Heading through Queens, my friend slows the car to indicate the spot where her Mom got mugged under the train tracks on payday, not long after they moved to the area from Romania. We move past her childhood stoop, and eventually press into the weed-strewn blocks of Bushwick, surrounded by crumbling warehouses with dark windows that stare into the distance, lost in a dusty memory.
What was once the site of a Dutch settlement, evolved into a thriving enclave of breweries that later abandoned the area, prompting a major shift in the socioeconomic base. With this, came increased unemployment, a prevalence of violent crime and petty theft, and corner drug deals in broad daylight.
On July 13, 1977, a string of events sparked by a bolt of lightening left New York City in complete darkness. With a metropolis that was already on the brink of bankruptcy, thousands of locals took to the humid streets, rioting and looting, leaving the devastated Broadway area of Bushwick nearly burned to the ground. In the years that followed, walking through the neighbourhood was reminiscent of treading a path through post-WWII bombed-out Berlin (search Bushwick in the 1980s to get an idea).
Access to cheap rent in enormous buildings with exposed brick and prime studio space began to attract artists, musicians and designers. Slowly, the area moved through another transition, which leads us to our current parking spot at the intersection of Troutman Street and Scott Avenue.
Vibrant murals beckon from all sides, with visual narratives streaming from creative minds and hands from across the globe. The Notorious B.I.G. gazes coolly from reflective wayfarers, while a sweater-clad dog turns away from a disapproving man in a dark suit. A small boy is concentrating on his turquoise words of inspiration that he is spraying onto the sidewalk, while a masked man explodes from a cityscape, fist wrapped around a length of barbed wire.
The bulk of the surrounding imagery is attributed to The Bushwick Collective – an ever-evolving city canvas of painted works by local artists, along with an international roster from Iran to Australia. The collection is curated by Bushwick native Joseph Ficalora, who initially sought to pay tribute to his neighbourhood, along with the memory of his mother and the time that they spent together in the area.
Artists who have an interest in collaborating with the collective must first move through a vetting process by submitting documentation of three examples of recent artwork, along with a proposal for a concept prior to being able to paint. If chosen, the candidates are contacted by Ficalora and offered a designated wall.
While street art, graffiti and wheat paste pieces maintain a prolific presence in Bushwick, the area has also seen the development of a thriving hospitality scene including cafes, restaurants and bars.
The Rookery is housed in a converted warehouse on Troutman Street and offers a menu that is reflective of the British heritage of owner Jamie Schmitz. Together with a selection of local artisans and craftspeople, the space was constructed employing well-considered touches including vintage lighting, a mahogany bar and handmade steel doors that open onto an invigorating patio. On Sundays, the menu features an outdoor cookout, along with the everyday stellar soundtrack and engaging staff.
Finishing up our wine, we round the corner and stop off at The Cobra Club that exists as a community-focused yoga centre and coffee shop by day, and magically transforms to include all of the vice-filled goodness of a beloved dive bar by night. Make sure to save some change from your buy-backs as you’ll definitely want to plug a few dollars into the jukebox.
A few tunes later, we float like cartoon cats following the aroma of duck fat potatoes and fried chicken at Montana’s Trail House. The room is half full of bearded men and tattooed ladies, and we settle into a two-top near a wall-mounted taxidermy deer head.
The interiors are comprised of reclaimed wood, rustic countertops and bits of Americana – a far cry from the auto repair shop that once occupied the space.
If a late night is what you’re after, the main bar (known as the Tack Room) is open until 4am, with the nearby Jefferson L stop on stanby to whisk you off to slumber away the rest of the day. Sidenote: a few drinks in, you’ll want to take stock of the saloon doors on the bathroom and leave your modesty at home.
As it often goes, this exciting expansion is coupled with rapid gentrification, rising real estates prices, and a community that has banded together in the interest of preserving the qualities and price points that help to make the area home. These changes can also be seen in the farther reaches of Bushwick, with artist studios and coffee shops emerging from the same gritty sidewalks that I walked when I lived in the area roughly six years ago.
Given this, the hope is that the thriving street and graffiti art scene in Bushwick is a permanent fixture, and that the area doesn’t fall prey to the same interests that led to the death of 5 Pointz in Long Island City, Queens.
This aerosol art centre and outdoor exhibit space, once located across from the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, was whitewashed and demolished to make way for two high rise condominium towers valued at $400 million – a casualty of progress, gone, but not lost in a dusty memory.
Words and photos ©Ehren Seeland