New York of the 1970s and early 1980s was a gritty place of stunning contrasts. Nowhere was this more apparent than between Manhattan’s thriving disco scene and the impoverished neighbourhood of Bushwick, Brooklyn, which looked looked more like Beirut than New York.
Photographer Meryl Meisler was living in New York at the time, off a government grant to document Jewish New York. With no steady job to go to, she began frequenting the bustling disco scene, always bringing her 35mm camera to the clubs. Later, she moved out to Bushwick, where she saw how just how much a city can change in only a few miles.
Her recently published book, “A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick,” highlights this divide and displays her photography from both scenes. We spoke to Meisler, who gave us permission to publish some of her photos.
Meisler said nothing she witnessed at the clubs surprised her, such as this interesting attire from a 1978 shot at Les Mouches.
She frequently rubbed shoulders with celebrities, such as the Village People, pictured below in 1978. Another celebrity she encountered often was artist Andy Warhol, although she said when one was out at the disco, “everybody was just like everybody else.”
Once her grant ran out and freelance work became sporadic, Meisler took a job teaching art at a public school system in the dangerous area of East New York, effectively ending her run at the disco. She later worked at a school in Bushwick, a neighbourhood she heard looked like “Dresden in 1945” — referencing the German city that World War II firebombings decimated.
The neighbourhood had experienced the highest levels of looting, rioting, and arson after the citywide blackout in the summer of 1977. After the blackout, 27 stores along Broadway Avenue in Brooklyn had been destroyed, and fires had spread to many residential buildings.
Meisler quickly took an interest in improving the lives of her students. She had a lot of freedom about what she could teach, and she decided to focus her art curriculum on the neighbourhood.
Meisler could never shake the obvious contrast between the fire-ravaged neighbourhood of Bushwick and the extravagance at clubs such as Studio 54 in Manhattan. That club is where she snagged this photo of Shirley MacLaine and Bella Abzug at Abzug’s birthday party in 1979.
Meisler ended up teaching in the neighbourhood for 14 years. During that time, she also took pictures of human moments like this exchange between two young men.
To be sure, it was exciting for Meisler to be a part of the exuberant Manhattan disco scene of the late 70s.
Even so, she found the the truly rewarding experience was serving, and capturing moments of, underprivileged children of Bushwick at a time when the neighbourhood was the most dangerous part of the city.
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