I lived in Brooklyn for almost three years. I paid $1100 a month to live with two others in an area not far from the Brooklyn museum. I paid half for my own apartment in Berlin. It’s through this economic lens that I and many I know experience Brooklyn; holding on to a cheap apartment before the landlord decides to sell, dealing with bedbugs (twice), holes in the wall that took months to fix while tripling in size, and rats showing up to roam freely in the kitchen. Sometimes I had to wonder why I was shelling out my high rent acquiring significant student loan debt. One month before I left our kitchen sink almost exploded when mud and dirt flew out of it onto the ceiling. I looked to the blog Brokelyn for advice – a ‘post-crash survival guide devoted to living the best possible life in Brooklyn regardless of one’s means.’
But whatever I did to survive in Brooklyn I knew it was nothing compared to the bombed out recession 70s I learned about at NYU graduate school. I read that in one year – 1980 – New York City had almost 2,000 murders. So who were the artists specific to Brooklyn chronicling this time period? Who not only survived but thrived, capturing images of children playing among the debris of 1980s Bushwick as well as a more buoyant 1960s Williamsburg.
Brooklyn Photographs at BRIC near downtown Brooklyn opens September 7 featuring eleven photographers who capture the varied Brooklyn neighborhoods in a ‘rapidly gentrifying post-industrial landscape’. Change is the operative word prominent in descriptions of an exhibition thorough in its visual examination of the borough’s significant cultural history, diversity and camaraderie in adversity and celebration. “Gentrification makes neighborhoods unaffordable, and undermines many of their unique qualities” states the photographer Meryl Meisler who visually explores Bushwick in the troubled 80s. “Once a photograph is taken, the vision captures a bygone moment. The pace of change in Brooklyn is rapid.” One of her photo books contrasts scenes of Bushwick, Brooklyn with imagery from the partying nights (and early mornings!) of club Studio 54 in Manhattan – a true Tale of Two Cities. Next to Disco Era Bushwick Meryl also has a photo book juxtaposing her wacky family life in Long Island with Manhattan nightlife and Fire Island parties - Purgatory & Paradise: SASSY ’70s Suburbia & The City. Meryl told me: “Among the photographers in the exhibit and gallery talk are Larry Racioppo and George Malave. Larry, George and I met in recent years because of a common thread that connects and obsesses us – we were all C.E.T.A.photographers in the late ‘70s. [Note: Through an overseeing Foundation the Comprehensive Employment Training Act actually employed New York artists, the largest federal arts employment program since the WPA - the Works Progress Administration of 1933. The program was defunded in 1980.] This is the first time Larry, George and I are in an exhibit together, and it will be important for us to talk about C.E.T.A.’s impact on our life’s work.” Brooklyn – with all its complexity and current economic tensions appears to be very well captured in this thorough and timely exhibition. The photos preserve its turbulent history with humour, insight and delicate humanity. When I was living there I remember navigating the large borough by bike. Cruising past what seemed endless constructions of new tall residential ‘communities’ sprouting among beautiful brownstones – I wondered about its future. Will these photos make a difference? In her recent iN-Public interview Meryl eloquently states: ‘Photography is another expression of spirituality, living with purpose, questioning and seeking appreciative wonder.’