A Mural of Déjà Vu
If you’ve walked along the southeast corner of Flatbush and 7th Avenues recently, you may have noticed what seems like a new mural bolted to a brick building there, and, if you’ve been in the neighborhood long enough, experienced a sense of déjà vu. It could be you’ve seen the mural before, years ago. Or perhaps, if you look closer, you recognize yourself amongst the photographs of people looking at that same wall, or passing by it. If you’re lucky, you might even turn around to catch the artist who snapped your photograph, still watching from across the street, where he checks on it daily.
The mural—a 4-by-14 foot collage of photographs taken of the wall in both black and white and color—is a kind of experiment in memory, or one artist’s attempt to capture a piece of his own personal and local history, which he feels in many ways is slipping away.
The mural itself has its own long history, and was once bolted to the same wall, seven years ago, but only for a day. It was attacked and ripped apart the same month its creator was robbed at knifepoint. It has also spent some time in the trunk of a police car.
The piece was conceived in 1999 by artist Kenan Juska, who spent a year photographing the wall from across the street, every day. He photographed local characters riding past on their bicycles, talking with one another, selling records and books and jewelry, and sometimes, sleeping on the sidewalk below the graffiti.
As a whole, the photographs form a sort of diary of the corner, and capture the shift in the tenor of the neighborhood. Some of the images show the stark black and white graffiti that graced the wall in the beginning of 1999, while others show the pleasant green ivy the neighborhood association painted onto it later to deter the graffiti.
Almost unintentionally, Juska caught that corner at the end of an era, at a time before luxury condos started rolling into the neighborhood, before Bruce Ratner decided to pursue his Atlantic Yards project, and before people were aware of how much the streets they walked on every day were changing. Juska points out that the photographs were all taken before the World Trade Center attacks, and that there are no cell phones to be seen.
“It wasn’t that long ago,” he said, “but a lot has changed.”
The artist, who manages Southpaw on 5th Avenue, knows that wall—and many of the people who pass by it—very well. The 30-year-old grew up on Park Place between 6th and 7th Avenues, in the brownstone his parents still live in, when that part of Park Slope looked (and felt) a lot different than it does today.
Among other things, Juska said, there was a crack and heroin house at the end of his street, stray dogs, rats, burnt-out buildings, and about eight to ten men sleeping on the corner “like a little tent city.” Whenever he needed something from the store, he would walk down to Flatbush Avenue and pray he didn’t get mugged. “It wasn’t a walk in the park, by any means,” he said.
Yet his neighborhood and his memories of it (which also include Little League games, high school at Berkeley Carroll School, and church at St. James) are what Juska is trying to capture, as if in a time capsule, by using those things in his art.
And it all started with that mural.
It wasn’t a conscious thing, at first, Juska said. In 1999, he was feeling disconnected, having recently returned home from studying art with John L. Moore at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, four hours away. Suddenly, he felt as if his neighborhood was slipping away from him, and from all the people he had grown up with.
“I got very territorial for a while,” he said, “like, ‘who are these people who are my age who I don’t know? I know everybody! What the hell is this?’”
And he wasn’t alone. Many of his friends, he said, were finding themselves priced out of their homes. “It’s something now that people sort of look at, even me, like it’s a little silly, because that’s what New York is, people move here from other places, it’s the nature of it, but when it’s happening to your neighborhood, it’s totally different.”
He admits he feels somewhat hypocritical, in that thirty years ago, his parents rode in on a different wave of gentrification. “It’s short sighted, I know, but there’s an emotional truth to it when it’s happening to you.”
In an attempt to find his footing, Juska started going out every morning to Lorena’s (a coffee shop that once sat where New Happy Taco sits now on Park Place between Flatbush and 7th Avenues) to sip coffee, read the newspaper, and stare out across the street.
“I started thinking about how it’s a really interesting corner,” Juska said. “It’s an intersection of two neighborhoods, there’s this huge artery (Flatbush Avenue) that runs all the way through Brooklyn, and you get a really wide range of people who have to pass by there every day.”
He was fascinated, he said, by all the people coming and going from the subway, the people who sometimes lived and slept there, and all the people who had adopted that corner as their place of business.
He’s known many of those people for years, and has bought hundreds of records on that corner. And yet, for an entire year, none of them knew Juska was sitting across the street, capturing their image daily. “I wanted to make sure that all those people were represented,” he said, “that was the original idea, and then anyone who sort of interested me.”
Also, he wanted to capture as many different views of that corner as he could, at all hours of the day. “The idea was to be able to look at a couple hundred shots of where you’re standing.”
During the first six months of his project, before the neighborhood association painted the wall with ivy, it was covered with graffiti, which Juska thought was a shame. “I have nothing against graffiti if it’s interesting,” he said, “but I felt like what was there was sort of uninspired, and that it was this dynamic space that was just being neglected, and there was nothing drawing attention to how interesting it was.”
By the summer of 2000, Juska had taken thousands of photographs of that corner, and was ready to create his mural when he was robbed at knifepoint by two men who attacked him late at night on his own street, after he’d been out with a friend.
The man who held a knife to Juska’s throat (and cut him a little) had been walking as if drunk, so Juska dropped his guard, betraying the lessons he’d learned growing up as a tall, skinny kid with glasses. “Back then, you assessed the situation and fought or ran or whatever you had to do,” he said. “It was a predatory situation, based on whether they thought they could do it or not. But these guys didn’t care, they would have robbed anyone who was walking on that block, they would have robbed an old woman or a 300-pound man, they didn’t care.”
And while this sort of thing still happens with some degree of regularity in his neighborhood, Juska said, he didn’t think it could happen to him. He was so angry, in fact, he considered not finishing the piece. “I thought, if I’m not even safe walking on my own block, why am I going to give something to this neighborhood?”
Yet he plunged ahead anyway, and on a beautiful Sunday morning in August 2000, he put the piece up.
That evening, his father, William Juska, was walking back from a store when he saw a crowd of people gathered around his son’s artwork. A man who often slept beneath the wall had seen a photograph of himself in the mural, and was yelling and pointing at it. Then he started ripping it, tearing off the photographs Juska had glued to dozens of pieces of wood. Soon, the man was tearing into the mural itself, slipping his hands under the wooden pieces (which were bolted to the brick) and tearing them from the wall.
The crowd stepped back, and Juska’s father ran down the street to find his son. By the time the two got back, the man was fighting with one of their neighbors, who had tried to stop him.
The police arrived soon after and put the whole piece into the trunk of their car. They wanted Juska to press charges, but he refused. “I’d made an agreement with myself that anything that I put up there was fair game, because that’s what it is, right, it’s about that corner? So if that’s what happens … I was thinking more about someone writing on it or defacing it in some way, but this is what happened, so I had to sort of suck it up.”
Or leave, which is what he did.
Deeply rattled by the mugging and the destruction of his piece, Juska packed up two days later and moved to Saratoga Springs, where he said he went into a deep depression.
A year later, he felt ready to return. His plan was to move back home on September 10, 2001, but that day, the friend he planned to drive with lost his car keys, which meant that on the morning of September 11, Juska found himself sitting in Saratoga Springs, staring shocked at the television.
“I swear to God that if I had come back home and woken up to that morning, I probably wouldn’t be here now,” he said. “It had taken a lot for me to come back in the first place, and I think that would have been debilitating.”
Instead, he said being away from his family and friends at such a critical moment in the city’s history had the opposite effect. “I remember being with all these people, none of whom were from New York, and by the evening, they all sort of wanted to forget about it and turn off the TV,” he said. “But I couldn’t sleep. I remember thinking about how self-absorbed I’d been that whole time, and it really snapped me out of it. All I wanted to do was come back.”
It proved to be an important decision. Two weeks later, Juska found himself suddenly reconnected with two old friends—Matthew Roff and Mikey Palms—who had just opened a music venue on 5th Avenue called Southpaw. “It was like a reunion every weekend,” Juska said. “Suddenly we had a place that was owned by people who grew up here, and everybody I grew up with was there, all these people I knew from Little League and church.”
This renewed connection to his hometown gave Juska the inspiration to start creating art from his surroundings again.
One of his first projects involved going out late at night and digging into the trash bins of local grocery markets to find big, brightly-colored produce boxes, which he used to create an 18-by-10 foot sculpture, which he sold to a private collector.
In March 2005, he started his second (and most ambitious) project, which involved collecting found objects daily from his childhood streets as a sort of diary, and creating panels for each individual day. “Imagine, not taking a day off, ever, even if you get sick, or it’s snowing,” he said.
In his panels, you find indescribable plastic toys in all manner of manufactured colors, wooden game pieces in the shapes of animals, exploded fireworks packages, old photographs, wooden furniture knobs, a package of Chinese cigarettes, a Jewish wedding card, and a frayed, purple “Family Day” ribbon with a pair of gold hands held in prayer.
“This is all stuff that anyone could have found, but it connects to countless other people’s lives, so there’s sort of an anthropological aspect to it,” Juska said. “Also, I feel like there’s this thread of continuity that runs through the whole thing that would be there whether I put it together or not.”
He’s still working on that project, and plans to create one large piece from the things he gathered from March 2005 to March 2007.
Recently, however, Juska found himself with a bit of a storage problem. His studio in the National Packing Box Factory—an old brick building on Nevins and Union streets—was overflowing with, well, junk. “It was an unworkable situation,” he said. “I had a beautiful studio, and I was using it as a storage space for garbage.”
Last month, Juska found a studio space right across from his old studio in a once-illegal oil transport station that sits along the Gowanus Canal, near the Carroll Street bridge. It is fronted by a large park filled with birch trees, and is completely round on the inside. He is aware that his stay will likely be short—the Toll Brothers development company has recently acquired the property and plans to build there—but he likes the idea of working in a round space, even if it’s only for a year.
During his move, dropping some things off at his parent’s house, Juska found his old mural, stuffed in the closet of his childhood room. “I was like, this is kind of ridiculous that this thing is just sitting in the closet, collecting dust, and that it never had a chance to do what it was intended to do.”
Psychologically, he said, he felt he was finally ready to put it back up. “I think it was cathartic on some level,” he said, “like unfinished business.”
Plus, Juska said that today, he feels the piece works on a much different level than was originally intended. “I think it almost makes more of an impact now as a sort of artifact.”
Among other things, he said, the photographs not only represent a time in Park Slope that has since passed, but an era when the numbers 9-11 simply represented the numbers you dialed in an emergency.
“Anti-American sentiment is nothing new in a sort of socio-geo-political level,” Juska said, “but I think that for New Yorkers, for the people who live here, there is a definitive difference, and you have to look at those pictures and think about them in those terms.”
Juska continues to check on his mural daily. He said he is prepared for whatever happens to it, even someone ripping it down again. “I think I just had to let go when I put it up there and say ‘whatever happens, happens,’” he said. “I mean, it’s going to rain, snow, something will happen to it eventually.”
“It’s just part of the wall,” he said, “at least for now.”
Shell Fischer, a writer who lives in Park Slope, has recently given up her bicycle.