Photographer Builder Levy shares his photographs taken in Brooklyn between the 1960s-80s, bringing us to a New York not that long ago, but so very far away. A city that didn’t sleep—and didn’t play. Levy saw himself as an Abrastract Expressionist, but knew that a life in art wasn’t going to pay the rent. He pursued art education, and entered the New York Public School system. He spent five years teaching at Oceanhill Brownsville when it became one of the three Experimental Community Controlled school districts in the city. In addition to teaching art, Levy set up and directed a youth photography workshop program there.
The Bushwick Youth Services Bureau, a Division for Youth program, had a school program for their at-risk adolescents provided by the NYC Board of Education’s Offsite Educational Services, which Levy joined. He remembers, “When I arrived, the Bushwick program was housed in a narrow ground floor store front on the corner of Hart Street and Central Avenue. I that that was a bit run down in a poor hardscrabble community of mostly Latino and African American families in small homes, and walk up tenement buildings. The director already had heard that I was a photographer, and he told me he wanted me to teach the students photography as well as basic academics. For the first year and a half we had to set up a temporary portable darkroom in one of the two tiny bathrooms. Once the program moved to a small former Catholic elementary school building on Melrose Street, I was given a large classroom next to the boys bathroom, and set up a permanent darkroom there. I stayed there for 13 years.”
Builder Levy: In February 1964, and became a commercial photographer for a very short time. After a month or so I completed my first job, I felt unsatisfied. It wasn’t what I wanted to do with photography and/or my life. I needed to pay the rent. I became a recreation leader, or playground “parkee” in the P.S. 20s (Fort Greene) neighborhood playground for the New York City Parks Department. One activiiy I organized for children was with paper and crayons I borrowed from the local elementary school — was making art. When the weather got warmer and permitted, I encouraged them to make art, and organized outdoor fence art exhibitions of their work. My job was to supervise the playground and handball and basketball courts where the teens hung out. It turned out that PS 20s playground was the hangout for the Cross Park Chaplains (CPC), formerly a street gang, transitioning into a social club. I occasionally and periodically made photographs of the children and teens at P.S. 20s. The CPC were trying to raise money to buy sweaters with their club name. A local church agreed to let them throw a fund-raising dance if they could get an adult chaperon to sign on. They asked me if I would do it, and I did it. Evidently, another former gang, also going social, the Medallion Lords, would sometimes hang out at P.S. 20s but I wasn’t aware of them as an organized group.
On a Friday afternoon in the summer of 1965 I was photographing in Clinton Hill, mainly on the block of Gates Avenue between Vanderbilt Avenue and Clinton Avenue. I lived on Clinton Avenue between Gates and Greene at the time. When I finished photographing I started to walk off the block to head home when I noticed this group of Puerto Rican teens, in the leather jackets and trench coats and hats, walking along Clinton Avenue, looking very cool. It was Friday, and they were probably on their way out for the evening. I wanted to stop and take their picture, but felt awkward about how I could approach them, when all of a sudden, one of the guys yelled out, “Hey parkee, take our picture!” They remembered me from when I worked as a recreation leader at the P.S. 20s playground, in Fort Greene, where they (I hadn’t remembered) used to hang out, along with the Cross Park Chaplains, youngsters I did remember and had photographed the year before.
Builder Levy: One day in 1977, my students and I were in front of our new building where I was trying to familiarize them with the use of the twin-lens reflex cameras I had obtained for the program, when a group of tough-looking guys came up to us to see what we were doing, and asked me a lot of questions about our cameras. Fearing they were going to try to steal them, I quickly brought my students back into the school and continued indoors. Later that day I was introduced to some of the “tough” guys by one of my students. I would meet all of those guys in the days and weeks ahead, and would sometimes ride the train back to the city on my way home chatting with one fellow who was going to his after school job working in a printing plant. I would occasionally see and talk with Ben loading the meat trucks outside the meat processing and packing plant near Morgan Avenue in the morning on my way to work from the subway stop. A year later, as I was returning with my students from a neighborhood photography excursion/exploration*, I saw these young men hanging out together around the beat-up Volkswagen, on Melrose Street near the corner of Wilson Avenue. With minimal direction, I was able to make their portrait.
*Our neighborhood photographic explorations included a visit to the abandoned brewery, a laundry plant where one of the student’s father’s worked, Knickerbocker Park, P.S. 145 schoolyard full of children, a visit to Highland Park, a visit to a special graffiti wall, students’ homes, a pigeon coup, the rooftops of the walk-up tenements where of the students, lived, textile dye workers on strike, etc.
Builder Levy: One day I brought in my 5 x 7 Deardorff view camera to school show my students. Like so many other young people I taught, Jackie and Cathy not only wanted to make photographs themselves, but also enjoyed being the subjects, knowing that I would give them prints of any photographs I made of them. Jacqueline lived on the next block on Hart Street with her family. Cathy lived in a group foster home on Bushwick Avenue a couple of blocks away.
The students were reading about their own lives, families, culture! they were reading about a commonality of humanity. They were reading about people like themselves and their families who were being valued, and portrayed with love, and beauty and human strengths and frailties, and with realism. They were reading about their own realities and struggles.
We read, “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks.
It was about students’ and their lives!
We read Langston Hughes and Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas.
We studied Puerto Rican and American history from the native Americans to the present.
In Oceanhill Brownsville (IS 271)
We watched Harriet Tubman starring Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee
We watched Redes by Paul Strand
We watched Battleship Potemkin, and reran the step scene backwards!
We watched Nothing But a Man with Abby Lincoln
We watched The Cool World.
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