A broken, naked Barbie doll hangs by the neck on a tree amongst a jumble of old toys including a plastic disco ball, a number of stuffed animals, as well as warnings written with paint on a wooden sign: “This is not a joke!” “Respect our neighborhood!”
This block of Troutman Street, between Irving and Knickerbocker Aves., breathes with darkness and intrigue. It regularly creates confusion, awe, sometimes fear, and most definitely plenty of Instagram photos of the surprised passersby. If you’re sensitive like Emily Tepper, who lives on the block, you can testify to feeling “some strange, crazy energy” being present in this little corner of Bushwick. So who is hanging the toys on the trees and what do they mean? And generally, what’s up with this block?
“This can’t be good… good for the trees,” comments a woman in her sixties who carries two shopping bags and disappears in one of the houses.
“I like it,” says a blond girl in her twenties who is smoking and sitting on the steps of one of the houses. “It’s awesome.”
A friendly, middle-aged man stops by and tells me that it’s his friend, William, and points to the building where he lives, near the most abundantly decorated tree. “He doesn’t do it for art; he just does it,” he adds with a smile.
William always sits on his steps, says Mary, a six year resident of the block. But he’s not here today. It’s cold, and I’m out of luck. That is until my next walk on Troutman…
“When we first moved in,” Mary tells me, who is in her twenties and works in real estate, “I couldn’t believe it. I opened the window to my backyard, and there was a man standing wearing only a short-sleeve t-shirt in freezing cold. He asked me if he could use my apartment to run from the cops. I said no way, and closed the window.”
“The block used to be very dangerous, and now you can feel the new overlapping with the old very intensely,” adds Emily Tepper.
On the next warm(er) day, I see a man sitting on the steps of a building facing the most decorated tree. It’s William, no doubt.
I stop by to talk to him; I speak softly because I was warned that William is shy, and maybe doesn’t even speak English. But in fact he speaks English well, and isn’t shy to tell me more about himself.
William is 51, and he has lived in the building for 23 years. He reminisces about how dangerous the block used to be. “You would have black limos from Manhattan stopping by just to buy drugs from the dealers who used to live here,” he tells me.
He also reveals that he lives with his 13-year old daughter, and his face softens as he speaks about her. He tells me his wife left him when she was a baby but he never complained.
William has been working on the trees for three years. He explained there’s no real reason behind it; he just likes to do it. He’s only mad when people are knocking the toys down, hence the warning signs…
After I politely thank him and say goodbye, I silently observe the Troutman trees, just as I would an exhibit in a museum.
The toy installations are full of paradoxes and you cannot pass them by without paying attention. They are stunning, yet menacing. They are playful, yet scary. Each toy is as if was a house to genius loci; to the spirit of old Troutman times signifying a hazy trip of a Manhattanite coming to The Well to buy some crack. The trees might be colorful, but really they are dark. It’s the most interesting street art installation in Bushwick even though their creator doesn’t consider them to be art. The trees remind us more than anything to pay respect to the past, and to learn from it, not to be just someone who moved to a once scary neighborhood. The trees remind us that separation is an illusion, and we are all one…