panel of Bushwick old timers drew a crowd to the Brooklyn Historical Society last night to discuss what it was like living and working in the neighborhood during the late 1970s and early 80’s. Brooklyn’s On Fire: Bushwick is Burning spotlighted the various components of a recipe for disastrous neighborhood decline: the blackout of 1977; the fires lit every night by crooked landlords, bored teenagers, and desperate residents alike; de jure and de facto racism; slumlords and the drastic demographic shifts they fueled; and shady real estate brokers.
But in focusing on the Bushwick-of-then versus the Bushwick-of-now, much of the discussion sugarcoated the changes in the neighborhood and failed to acknowledge the parallels between past and present, preferring instead to draw a distinct line between the two.
Save for Jonathan Mahler (New York Times writer and author of Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning), everyone on the panel was in some way directly connected to the Bushwick of the ’70s. Meryl Meisler, a teacher-turned-photographer, was placed at a public school in Bushwick from 1981 to 1994. She shared photographs of her neighbors and urban blight taken from her book, A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick.
A retired fire marshal, John Knox, worked on a special task force in the mid-’60s aimed at putting an end to the rampant arson plaguing Bushwick. Two others, Carl St. Martin, and John Dereszewski (former District Manager of the local Community Board) lived in Bushwick at the time. Martin Needelman, an attorney, helped tenants in Bushwick fight back against slumlords.
Dereszewski described a neighborhood that was “in a terrible crisis,” made worse by neglect from the city. “There were streets where every single house on the block was abandoned, like Greene Avenue,” he recalled. Meisler, a schoolteacher at the time, said her first impression of the neighborhood was of total hopelessness. “There were lots of fires and people were always moving,” she explained as she clicked through photographs projected behind her of burnt out buildings and rubble.
Knox interrupted her. “I was at some of those fires,” he said. “My heart went out to those people, there were times when I just wanted to cry seeing people in the street after losing everything they had.” When asked how he thought things had gotten so bad in Bushwick, Knox replied that the majority Black and Latino populations, “didn’t have a voice.”
Redlining and blockbusting were also major contributors to urban decay in Bushwick. Knox explained that redlining (when insurance companies jack up prices for insuring buildings in areas heavily populated by minorities) was a racket– landlords and insurers would team up to burn down homes and collect insurance money, destroying tenants’ lives in the process.
For the panel, the blackout of 1977 and the looting and arson that would follow, marked rock bottom for Bushwick. Carl St. Martin (a medical student at the time) was in his apartment when the lights went out. “You heard everybody gasp,” he recalled. “I decided it was time to stop studying.”
He went out onto the street to find that less than a half hour after the power had failed, his neighbors started looting stores on Broadway. Some of them were covered in cuts and scrapes after breaking down the gates. Concerned, he made his way to the hospital to lend a hand. “I learned how to suture that night,” he said.
Eventually fires erupted, destroying huge swaths of the neighborhood. “The ironic thing was that it put Bushwick on the map,” Dereszewski explained. “It prompted the administration to take action there, it sparked a period of [city] involvement.”
The general consensus amongst the panel members was that things had only improved from there. Public housing had been built, economic activity once again flourished along Broadway, (“even the drugs came back,” St. Martin joked) and eventually artists and creative types moved into the hood. The end.
Well, not exactly. “A lot of exciting things are happening in Bushwick, but it’s pushing the poorer people out,” Dereszewski acknowledged. An audience member stood up and clapped loudly before Dereszewski continued. “There are a lot of rent stabilized units in Bushwick and often people come in who are willing to pay more and don’t even bother to find out if they’re living in a rent stabilized apartment.”
At this point, the contrast between the Bushwick-of-then and the Bushwick-of-now suddenly became less stark. Distinctions began to blur. Martin Needelman, who continues to work as an attorney representing tenants around the city, recalled the ways in which landlords would harass tenants until they moved out of their homes. In the ’70s, it was blockbusting that fueled white flight by singling out families of color who were newcomers to a neighborhood as seedlings of decay. Brokers and real estate agents encouraged white families to sell their homes at low costs before it was “too late.” The Hasidic community was notorious for singling out Latino newcomers and harassing families until they moved away.
Needelman said that today, though the endgame is different (landlords force out low-rent tenants in favor of high paying newcomers), the means are the same. He recalled an incident back in the ’70s where a landlord offered him thousands of dollars to convince his client to leave the building. When Needelman refused the bribe, the landlord sent someone back to throw a Molotov cocktail through a window. The building caught fire. “It’s crazy,” he said. “Because it’s the same tactics today.”
Incidents of tenant harassment are all too common, and the sense of instability they inspire isn’t too far from the insecurity residents felts in the ’70s. While disgruntled landlords are probably more reluctant to burn down a (now much more valuable) building today, they’ve proven to be just as flippant as their predecessors were about the lives of the people they’re hoping to force out.
When those tenants do leave, the loss of rent-regulated units and affordable housing will be comparably as damaging to the fabric of the city as those incidents of arson were. It’s shocking to hear that, after 40 years, the same problems remain. But hopefully this time around low-income residents won’t have to wait for a crisis like the blackout to happen before the city pays attention.