From 1996 to 2003 I photographed in my neighborhood on the border of
Bedford Stuyvesant and Bushwick, Brooklyn. It was at a time when
community was just beginning to heal from a multi-decade chain
reaction of racial prejudice, shady real estate deals, failed social
policy, and ultimately the 1977 riots that destroyed nearly half of
the thriving commercial business along East Broadway.
I was called "the white lady" by my neighbors and the scores of little kids on my block. My own son was two, and we quickly embraced life on the streets in Brooklyn as one we recognized immediately from old black and white movies. Despite its reputation, the place had innocence to it, like the riots had stopped time itself. Kids still used their imagination, feared adults and tried to squeeze as much fun out of a Saturday as they could. All this happened amid a bustling open- air drug trade that operated, pretty much 24/7 right on the side of our apartment. The consequences of the powerful combination of a booming black market economy and the addictive qualities of crack cocaine were as integrated into every day life on the block as the drugs that fueled them. Women sold sex to get a hit of crack and police took parents away in front of their children and every body tried to get money.
I grew close to all the people that I photographed while our children were growing up side by side. There was a female bond that endured, no matter what the particulars. The young woman, who called herself Goldie on the streets, and Jeanette when she went to visit her father, became very special to me. It was a slow process as Goldie was in the throws of her addiction, and I had to compete with crack cocaine for her attention. Through the camera I began to know her and over the course of six years, I documented the birth and immediate placement of three of her children into the foster care system. Goldie was too sensitive to be a drug addict. She was the opposite of the stereotyped hard-hearted street girl who trades sex for money. She used drugs to become the person that she needed to be in order to use drugs. Over the course of our relationship, Goldie would tell me about her childhood and thoughts about her own addiction and her feelings about why she was afraid to get clean. We began to develop an emotional short hand, the way people do when they really know one another. Goldie taught me that having somebody really know me is really, knowing that somebody loves me. It is a bond that is rare. I loved so many of the women on my block and all of them appear on the pages of my book. Goldie's story I felt was really about recovery; even in her deepest addiction I could see her searching for her place and her self. The loss of her three children due to her addiction and her ensuing health issues made me hold her story back from Money, Power, and Respect. I felt it was too important and needed to stand-alone. In the course of trying to publish it as a separate book, Jeanette went into treatment. She got clean and today she has been sober for seven years. I continued to visit her and videotape our conversations. When enough time had passed I showed her the pictures of her life on the block and asked her to write what she remembered about the moments.
This past year I began to go back to our old block and make pictures of it as it changes into a community of artists and young people with more opportunities than my old neighbors had back in 96. But still it seems that people go to that block looking for something. I know I was. I felt that now was the time to pay homage to the block and what came before. To celebrate Jeanette and her words that she must "never forget" where she came from. Neither shall I.
Brenda Ann Kenneally
Brooklyn, October 2012
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