Interview: Meryl Meisler on Disco Era Bushwick

"Rejected from Studio 54 No No," Studio 54, NY, NY, October 1978© Meryl Meisler
"Boyz to Men," Bushwick, Brooklyn, NY, October 1982© Meryl Meisler
"Woman with Bouffant and Letters T and M," Studio 54, NY, NY, July 1977© Meryl Meisler

Pink Twins

"Pink Twins," Bushick, Brooklyn, NY, Circa 1983© Meryl Meisler
"Wild Wild West Double Joined Contortionist," Hurrah, NY, NY, March 1979© Meryl Meisler
"Boy in a Tire," Bushwick, Brooklyn, NY, 1984© Meryl Meisler
"Holding Head as Hair Flies While Dancing," Studio 54, NY, NY, July 1977© Meryl Meisler
"Puddle Jump," Bushwick, Brooklyn, NY, February 1983© Meryl Meisler
"Dancing Busboy," Studio 54, NY, NY, July 1977© Meryl Meisler
"Open Jaw Bulldozer," Bushwick Brooklyn, NY, April 1983© Meryl Meisler

Meryl Meisler was in her mid-20s when disco broke. She was a regular at famous clubs like Studio 54 and Xenon. She also always had her camera in hand, ready to document whatever insanity the night might hold. As the parties raged in Manhattan, other areas of the city slipped into chaos. When the 1977 Blackout hit certain neighborhoods, like Bushwick, were decimated. The Blackout led to looting of storefronts along Broadway and an "All Hands Fire" on the corner of Knickerbocker Ave. and Myrtle Ave. that wiped out 30 buildings and left a hundreds of families homeless. At that time Meisler had never heard of the Brooklyn neighborhood, but four years later she would take a full-time teaching job there, photographing the area as it slowly recovered from the aftermath of the Blackout.

Meisler’s first book, A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick, combines her work from these eras: juxtaposing images of New York’s wild disco scene with the post-blackout Bushwick, which for many New Yorker’s felt was a bit like the wild west.

Working with Jean Stéphane Sauvaire (owner of Bizarre Bar and Bizarre Publishing, Meisler put the book together in two months. Familiarity with her Bushwick photos and meticulous labeling of her disco photos allowed Meisler to work quickly to bring the images together. Meisler talks about her experience photographing these two worlds.

Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How did you start photographing the late ‘70s New York disco scene?

I was 25 years old, I went on a bus to Mardi Gras and coming back there was another woman on the bus who was quite out there, quite wild. I said, “Do you want to do a photo shoot together?” And we did and we became friends. Her name was Judith Delong. We just immediately hit it off and started going to CBGBs, the punk scene, just going out all the time. Then discos opened up, Studio 54 came on with a splash, I believe it was June, I think two weeks later we were already there. Going out, like young people do, running around and hitting all the clubs. She contacted one of the PR firms to let them know that we were interested and got on the list. I always carried my camera with me wherever I went.

Did you consider yourself "on assignment" for the PR firm, or were the photographs more of a personal project?

I was photographing all the time, but I was not on assignment. I barely ever did photography on assignment. It just wasn’t my style. Maybe we did a few things, some photo shoots that got into magazine’s that have long closed, PR events, but very few. Really, I was just carrying my camera everywhere I went.

What was photographing the disco scene like?

The late 1970s disco scene was as wild as it looked, and wilder. I edited [the images] a lot, thinking, I can’t even show it all yet. This is my first time ever looking back at work and showing it at all. Even some of the images, I remembered them in my head, taking them and they were as shocking as I remembered.

© Meryl Meisler

Do you remember the first time you heard of Bushwick?

The first time I heard about Bushwick was literally the night of the [1977] blackout. [Judith and I] were invited by one of the owners to come to a private party at Studio 54 that evening. That was really big. I don’t remember anything other than the fact that I was very excited. She talks about like going on assignment. It wasn’t an assignment, we were going to a party! At that point Judith was staying at my apartment, living there, and as we go to get ready to go out the lights went out. It got dark. Having grown up in the North East I had experienced the blackout of the ’60s, but didn’t have any idea what the extent of it was. We got on our bikes and went down to Studio 54 and it was closed. It was locked up. We’re banging on the door, but no answer. So we went back. The next day I was photographing on the streets, people were hanging out and it was like a small town USA. Bushwick was in the newspapers and on the radio. There was this neighborhood that I had never heard of that was in flames, in riots, it went on for days. Burglaries. It was chaos. That’s when I heard of Bushwick and I thought, like everybody else, not some place you would probably want to step into.

What was Bushwick’s reputation like after the 1977 Blackout?

Bushwick had a much worse reputation than East New York at the time. East New York was populated, there were people living there, there were not all these abandoned buildings. It was a neighborhood, where people lived. The unknown and emptiness [of Bushwick] was scary to me. I didn’t know how burnt out it was until I arrived there, but all you heard about was the black out and then a few weeks later when the all hands fire came on. You only heard bad news.

Bushwick, Brooklyn, NY, April 1982© Meryl Meisler

You started photographing Bushwick years later as a public school teacher, what do you remember thinking about the neighborhood when you saw it for the first time?

I got out of the subway and almost the whole block was shuttered up, most of the buildings were burnt up, there were a few that looked like people lived there. It looked like the day after a huge disaster. It was empty and it looked like a bomb had hit it. I got off the subway and I said in my head, it’s the week before Christmas, I thought: Was the other art teacher killed? That’s really what I thought.

Why did you start photographing the neighborhood?

I immediately started noticing when I left [the school] kids making make-shift basketball games, people coming out and playing jump rope, life was normal. That is what attracted me the most. There was a lot of light, especially if the whole acres behind you were all leveled—there is a lot of beautiful light. I was very aware of the beautiful light. I was intrigued about this neighborhood. I could tell by the housing stalk that it was obviously a pretty comfortable place at one point. By the spring acres of buildings that were burnt out, dead buildings—people started to take them down. I saw change happening really quickly.

What was your process like? How were you working?

I bought one of the first point and shoot cameras and started carrying it with me, walking to and from the subway and photographing from the classroom windows. Most of my photographs are in a two to three block radius because I really was just coming and going.

© Meryl Meisler

When did you start showing the Bushwick work?

I didn’t start reshowing the work till 2007 when a stranger contacted me named Adam Schwartz. He was looking into doing a show on the changes in Bushwick from 1977 to 2007. He was trying to find photographs and he couldn’t find anything besides the blackout. That was in 2007, I showed the work at Brooklyn Historical Society. After the show was over I realized, you know, it doesn’t matter that these were taken with a point and shoot and that they’re fuzzy or not clear all the time. I realized they were gorgeous images. I started going through them again, scanning them and becoming obsessed with them. I kind of said I know these are fantastic and I can’t stay away from them.

When did you decide it was time to show your photographs from the discos of the ’70s?

[Bizarre Bar] was doing the official opening of the Black Box gallery, I’m looking up and there was a disco ball and it just hit me. This was the connection. That club itself is so wild it reminded me of a lot of the things I went to and a lot of the parties. When I have gone out in Buswick, it’s very familiar—I went to things like this all the time and more, for years. It never even dawned on me until that very moment, you see a disco ball above, you go to the bathroom there is a disco ball and that was the connecting point.

Bushwick, Brooklyn, 1984© Meryl Meisler

Why did you decide to combine these two seemingly disparate collections of work together for your first book?

I knew I wouldn’t really want to do [a book] just on Bushwick. I really thought the connection was this disco Bushwick scene. I didn’t quite have what it was yet, the Tale of Two Cities, but the contrast… I could see it being a match up, in my head I knew there were things that answered to each other.

Why do you think the disco photos and the Bushwick photos work together?

It does show the contrast of the times. It shows just a few miles and years apart, but I saw it as more of a personal story. I started seeing the real contrast in my life, in the work, the images, everything about it. [The disco photos] are medium format, which is insane considering I was dancing, with flash. These are artificial environments for the night. Even if it was a disco that didn’t change, it was always a new scene. These are people who are out of their home life in a place that they are calling home to be with people that they consider like-minded and feeling very free. [The Bushwick photos] are daytime. The people here, this is where they are, not usually by choice, more circumstance, or where they could afford to be or what’s left. Putting it together I thought it was a total weave. Selecting them to match, they seamlessly seemed to talk to one another.

Work from Disco Era Bushwick will be on-view at Bizarre Bar’s Black Box Gallery through September 10.

Les Mouche, NY, NY, June 1978© Meryl Meisler