Hillary Bisonó Ortega ’21, an art and cinema and media studies major, received a Smallen Creativity Grant for her project “A Tale of Two Bushwicks,” a photographic documentation of changes in the neighborhood where she grew up. She describes the project below. Her work and that of 12 other senior art majors is on display at the Wellin Museum through May 20.
Describe your project
“A Tale of Two Bushwicks” details my artistic process in documenting how architecture is indicative of change and displacement. My family and I were displaced after our apartment building was sold in 2013, so it was quite difficult returning to Bushwick to take pictures. I felt overwhelmed by feelings of grief and nostalgia as I walked around an environment that felt so foreign and new to me, despite the fact that I had lived there for a majority of my life. [My project] encompassed relieving myself from the fear and sadness of seeing the
community I once knew change through photography. In a way, this was my catharsis.
How has the Bushwick neighborhood changed?
Besides the bizarre and gaudy architecture that now resides in Bushwick, there’s an influx of more affluent residents and businesses. [For example] the candy shop I used to regularly go to as a kid is now a white-owned pizza shop that sells cheese slices for $6 … no cheese slice should be $6! I used to get a slice after school for $1.50. These new businesses are alluring to new residents with their rustic and metal furnishings, and long-standing Bushwick businesses are now forced to adapt to this new taste by renovating their businesses and increasing prices, which is not sustainable for the low-income residents.
Do you think it has been a positive or negative change, and why?
When you search the term “gentrification” on Google, you get two definitions defining the process. The first is the process where “the character of a poor urban area is changed by wealthier people moving in, improving housing, and attracting new businesses, typically displacing current inhabitants in the process.” (Definition from Oxford Languages). The second is the most telling of how a lot of individuals who move into low-income neighborhoods regard their gentrifying praxis: Gentrification is “the process of making someone or something more refined, polite, and respectable” (Definition from Oxford Languages).
As someone who has experienced displacement, I don’t have a lot to say about the positive changes that come with gentrification. In fact, with new businesses comes new developments, and with new developments come new residents, primarily white residents. As this process happens, then you have loss; loss of a once culturally vibrant community that is replaced with one that commodifies and exoticizes that once existing community. Now that Bushwick is refined, polite, and respectable, why did I, and many other Black and Brown residents, have to experience such a violent process? These are the many thoughts and questions that arise when I engage with my own history and the histories of other native Bushwick residents.
What did your project involve?
For this project, I knew that I would have to spend one semester remote so that I could return to Bushwick and take pictures. My family now resides in Ridgewood, which is one of Bushwick’s neighbors, but because of my experience I always felt that I would be unwelcomed in a place I felt was home. So not only did this project involve carefully planning remaining home for one-half of my senior thesis, but it took a lot of understanding how this project could emotionally heal and resolve a lot of the pain I knew would come while walking around the neighborhood. I took my pictures on a Pentax half-frame 35mm film camera, so I actively had to send in my film to local darkrooms for developing and processing.
What did you set out to accomplish with the project and do you feel you succeeded?
With “A Tale of Two Bushwicks,” I wanted to show others what gentrification looks like, how it pervades and occupies space. I also wanted to feel comfortable returning to Bushwick without feelings of anger and grief. I do feel I succeeded in that I feel comfortable returning to Bushwick and allowing myself access to that space again.
(Friends from New York City) understood my project’s concept immediately as gentrification is an urban phenomenon that invades their daily lives. But I know that this will be an ongoing project of mine as I also want to document the many voices of past and current Bushwick residents.
Did any faculty stand out as mentors to you?
Professor Robert Knight has been encouraging since the moment I declared as an art major concentrating in photography. I will always be grateful for him believing in me as a growing and developing artist. Pursuing this project allowed me to realize what interests me as an artist, but being in Advanced Photo with him this semester … gave me the space to investigate my family’s history comfortably through photography. In addition … Professor Ruth Lo was really the impetus for looking at how gentrification is seen most in a neighborhood’s architecture and change in space.
What are your future plans?
I’m in the process of applying to graduate school programs accepting students on a rolling basis. Specifically, I’m looking to further my career as a museum professional who also creates art.