Meryl Meisler has seen Bushwick at its best — and at its worst.
The artist and teacher spent 13 years documenting the neighborhood when it was arguably at its lowest point, devastated by years of poverty, crime, and fire in the wake of the blackout of 1977.
“Some of the buildings looked like empty honeycombs,” said the photographer. “It was odd to imagine how many people had lived there, had kids there, done homework there.”
On Nov. 17, Meisler will share her memories and thoughts on the neighborhood’s troubled past and its rapidly changing present as part of a panel titled “Brooklyn’s On Fire: Bushwick is Burning” at the Brooklyn Historical Society. The discussion will be moderated by Jonathan Mahler, author of the book “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning,” and will also include a tenant lawyer, an FDNY fire marshal, a community board manager, and a displaced Bushwick resident.
Meisler first started documenting Bushwick in 1981, when she got a job as an art teacher at IS 291 at the corner of Wilson Avenue and Palmetto Street.
“When I first arrived, it looked like the day after a war had ended,” said Meisler. “And that was interspersed with kids playing on the streets and people living normal lives.”
She worked there until 1994 and took as many photographs as possible during her tenure.
“I took photographs on the way to school and on the way from school and during fire drills,” said Meisler. “I took photos constantly.”
Meisler kept the photos in a box in her apartment for years until fellow artists approached her about putting her work in a gallery show. Earlier this year, the Jefferson Street bar Bizarre asked her if she wanted to release her photos as a book. The resulting tome, titled “A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick,” juxtaposes her snaps of the neighborhood with others she took of New York’s glitzy disco scene during the same period.
Meisler said her favorite photos of Bushwick are the ones that show neighbors, especially children, living happy lives amidst the burned out buildings.
“I was most interested in the people, who I found joyful and uplifting,” she said. “And I was always aware of the beautiful light hitting things.”
“Brooklyn’s On Fire: Bushwick is Burning” at the Brooklyn Historical Society [128 Pierrepont St. at Clinton Street in Brooklyn Heights, (718) 222–4111, www.brooklynhistory.org]. Nov. 17 at 6:30 pm. $5 (free for Brooklyn Historical Society members).