Burning Bushwick

In 2010, The New York Times Magazine called Bushwick, Brooklyn “the coolest place on the planet,” four years later Vogue Magazine named it the “7th coolest neighborhood in the world.” Whether or not you agree, there is no denying the transformations the neighborhood has gone through since the 1600s, when the Dutch named it Boswijck, or “heavy woods.” One of the most drastic transformations the neighborhood went through was from the 1960s until the 1990s. Though these changes had been occurring for many years at this point, Bushwick was thrown into the national spotlight on July 13, 1977, the day of the New York City blackout.

1 Bushwick Place, which was home to the Hittleman Brewery Company, seen here in the 1940s. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Looting mainly along Broadway Avenue and homes going up in flames on July 13 were the tipping points for a neighborhood that had been dealing with an economic decline for over fifteen years. The looting made national news and the press focused briefly on how Bushwick transformed from a once-prominent neighborhood to a ghost town. The Department of Finance tax photos from both the 1940s and 1980s visually document the drastic changes from the pristine storefronts in the 1940s to the aftermath of the 1977 looting.

In the mid-1800s large numbers of German immigrants began making New York their home, specifically in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn. The Germans brought beer brewing traditions and opened over two dozen breweries. Bushwick-based beer companies that you may have heard of include Schaefer, Piel’s, and Rheingold. The breweries employed the neighborhood residents and the beer barons owned mansions along Bushwick Avenue, which stand until this day. However, when the breweries began shutting down and leaving the Bushwick neighborhood, those families employed also left, beginning a white flight from the area.

1 Bushwick Place in the 1980s, seen here in unkempt fashion. This former brewery would go on to become different music venues, including the Wick, and practice spaces. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In the 1960s “blockbusting” began in Bushwick. “Blockbusting” is a practice where real-estate agents and building developers intimidate white property owners to sell their homes at low prices and then sell those homes to racial minorities at marked up prices. The new families would buy from the real-estate agents and developers because prior to that most private property owners would not sell to minorities. One article from Independent Press-Telegram in 1977 entitled “Bushwick: The Lights Went out Long before the Big Blackout” described a scare tactic used by these companies: “In late-night phone calls, whites were asked if their daughters were home yet, and weren’t they afraid they might be raped. This was usually enough to send white families fleeing block after block.” It was around this time that landlords began burning down empty homes for insurance money. Many of the old wooden structures were easily ignited.

Long Island Furniture located at 1211 Broadway in the 1940s. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Eventually these shady agents became involved in larger scandals which involved the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). Agents would bribe FHA inspectors to appraise houses for a fixed price above market value and then made a profit from the mortgage approved by the banks. However, while FHA agents and real estate agents made money, the families who bought the homes could not afford the mortgage payments and eventually many abandoned the properties. This system caused much of Bushwick to become a ghost town, the dire state that the press wrote about in 1977.

By 1975, Bushwick already had suffered 4,000 fires; 900 most likely from arson by landlords trying to make a fast dollar. The blackout on July 13, 1977, but the scene for looting and arson had long ago been established. The damage done during the 24 hours of the blackout in Bushwick alone accounted for 88 stores looted and 48 set on fire. A majority of these stores were on Broadway. Many of those businesses were not able to reopen. Three days after the blackout, The New York Times did a follow up report on the Broadway looting. One store mentioned in the article, Miguel’s Furniture Store, located at 1211 Broadway was described as “charred.” The 1940s tax photo of the property shows that the furniture store used to be called “Long Island Furniture” and the storefront looks neat and tidy. The same property in the 1980s tax photo has been bleakly transformed into an empty lot with a cigarette billboard standing over it.

An empty lot shown here in the 1980s located at 1213 Broadway next door to what once was a furniture store. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In the same article, Rose Stevens, a 67 year old widow was interviewed. Rose lived above the meat market located at 1235 Broadway. The store became damaged during the looting and her home was destroyed. Mrs. Stevens was quoted as saying, “I wish I died… I'm almost 70 years old and I have no place to go.” The tax photos from the 1940s show a row of beautiful white buildings above various businesses, looking clean and new. However, the same property in the 1980s clearly shows the damage caused during the blackout. The building’s exterior front is still visible; however all the shattered windows clearly show it stood vacant for quite some time and the building next door is gone.

Rose Steven’s home, 1235 Broadway in the 1940s with the meat market standing and functional. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

1235 Broadway in the 1980s shown, completely vacant with windows shattered. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

1356 Broadway shown as a vacant store front with boarded up windows. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

During the 24 hours of the blackout Gates Avenue on Broadway was the only area in the entire city that required two patrol cars from the NYPD for all calls. In describing the streets after the blackout, residents were in shock, everything on Gates and Broadway was gone. 1357 Broadway, which was an ice cream parlor in 1977, was looted to the point that nothing was left of the shop, the strip along Broadway by Gates was described as “row of burnt out shops.” The 1940s tax photo of 1356 Broadway shows a Loew’s movie theater on Gates and attractive store fronts. The 1980s tax photo of the same property shows a boarded-up shop with broken windows standing next to vacant buildings, the movie theater long gone. Four blocks down on Broadway by Putnam Street, every store was broken into and looted. The sad contrast from the 1940s and 1980s can be seen in the tax photos, where lively and active stores devolve to the boarded-up empty ones in the 1980s.

A busy corner showing a movie theater and 1356 Broadway, which was a cigar shop in the 1940s. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

By the 1980s Bushwick showed small signs of recovery, in part due to Mayor Edward Koch’s investment of $58 million into new public housing in the area and also a spillover from the real estate revival in neighboring Ridgewood. The city began to auction off properties at low prices, allowing for new movement into the neighborhood, many artists began to buy. Fires in Bushwick which averaged around 80 a month dropped to 30 a month by the mid-1980s.That decline continues today, with one fire occurring a month being a rarity. One resident, Gary Schneiderman, purchased a supermarket located at 1289 Broadway after the blackout in hopes of a turnaround, his purchase turned out to be a good gamble because that supermarket continues operating. A walk along Broadway in 2017 one still encounters boarded-up buildings but the neighborhood continues to transform, this time for the better.

1474 Broadway shown here in the 1940s as a Pork Store, neighboring thriving businesses. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

1474 Broadway in the 1980s seen here as a vacant pool hall, the window exteriors are the same as the 1940s building, but the main difference being they’re shattered . Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

1289 Broadway in the 1940s shows a Bohack Supermarket, which was a New York-based supermarket chain which closed in 1977. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

1289 Broadway seen here in the 1980s changed into an Associated Supermarket, which continues to operate in 2017. Department of Finance Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.