Once New York’s beer capital — there were 14 breweries spread across 14 blocks in the late 1800s — Bushwick was home to wealthy professionals and industrial magnates who lived in the mansions lining Bushwick Avenue.
But Prohibition, the Depression and a series of workers’ strikes led to the closure of many breweries, with the last two leaving in the mid-1970s.
The 1977 blackout led to rabid plundering of businesses. "In Bushwick," explains resident Steve Trimboli, looters "tore apart every building, brick by brick."
The area was also subject to endless rounds of arson — one of which, the "All Hands Fire," drove the economically flailing neighborhood into the ground.
"Many of the structures were made of wood," said Adam Schwartz, a Bushwick historian and curator of a show on the neighborhood’s renewal, now at the Brooklyn Historical Society. "It just ate up the neighborhood’s core."
When the resulting destruction led to the shuttering of a third of its businesses, Bushwick was left to rot, deteriorating into a feral nest of crime, crack dealing and violence.
"I remember Christmas one year in the early ’80s," said Frank Dursi, a lifelong resident. "And someone just broke into our house and stole all my presents. That’s when things had gotten really ugly."
In better days, he said, "you could sit out on your lawn chair until 4 a.m. drinking espresso, and no one would bother you."
But during the past 15 years, Bushwick’s population — largely composed of blacks and immigrants from South America, Jamaica, Mexico and Puerto Rico– has seen its neighborhood undergo dramatic shifts.
New businesses, especially along Broadway, are thriving; empty lots are being cleaned up, houses repainted and apartments renovated.
The area around Maria Hernandez Park, once the city’s biggest crack loop, now bustles with children, ice cream trucks and street vendors. According to Schwartz, "you wouldn’t have set foot here even five years ago."
Though things are improving, residents agree that Bushwick has a ways to go. Neglected by landlords, apartments with substandard living conditions have led to widespread discontent.
In addition, the sudden proliferation of swanky condos is seen as an early sign of gentrification.
"It could lead to displacement and loss of community identity," said Andrew Friedman of Make the Road by Walking, a community organization based in Bushwick. "Just look at Williamsburg."
Though young professionals have yet to swamp Bushwick, most new residents are young people priced out of the ever-changing boundaries of East Williamsburg.
"It can be scary," said Drew Grant, who moved to southern Bushwick a year ago. "People do get mugged. But moving here was the best decision — there really is a great community."
Longtime resident Dursi agrees: "Things have improved a lot since my youth."