Flourishing in An Urban Ecosystem: A Bushwick Origin Story

by Bianca Perez

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Bushwick has been my home for as long as I’ve had a home. I’ve lived on the same street in the same building for twenty years and nine months. I’ve never had it any other way and I honestly don’t think I would want to. I grew up on Bleecker Street, a street I always found oddly suburban and quaint nestled within the surrounding bustle of urbanity. The same street I was brought home to from the hospital when I was born is the same one I learned to ride my first bike on, complete with The Little Mermaid decorations and sparkling tassels on either handle. It’s the same street I scraped my knee on countless times falling off of said bike, and the same one where those cuts and bruises slowly fleshed over and healed.

You can say I’ve had an almost epic history not only with this street, but with this neighborhood: my history with this area begins before my birth. The first of my family to find a home in Bushwick were my father’s parents. They emigrated from the Dominican Republic to the U.S. in the early 1960’s and brought along my five month-old father and other extended family. My dad spent most of his younger years on that same street in Bushwick just a couple houses down from mine until he and my grandparents moved back to D.R. when he was about fourteen years old. It wasn’t until he met my mother and she decided to move to America that he returned with her in 1988. They lived on Grove Street for a short time before they moved to, you guessed it, Bleecker Street. They lived there together for some years in unholy matrimony until I was born in 1993. About four years after that my parents separated and I was officially a child of single, working class-parent household. Luckily, my mother is one of the hardest working women I have ever known, so it wasn’t to my complete detriment.

To be raised in Bushwick, regardless of its turbulent history, was actually quite wholesome in my experience. However, you might attribute that to my “latchkey kid” kind of upbringing, which recently led me to realize that there are still some streets in my own neighborhood I have yet to traverse. For those who don’t know, “latchkey kids” are children (usually from lower income, single-parent families) that often spend time unsupervised at home after school while their parent(s) are away at their jobs. They’re those weird kids in your class who have their own house keys, walk themselves home instead of getting picked up in the minivan, and spend way too much time at the public library after school. This kind of parenting may seem potentially damaging to some and I would not refute that, yet I’m thankful to my mother all the same for protecting me from the constant threat of corrupting forces that stood just outside my door. I may not be the best person to ask about the seedy underbelly of my neighborhood, because my mother tried and succeeded at keeping me far removed from that environment. In spite of the looming danger, I was able to have an almost traditional childhood, complete with tricycles, dirt-digging, hide-and-seek, and treasure hunting. It may have been an urban jungle, but not even unsafe, concrete-laden streets could quell a child’s imagination. I distinctly recall drawing treasure maps, hiding trinkets under cars and behind mailboxes, and burying them in a friend’s tiny backyard only to rediscover what we ourselves had hidden. I remember being (quite roughly) rolled around in one of those huge blue bins which often carry liquid chemical. It was dirty, slightly dangerous, tons of fun, and did I mention dirty? As a child, I remember having that feeling of this being my little slice of the world, like that little corner in your school or home that you feel safest in. Bushwick felt like our little secret and only we who lived here would know of it.

Growing up a Bushwickian kid, the existence of gentrification had always been evident, even if as a vague nameless concept. Most of us were too busy with school or work to notice the most subtle of changes. But even teenagers, armored with apathy, will occasionally stand at ease to contemplate the bigger picture of their circumstances. Although children can suppress it, as an adolescent I found myself and my peers feeling a storm of indignation brewing. You could call it a case of “inner city kid syndrome”. We began to realize how short our end of the stick was and we didn’t know how to react. Meanwhile, there was the constant insidious chatter at our backs from the media, our families, the education system, all daring us to fail, to be peer-pressured into criminality, to live up to every single stereotype an outsider may have. Our juvenile self esteem screamed in protest. I remember it being a normality to have teachers and parents encourage us to avoid going to high schools in our own neighborhood. The day acceptance letters arrived during those last days of eighth grade, I saw some students cry because they weren’t accepted to any Manhattan schools. In some ways it felt like a death sentence. It wasn’t until the age of about sixteen or seventeen that I began noticing this myself, and as per usual, both lack of interest and rumbling resentment followed. I found myself in a state of resignation, with no outlet for my resentment. I was unsatisfied with my short stick, feeling almost as if it were my birthright, and sick of seeing other kids with longer ones. I began to look for outlets for community efforts which took me from attending El Puente Bushwick Center, to interning at The Living Gallery, to joining several community groups, and finally here: to The Bushwick Bridge.

I had never been as significantly concerned with gentrification as I am now. Then again, I had never been as forcefully involved as I am now. It wasn’t long ago that I became a sort of poster child of the destruction that gentrification leaves in the wake of all its renewal. My landlord wanted us out because he saw all the money he could be making from newcomers who would be able to pay more. There was a moment, a couple months back, when I believed homelessness would soon become a reality in my life. Just three days before the marshal was scheduled to come and curb all of our possessions, thanks to a Bushwick Bridge team member, we were was able to find legal aid which has helped us build a strong case against our abusive landlord. The most important thing I’ve learned in going to housing court is that complacency equals self victimization. I’m sure people make all the exceptions and unjust settlements possible to avoid involvement of the law, even when it is to their detriment. This crash course in gentrification has been a huge learning experience for me, not just about how crucial community is, but how important it is to know your rights. I also learned that helping others is a reciprocal form of self preservation. Perpetuating the flourishment of your fellow community members’ lives ensures your own continued existence wherever you may live. This may sound obvious when explicitly stated, but it was a revelation for me this year. Our metropolis mentality where anonymity reigns conditions us to always keeps our heads down and not get involved: ”You gotta look out for number one”. However safe this mentality may help us feel in the meantime, there is no denying the bigger picture. We do not live in a concrete jungle, but an urban ecosystem.

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