Williamsburg is a peculiar beast. Between Supreme’s three-block-long line on Thursdays and tourist rush on the weekends, at least half a dozen corner delis maintain their strongholds. When the weather is right, music blasts through the window on the corner of Berry and Grand. Yes, the neighborhood has changed. Unobscured view of the river is hard to come by— a result of developers’ race to cash in on Williamsburg’s hipster chic. Those trained by extended neighborhood tenure are endowed with the ability to see past the newly built and discern the neighborhood’s erstwhile raw and unhurried beauty. For all others, there is the Brooklyn Social Club.
A Celebration of Williamsburg’s Social History
The Brooklyn Social Club, a creative collective founded and run by Williamsburg born and bred brothers Damian and Dominic Bielak, celebrates Williamsburg’s social history. Together with photographer Terrence Miele, a friend whom they have known since they were 12, they create an artistic archive dedicated to a special spirit and style of the neighborhood. The collective, powered by a self-confessed “obsession with Williamsburg especially the old Williamsburg” and an auspicious discovery—while helping clean up Terrence’s house Damian found 3,000 negatives and photos of 1990s Williamsburg—has been steadily making inroads into the Williamsburg of the present.
History’s artistic medium is photography—that great amalgamator of documented and imagined. In that it mimics memory. And memory is all about connection—memories come to us when past resonates with present. And this is why I think that social is an operative word here; this project is not just a call for the nostalgic excavation of the past. ‘Growing Up in the 90’s Williamsburg’ is a visual narrative about connections and creativity that defy the neglect. And about the neighborhood that was—still is—a fusion reactor of different cultures and sensibilities; yesterday’s immigrants and today’s “skate lovin’ rascals.”
‘When we didn’t have any money all we needed was each other to have a good time.’ (from ‘I Can Be Pretty Too’, text by Damian Bielak)
Damian and Dominic can put a name to nearly every face that is featured in the show. Some of them, whose photographs were taken 25 years ago, came for the show’s opening. The brothers also know the streets, not just the names and places—that’s obvious. But the texture and the feel—Damian pointed out to me how one of Mara Catalan’s prints faithfully reproduces Kent Avenue’s hopelessly broken asphalt, a challenge to skate.
Every image in the show—from Catalan’s mystical monochromes to Dominic Bielak’s dynamic collages—is a storytelling “written in light.” Its aesthetic experience produces an intense feeling of joy, and part of it is just the mysterious ways in which the art works. It is also a joy of a privilege of partaking in that special connection that informs every image, which is imbued with knowing and actually seeing its subjects. I smiled looking at a picture featuring a group of smoking pre-adolescents, whose fresh faces express an inimitable mix of revulsion, pride, and diffidence. Then at the teens, doing tricks in a DIY skatepark on a vacant lot on North 7th and Berry. A stray dog, next to decrepit Domino sugar factory building, a lonesome wanderer in a seemingly endless tunnel of Kent Avenue….
Those are the moments when that Williamsburg comes to life and becomes part of my lived experience. It is like meeting new friends or seeing the old ones anew.
If this comes across as shameless advertising of Brooklyn Social Club, I am not ashamed—after all, I burned my bridges paraphrasing E.B. White. I believe that seeing it is worth a trip on the L to 383 Bushwick Avenue, regardless of which side of the Williamsburg Bridge you call home.
On view until January 31, 2019.