Telling me “pack a bag full of all your favorite things” was my parents’ last memory of Bushwick, in 1993, as they crammed my sister and me into my father’s silver Chevy Nova as FBI agents swarmed the surrounding area.
Recently, nearly 30 years later, I returned to Bushwick, with my parents, to give them a guided tour of the ever-changing neighborhood.
Huddled together, we exited the DeKalb Avenue L stop, squinting down several blocks like tourists, through the faded mist and the graffiti-filled walls. All my mother could remember was the vision of my sister and me in a maze of bright, yellow crime scene tape with our algebra textbook watching police officers interview witnesses linked to the murder that happened next door.
Memories heavily weighed on their minds as we started our walk.
My parents, who immigrated here in 1969, both came from small towns in Italy. They moved to Bushwick after they were married to find work so they could have a family. America, at that time, had promised what most places couldn’t – a job. They were both proud, leaving their families behind and focused on building a new family network of friends in New York so they could fill the house with people during the holidays.
But, after raising three daughters and trying to make ends meet, “we were done living in fear,” they said. I remembered my parents sitting at the edge of the bed as my sister and I eavesdropped through the door. “It’s not safe anymore,’ my dad said to my mom.
It was moments later when we left and moved in with my oldest sister who, months before, got married and moved to Queens.
Even though I knew going back to Bushwick would be hard for my parents, I wanted them to see how the neighborhood had changed so they could create new memories and let go of the past that always lingered.
Shopping on Myrtle and Knickerbocker Avenues
We began to walk to Myrtle Avenue. Surrounded by families preparing for outdoor BBQs, my mother slowly became more comfortable. She let go of my father’s arm and allowed the memories to rush back.
She shared stories of my sister and me playing house, pushing the supermarket cart, excited to fill it with more food than we could eat. With three kids, my mother explained, money was tight and we were always running out of food. Food shopping was a family effort, yet my parents always found ways to keep us entertained.
“I walked, with a baby carriage, pushing the cart and holding bags of food up and down Knickerbocker Avenue, every day,” my mother said as she limped because of the many back issues she suffers from now.
“Your dad was always worried. I had to call him at work every time I arrived home so he knew we were okay.”
Art on Wyckoff Avenue
After some needed retail therapy (my dad bought his favorite Mexican and Italian soccer jerseys in one of the many shops we went to), we continued our tour. As we kept walking, we moved closer to Wyckoff Avenue and the life within.
“It’s like a museum,” my parents said, as they took it all in. Now, tourists and photographers come from all over the world to take guided tours of Bushwick. My parents were amazed by this. “I can’t believe it,” my mother kept saying. She roamed around Wyckoff Avenue in astonishment, remembering the hardships these streets endured during the ‘70s and ‘80s.
“This is where your friend got shot,” my parents recalled. These were the same streets I was once forbidden to walk through alone.
The streets back then were raw, full of drugs, murder and everything in between. “We didn’t want to give up,” my dad said. “I tried making the backyard into an oasis so we didn’t have to leave the house.”
But eventually, that concept began to fade when my dad was mugged in the backyard in the late 80s. “I added barbed wire and iron window guards everywhere, but it only made us prisoners,” he said.
Energy of Bushwick
It was nostalgic going back after nearly 30 years to walk the streets as an adult with my parents. There is incredible energy in Bushwick. Throughout the day, more people gathered outside to have lunch, and the summer heat got more intense.
My father studied the blocks that were once filled with old factories and industrial buildings. He was excited to see them transformed into chic and re-purposed plant-based restaurants or art studios.
As he touched the walls, looking up and down the streets, he was excited by the life and art around him. He remembered working as a welder and using his interest in sculpting to encourage my love for the arts. Occasionally, when I would least expect it, he would weld small statues of bikes or giraffes to surprise me. It was through these gestures my love for design became real.
“Even in the summer heat, I would carry large metal pipes to and from the factories,” he shared.
In Bushwick, you’re surrounded by textures, patterns and colors. Vibrant and edgy clothing made those who we passed blend into the aesthetic of the neighborhood and stand out as works of art themselves.
Growing up, my mother was a seamstress. She remembered getting fabrics from neighbors, using old curtains or anything she could find to make our dresses.
Fashion in the 80s still held onto the hippie vibe, and that cool vintage style has made its way back. My mother was so mesmerized by the fashion she saw that she missed creating designs for us like when we were kids.
As a young couple walked by wearing bell bottoms, my mother’s memory activated, telling me how she used to make bell bottoms from buying fabrics on Myrtle Avenue. “The fabrics on sale were always the best ones,” she said smiling.
The more photos I took, the more the people emerged. You can hear over 130 languages spoken amid these cemented stoops.
As we got ready to go home, there was one last stop we had to make. I knew that taking them back to St. Nicholas Avenue, to their first apartment building, was going to be emotional.
“St. Nicholas Ave!” My father said as walked by their old apartment building. “The door is still the same.” I can see the nostalgia in his eyes as he looked past the aged wood on the door. It was a moment I will never forget. My dad stood there, hands crossed in front of him trying hard not to show any emotion. I thought back to the anxiety my parents had when we first got here hours ago. It was worth every moment to finally show them the oasis that is now Bushwick.
Even though many things have changed, Bushwick still retains that unique sense of belonging and community. It’s a comforting feeling that reminds me not only of my
childhood but of the future.
Images: Angela Ambrosini
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