Artist Danielle De Jesus grew up near the intersection of Jefferson Street and Knickerbocker Avenue in a Puerto Rican household in Bushwick, a Brooklyn neighborhood that has steadily gentrified since the mid-aughts, when artists began establishing studios in the warehouses near Flushing Avenue. While the area is still synonymous with a certain brand of oddball creative, White professionals priced out of Manhattan and Williamsburg have moved further east on the L train, where real estate speculators have brand-new apartment complexes lying in wait. Preserving the identity of the neighborhood that endures in spite of these changes, De Jesus uses her practice to document the Nuyorican community, depicting scenes of her childhood and centering the neighbors and friends she grew up with.
Last year, the artist began preparing a show of her photographs and paintings of Bushwick together for the first time. It was slated to open in early November at a London gallery, but in late October, in the wake of the Hamas attack and Israel’s ongoing bombardment of Gaza, she received a call from the gallery’s owner informing her that the exhibition would be postponed indefinitely. De Jesus said the gallery’s owner told her they had received multiple messages from collectors regarding her longstanding and vocal support of Palestine. (De Jesus asked that the gallery not be named, as the works she shipped ahead of the exhibition are still in its storage.)
“It was nice to think of bringing these people — I can’t physically bring them — to a place like London,” said De Jesus. “To bring their story and their idea of community — it was supposed to be really special. It’s just really sad that no one there was able to see that.”
The exhibition would have included 12 photographic prints and five mixed-media paintings. In one of the latter, titled “Subway” (2023), De Jesus renders the Jefferson Avenue L stop on Starr Street, the station she used every morning to get to high school, against the backdrop of a white lace tablecloth, a material she has had difficulty finding in Bushwick shops as of late.
The artist returns to personal imagery in “Puerto Rican Rosary” (2023), a self-portrait that shows De Jesus sporting the handmade beaded necklaces worn during New York’s annual Puerto Rican Day Parade in Manhattan and outer boroughs including Bushwick, which has its own festival on its major thoroughfare.
“They’re beads that are very specific to the community — you won’t see people in Puerto Rico wearing them, but you know a New Yorker is a New Yorker, and you know a New Yorker is Puerto Rican, because of them,” De Jesus said.
In another image, a young boy plays in the stream of a fire hydrant, a common sight in Bushwick. In a collaged painting, a group of young men play basketball on the seldom-trafficked Melrose Street between Knickerbocker and Wilson Avenues. It’s a true-to-life scene featuring people De Jesus knows personally. She used fragments of a UHaul moving blanket to depict the brick.
“My mom lost her apartment to gentrification in 2017,” she said. “These moments felt like snapshots of life at home in Bushwick, and a lot of my work is about that and the archiving of those memories.”
Another mixed-media painting shows a solitary sign post with a security camera — whose sudden appearance in her childhood marked for De Jesus the beginning of gentrification in the area.
“As a little kid, we didn’t really know what they were for or what they did, but we knew someone was watching,” the artist recalled. “And so we would go underneath it and we’d stick a middle finger up, not knowing if anyone was seeing.”
“But it was a way to police our community and to increase the incarceration of community members,” De Jesus continued. “Now you’re smoking a joint in front of your building; now you’re in a precinct.”
As Bushwick’s demographics change, De Jesus is capturing the versions of it she wants to remember. Her snapshots feature blissful parade-goers, a romantic embrace, and vendors making piragua, Puerto Rican shaved ice.
“I had kind of fallen out of love with photography because with digital, it’s so instant,” De Jesus said, lamenting that phone photos are forgotten in digital libraries and never revisited. “With film, it’s a precious thing. Analog photography has the tactility of it: having a film that you can hold in your hand that you know is in that place at that time when you made the image. It’s one of one; you cannot duplicate that negative.”