New York is a city that is constantly changing. The buildings, the neighborhoods, the streets and the scenery constantly change, evolving often in an unexpected and peculiar way. A perfect example of the dynamics that distinguish the Big Apple is the transformation of the Bushwick neighborhood, north of Brooklyn, bordering with Williamsburg and Greenpoint, that in just a few years has gone from being a semi-abandoned industrial zone to the heartbeat of New York’s art scene.
Bushwick started to take shape in the late 19th century, thanks to the influx of thousands of German immigrants, so much so that the area soon took the name Little Germany. In that time, in the predominantly rural area, various Catholic and Lutheran churches emerged, accompanied by traditional restaurants and numerous pubs.
Then, in the early 1900’s, when connections with Manhattan were rendered more effective thanks to the construction of the famous Brooklyn Bridge and extensions of many subway lines, Bushwick began to assert itself as an important neighborhood in Brooklyn: in the period between the two world wars, the area was popular, clean and safe. Development carried on until the dismal day of July 13, 1977, when an enormous blackout extinguished the city and literally set the neighborhood on fire. Houses and stores burned from the smoke and the flames, to the point that, following the unfortunate event, a lot of experts began to express serious doubts about the possibility of rebuilding Bushwick, also because the number of residents dropped down from 138,000 in the golden period, the 70’s, to as low as 90,000 in the following decade. Prices dropped and the area was occupied by the less fortunate, causing an increase in crime, and becoming the center of the drug market.
And yet, if you visit Bushwick today, you won’t believe what you’ve just read. In the early 21st century, the city started a biennial program, the “Bushwick Initiative,” that was able to reduce the crime rate and redevelop the infrastructure, to the point that today the area looks like a calm residential area known by all of New York, and not only, for its famous art galleries and marvelous graffiti that enhance the façades of many buildings.
The Big Apple’s arts community, like almost every other thing in the city, is in constant motion: from SoHo to Chelsea, passing through Williamsburg, the new painters, sculptors and collectors have reached Wyckoff and Flushing Avenue for about ten years now, and it doesn’t look like they have any intention of leaving any time soon.
Paul D’Agostino held his first exhibit in Bushwick in 2008, in the loft he lived in with two other tenants. “When I moved here I figured out what to do with all the empty space, a real white cube – D’Agostino told La Voce – and it was exactly that year that the ‘Bushwick Open Studios’ developed, a weekend of exhibitions organized in the neighborhood. I decided to try it too, by organizing an exhibition of five artists in this apartment, which had virtually no furniture. It was just us and the space. More than 500 people came the first weekend and it gave me the determination to go on.”
Today, Paul, who translates and teaches Italian, is directing the “Centotto Gallery” at 250 Moore St., which boasts having the longest history in the district and has organized more than 50 exhibitions in the span of 9 years. The exhibited artists mostly come from Brooklyn or New York but, D’Agostino told me, “The international presence is not lacking. Two years ago, for example, I worked with the Italian Elisa Bollazzi, who exhibited her ‘Micro Collection’ here.”
Since 2008, Bushwick has changed, providing more artistic inspiration day after day. “The number of art galleries has increased considerably. Now there are more than 60! Along with the number, the quality has also increased: recently, for example, the “Luhring Augstine Gallery” in Chelsea opened a second branch here. The number of artists has increased as well, but the rents are increasing and it is difficult, now, to find cheap accommodations.” D’Agostino added that now one can immerse him/herself in a stimulating and international atmosphere. When I asked him how he sees the future of Bushwick, however, the young director of Centotto Gallery admitted to being somewhat concerned about how commercial the neighborhood has become: “Activities that are beyond the control of the arts community are catching on. Many bars, restaurants and vintage clothing shops have been popping up one by one… The risk is that people who come here are not attracted by the works of art, but by whatever is in the windows. In my opinion, however, the phenomenon of the arts community of Bushwick is not going to disappear so quickly. Since I arrived, the network has grown. It may not increase at the same fast pace, but it will always have a strong presence.”
Another person to have experienced the thriving activity of Bushwick first hand is Lacey Fekishazy, the curator and director of the Sardine Gallery at 286 Stanhope Street. Like Paul, Lacey too got to Bushwick almost by chance: “I had just graduated from Queen’s College and was looking for a new place to open my studio. Some friends lived in Bushwick. Once, I went there and it seemed like the ideal solution,” Lacey told me over a beer in Bryant Park. “It was 2011 and there were only 22 galleries. Today, there are 63 of them. There’s certainly more competition, and the atmosphere is much more hectic.” Fekishazy confirmed that the prices have certainly increased rapidly in recent years, but they are “still reasonable compared to Manhattan’s,” and could drop in the future due to the temporary closure of the L subway line, which plays a huge part in the area. Before this happens, many NYU students are considering moving to Bushwick. They must be attracted to the lively and multicultural character of the neighborhood: “One day, a group of people from Berlin and South America came to my gallery. I was very surprised. I do not know how they found the Sardine Gallery.”
What’s unique about Bushwick is the deep sense of community that has been created between the artists, confirmed Fekishazy: “The link has become very strong, for example, the managers of various galleries have even created a private Facebook page to keep in touch and meet up. I have lived in five different neighborhoods in New York, but only here have I truly felt a sense of belonging.”
Of like mind is Mary Judge, Director of the gallery Schema Projects that exclusively shows works on paper just a few steps from the Jefferson Avenue station. “The sense of community that was created here is extremely strong, Judge cheerfully described, “I’ve lived in New York for thirty years now, but only in Bushwick was I able to truly feel this atmosphere. In addition, the neighborhood is extremely safe and even when I come back on the subway in the middle of the night, I’m not afraid.”
Mary Judge, among other things, had the opportunity to develop a special relationship with Italy, living several years in Umbria: “I learned a lot and my current job was definitely influenced by my stay in Italy. I met several artists and still collaborate with some of them.” Right now, in fact, the traveling exhibition “The Tower of Babel,” a collaboration between Schema Project, the Contemporary Art Center of Trabzon in Perugia and the Givatayim City Gallery in Tel Aviv, is being prepared.
When you talk about Bushwick’s arts community, however, it is impossible not to mention the numerous murals and graffiti that decorate the façade of buildings in the neighborhood with drawings on the most diverse themes, from commercials to unusual representations of hyperspace. The street artists of Bushwick are now united and connected on “Bushwick Collective,” coordinated by Joseph Ficalora.
In recent years, the graffiti have become a real institution in the neighborhood, so much so that shops or bars directly commission these new artists to color their windows. With the rise of people flocking to stroll amongst the graffiti, guided tours have also now been organized, however, they are defined as “unreal” by the locals. Andrea Monti, Co-Curator of the Microscope Gallery, has actually confessed to me that “it is very strange to leave home and bump into a group of people visiting the area … it seems almost impossible.”
The street artists, however, rarely collaborate with the art galleries: “We are two separate universes, but on good terms,” explained Mary Judge of Schema Projects.
So if you want a real idea of the vibrant atmosphere of the neighborhood, the “Bushwick Open Studios” initiative offers the perfect opportunity. The 10th edition will take place the first weekend in October, roughly from 11:00 to 7:00 p.m., organized by the Arts In Bushwick volunteer network. Sharilyn Neidhardt, who manages the event, describes it as “a really big project, which attracts thousands of visitors from all over the world each year.” During the two days of activities, all the galleries and studios of the neighborhood will be open to the public, giving artists the opportunity to introduce themselves and to show their works. “Arts in Bushwick focuses on the artists, helping them to find contacts with the public and the media,” Neidhart emphasized. In Bushwick, obviously.
Translated by Giulia Bertoli, Suebin Im and Dariell Vasquez