Excerpt from Essay by Meryl Meisler in A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick
DECADENCE, DECAY AND DETERMINATION
New York City in the late 1970’s was a wild place and time, the site of my own roaring twenties. I was madly in love with the city and carried my medium format camera everywhere. In 1977, I met Judith DeLong, an outrageous ﬁrecracker, and proposed a photo shoot for a magazine I freelanced for. She accepted, and we began photographing the volcanic club scene that was exploding all around us. When Studio 54 opened in April, there were always throngs waiting and wanting in. To stand out from the crowd, we’d design flamboyant costumes for Judith – a different one every night. We’d sashay up and she’d call out to the doorman, “Marc! Marc!” Then, as if by magic, the red velvet rope would part the crowd, and in we’d go to dance and photograph the night away. Every week a new disco popped up, and we’d hit the hottest ones, especially on opening night.
July 13, 1977 was to be a momentous evening at Studio 54. One of the owners invited Judith, ostensibly to see our work, to be his personal guest. But if you invited Judith, Meryl came along. Oh yes, I was excited – we were gaining entrée to the legendary private rooms reserved for the stars!
But while getting ready at my place – BAM! The lights went out in my building…and all the surrounding buildings. The subway wasn’t running, traffic signs were down, but nothing was going to stop us. So we got on our bikes and rode downtown on dark streets, headlights glaring at us from all directions as we paused at Columbus Circle. At Studio 54 a few stragglers waited outside, but the doors were locked. We pounded, but no reply. Waited a while, pounded some more. But it was the real thing, a big black out, maybe even as big as the one I’d experienced in 1965.
In the following days, New York felt like a small town. I photographed people hanging out on the street as headlines and radio blasted news about a place I never heard of before – Bushwick. It was burning, with looting and rioting that went on and on. A few days later, we were back partying at Studio 54, lights blazing, life back to normal, but not so in the hellhole called Bushwick. Four years later, I found myself in need of a full time job with benefits. I found myself teaching at a public school in Bushwick. It looked like hell.
Flash forward several decades and Bushwick is ﬂourishing, with a booming art and nightlife scene. The “Bridge and Tunnel” folk once barred from those velvet ropes and disco doors are now the hip crowd. Still there is a dichotomy, a tale of two cities, with great disparities of income and opportunity in New York, and Bushwick itself.
My disco images have never been shown until now, until A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick was published. The whole disco scene emerged at the cusp of Woodstock, the Stonewall riot, the ﬁght for civil rights and the struggle for women’s rights, just before the scourge of AIDS/HIV swept in. Feel their energy and think. And remember that many of these issues reverberate today.
Why did I take these pictures? Were they a visual diary? Did I sense the disco era would shutter as quickly as it emerged, or that Bushwick was going to make a come back? I feel a little like Candide with a camera: that I was destined in emerging adulthood to document the rhythms of the city and the struggle in Bushwick when the ashes cooled. I learned that if all is not for “the best in this best of all possible worlds,” that change is inevitable and rebirth possible.
A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick
Photographs and text by Meryl Meisler
8.5 x 11 inches
21.7 x 28.5 cm
145 photographs (color + B&W)
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