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A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick

Witness—and envy—the wild world of New York City in the late 1970s through the lens of Meryl Meisler's medium-format camera.

This article appeared in the October issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

New York City in the late 1970s was a wild time and place, the site of my own roaring 20s. I was madly in love with the place and carried my medium-format camera everywhere. In 1977, I met Judi Jupiter, an outrageous firecracker, and proposed a photo shoot for a magazine where I freelanced. She accepted, and we began photographing the club scene that was exploding all around us. When Studio 54 opened in April, there were always throngs wanting in. To stand out, we'd design flamboyant costumes for Judith—a different one each time.

But while getting ready at my place one night—BAM! The lights went out in my building... and all the surrounding buildings. The subway wasn't running, traffic signals were down, but nothing was going to stop us. So we got on our bikes and rode downtown on dark streets, headlights glaring at us from all directions as we paused at Columbus Circle. At Studio 54, a few stragglers waited outside, but the doors were locked. We pounded, but no reply. Waited awhile, pounded some more. But it was the real thing, a citywide blackout. Studio 54 was closed for the night, but we were back a few days later, and it was like nothing had ever happened.

Meanwhile, as people partied in the discos of Manhattan, the radio blasted news about a place across the East River I had never heard about—Bushwick, Brooklyn. It was burning, apparently, with looting and rioting happening under the cover of darkness. The newspaper images of looting and fires during the blackout were forever burned into my brain.

So, a few years later, in December 1981, when I became an art teacher at Intermediate School 291 in Bushwick, my mind wandered back to those images. On my first day, rising out of the subway from my home in the Upper West Side, I actually wondered if the previous art teacher had been killed.

The neighborhood was all broken bricks, crumbling concrete, and fallen timber—cooled-ember vestiges after the ashes of arson had blown away. I.S. 291 was one of the few functioning structures on the block and felt like a hybrid: part school, part shelter, part prison. It was bewildering: kids trying to learn and enjoy themselves in the midst of chaos; amazing teachers attempting to provide a structure and purpose within a shattered neighborhood.

I taught in Bushwick from 1981 to 1994. Walking to and from the subway each day was always an adventure. There was no telling who would be hanging out or what would show up on the street or in a rubble-strewn lot.

I began carrying an inexpensive plastic point-and-shoot camera. My route was rhythmic and limited: In the morning, I walked from the Myrtle-Wyckoff station up Palmetto Street. After school, I'd try a different path back to the subway, discovering that each street had its own distinct ambience and stories to tell.

This article appeared in the October issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.