Martin Gottleib-Reporting During the Firestorm Years

Q&A with Martin Gottlieb

Editor, Global Editions, The New York Times

By Lauren Perez
Q. What is your affiliation with Bushwick?
A. I was a reporter for the Daily News in the 1970s, during the power blackout. I led a team of reporters during a series on Bushwick. At the time, many people gave the series a good deal of credit for the rapid development of the Hope Gardens public housing project, which is the largest public housing project built in America since the start of the Reagan Administration. That project covered up some of the most devastated blocks.
Further reading:
Q. As a reporter, what was your experience writing about Bushwick?
A. It was fantastic, we connected with a number of wonderful families. We did a lot of hard investigation on why building projects promised by the city never were built and the causes of the arson that devastated the neighborhood.
It was basically a war zone in those days, because of the fires, and then the even more intense arson and looting during the blackout. Bushwick was the hardest hit neighborhood in New York. There were empty blocks, packs of wild dogs–crime and drugs were gigantic issues. Bushwick wasn’t a well known neighborhood those days, it was very insular and didn’t have the political clout or the recognition that would lead politicians or the press to focus on it. It was left to deteriorate without attention. The city was broke in those days, there were empty lots with bricks strewn and garbage dumped in them. The firemen never stopped working, they were constantly on call. There was systemic looting in the torched buildings. People would strip the buildings for anything of any monetary value and sell it at junk yards. A lot of the neighborhood was literally burnt down, pulled apart and taken away. It was a sobering place to be.
Today, it’s like everything I just described never happened. I’m still friendly with a number of families, one of whom, The Casusos, live in the same buildings that they used to. I took my kids and said this might be frightening and then, instead, Bushwick looked like it must have back in 1932. It’s startling, and it’s touching to me, personally.
Q. Why did you choose (or why were you assigned) to write about Bushwick?
A. I covered a lot of poor neighborhoods in New York back in the middle 70s, and then I went off to write a book about arson. During the course of the book, I got some information about Greene Avenue in Bushwick having something like 41 fires over a six-month-period and how it went from active to vacant in that short a period. Arsonists would start a fire on the roof of a building so the interior would be exposed to the elements and the apartments rendered uninhabitable. A lot of the time, the arsonists were hired by landlords who wanted to squeeze the last drop of money out of the building, and then collect on their fire insurance. Good investigators can tell when arson is the cause of a fire, but it’s very difficult to prove who started it because a lot of evidence literally goes up in smoke.
I came back to the Daily News after the book, and the New York Times had a good story about things getting so bad that the federal government had decided to investigate local arson cases for the first time. My city editor, Sam Roberts, asked me to do a piece on arson and I used my information about Greene Avenue from my book research. The day my article appeared, a Bushwick resident named Carl St. Martin called and said he was furious. “You don’t know anything about what it’s like to live here,” he said. “Do you know what it’s like to put all your clothes in the dry cleaner and then the dry cleaner burns down? Do you know what it’s like to study for medical school and constantly be interrupted by fire engines?” This caught my attention because, at the time, most Bushwick students didn’t graduate even from high school. I asked him if he would give me a tour of the neighborhood. I saw his grade school, which had been closed down and a huge area the city had cleared of housing for a big public housing project that had never been built. Carl’s was probably the first black family to move into the area; he introduced me to the Casusos, one of the last remaining white ones.
Q. What do you think about historic preservation efforts in Bushwick?
A. I can’t comment on the current efforts, I haven’t been there for some time. But I was actually born in Bushwick Hospital. My mother’s side of the family was from Williamsburg, the next neighborhood over. She remembered Doctor’s Row, these beautiful mansions on Bushwick Avenue in the middle of a working class neighborhood. She felt that the best doctors lived there and so she wanted her children born in their hospital.
Q. What do you think about the area’s future?
I grew up on Lower East Side where everyone wanted to move out and now everyone wants to move in. My kids, who are in their 20s, have friends who live in Bushwick and they go to parties there. It’s amazing. You go back in time and the drug sales were so bad that the cops would park a car on each side of one really notorious street so no one could drive down—it was the only way to stop drug sales. In the age of crack, the late 80s, a woman who ran a block association to stop the drugs was killed.
Right now it’s a very solid neighborhood again, who is to say that the next stage won’t be intense gentrification? New York City has never been in as bad shape as it was in the 70s; it just seems to get stronger and stronger. This neighborhood was always a neighborhood for working people, who knows if it won’t turn back into that or something else.
Q. What about the issue of gentrification?
A. I feel that if people are making their lives there, there is always something very admirable about committing to a neighborhood. On the other hand, there is a natural dynamism in New York. To some degree, neighborhood change is often good, although there are ways to try to manage it to protect people of limited means from being priced out from communities they have committed to and helped build. But if you own your house and have stuck with a neighborhood through thick and thin and a buyer comes along, you can wind up with a nest egg— and that can be a great reward. It’s part of the American dream