The Second Battle of Bushwick

Thirty years after the blackout riots, it's getting hot all over again

From the top of the spanking new steel-and-glass 14-story condo tower now open for inspection on Grove Street just off of Myrtle Avenue, you can see most of Bushwick—the landmarks of the neighborhood that was, and the one that's fast being remade, the sites of the bad old memories, even of some of the good.

This is the Brooklyn neighborhood's first major luxury residential construction project, but the marketers of the 59 condominium units for sale here steer clear of the name Bushwick as much as possible. Promotional materials aimed at luring hipsters with the means to buy a one-bedroom for $270,000, or a three-bedroom penthouse for $682,000 refer to "ever-expanding Williamsburg" or "East Williamsburg" as the building's locale. This despite the fact that the tower at 358 Grove Street is in deepest Bushwick; look it up on any map.

"This is the continuation of Williamsburg," insists the condo's frantic real estate agent, dashing about the sixth-floor sales office. "Look," he says, burbling the happy nonsense of a salesman, "people in the neighborhood are ready to take their lives to the next level."

They won't go: Tenants Nereida Sanes and Gladys Melendez are fighting eviction and demanding repairs at 1430 Putnam avenue.
photo: Filip Kwiatkowsi
They won't go: Tenants Nereida Sanes and Gladys Melendez are fighting eviction and demanding repairs at 1430 Putnam avenue.

Details

This story was reported by students in a class on urban investigative reporting at Hunter College inspired by the work of longtime Voice writer and Hunter alumnus Jack Newfield. The reporters are: Tony Antoniadis, Elizabeth Bieber, Robert Cruse, Ruben Gonzalez, Johanna Gustavsson, Miyako Hannan, Iesha Irish, Kelle Jacob, Alex Neustein, Tamaki Ondo, and Steven Rummer. The story was co-written by Voice staff writer Tom Robbins, who served as the Jack Newfield Visiting Professor of Journalism at Hunter, with assistance by Anna Lenzer.

Tune in: Tom Robbins on the New Battle of Bushwick


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What's at work here is straight out of the brokers' handbook: Link the property in buyers' minds to the worldwide cachet of that now-prosperous and booming neighborhood a couple miles west of here. "The Peter Luger Steakhouse is just a couple of blocks away," the agent says, leaning over an unfinished rooftop cabana. Actually, Peter Luger's is a solid eight subway stops away from here on the M train that rumbles along Myrtle Avenue. But no matter. There are some very solid marketing rationales for this approach.

For one thing, mention of Bushwick still summons up unfortunate images lodged in the collective municipal subconscious. Most enduring are the apocalyptic blazes that erupted 30 years ago this summer when, on the sweltering night of July 13, 1977, New York City's lights and power went out. Looting and burning— the worst since the draft riots of the Civil War—broke out in half a dozen city neighborhoods. Nowhere was it worse than in Bushwick, which had been lurching steadily downhill for years. Pummeled by the loss of its blue-collar, job-generating breweries and knitting mills in the late '60s and early '70s, the neighborhood underwent a wrenching racial transition as low-income blacks and Hispanics replaced fleeing Italian and German families. By 10 p.m., minutes after the lights went out and the subways froze in place, crowds began pouring onto Broadway, racing under the elevated train tracks to smash gates and windows of appliance, clothing, and sporting-goods stores, hauling away whatever could be carried: televisions, air conditioners, mattresses, shotguns. Looting continued into the next day before cops got things under control. There were 890 arrests in Brooklyn, most of them in Bushwick.

A few days later, things got worse: A massive arson blaze erupted on July 18 in an abandoned knitting mill at the corner of Knickerbocker and Myrtle avenues. It quickly escalated into an all-hands fire—the biggest blaze in modern city history until 9/11. Even with 300 firefighters responding, the firestorm wiped out more than 30 buildings, leaving 250 families homeless and smoldering ruins that bespoke only urban hopelessness.

Later that year, Howard Cosell brought the South Bronx international notoriety when he announced in the midst of the World Series at Yankee Stadium, "Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning." But most New Yorkers understood that for a true picture of Dresden-like devastation, Bushwick—the old Dutch settlement on Long Island's western shores—had no peer.

The devastation bred despair. Another reason not to invoke the neighborhood's name in a real estate sales pitch is its lingering reputation for that other urban scourge, drugs. In the firestorm's wake, drugs swept through local streets. Much of the merchandising was homegrown: Before he was famously gunned down in 1979 while dining on the back patio at Joe & Mary's restaurant on Knickerbocker Avenue—his cigar either clenched or planted in his teeth—Bonanno crime-family boss Carmine Galante peddled so much heroin in Bushwick and other neighborhoods that he became an embarrassment to his own Mafia cohorts.

Those who challenged the lucrative trade suffered the consequences. From the upper floors of 358 Grove Street, condo purchasers will have a direct "view corridor" down Irving Avenue to Maria Hernandez Park. The once thriving drug supermarket had its name changed from Bushwick Park back in 1989 in honor of a 36-year-old community activist who confronted the local crack merchants. On the morning of August 8, 1989, Hernandez was shot to death while she was standing in her bedroom on Starr Street blow-drying her hair, about to leave for her job as an accountant in New Jersey. The shooter—who was never apprehended—fired five potshots through the bedroom's drawn blinds.

During daylight hours, the park is pretty tame these days, thanks in part to a program the city launched a couple of years ago called the "Bushwick Initiative." The program, arranged by Bushwick's longtime political heavyweight, State Assemblyman Vito Lopez, has attempted a coordinated attack on crime, sanitation problems, and ailing housing in a 23-square-block area near the park. Some progress is already in evidence: On the first Saturday of June, an artists' group called Bushwick Open Studio held a parade through the neighborhood, celebrating the new art being created in the lofts and studios along Bushwick's western fringe. The parade route went right past Maria Hernandez's old house on Starr Street and ended at the park. That's the kind of thing that cheers the hearts of the promoters of 358 Grove Street.

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