BUSHWICK — Since they arrived in Bushwick from Puerto Rico more than five decades ago, 61-year-old Aida Irizarry and her 80-year-old mother, Blanca, have watched the neighborhood evolve.
They lived next door to the Rehingold beer factory on Bushwick Avenue, and watched as it was transformed into apartment buildings. In 1977, they watched as a blackout spawned looting and violence down neighboring Broadway and sent gunshots blasting outside their window. They watched friends flee to Florida. Then, as they hung in there, they watched as streets got repaved, the neighborhood cleaned up, and gentrifiers settled in.
Now the Irizarrys will have the lens turned on them — in "Pioneers of Bushwick" — an exhibit by photographer Daryl-Ann Saunders at the Diana H. Jones Senior Center on Noll Street.
Saunders shot the Irizarrys and eight other longtime locals, and will feature their intimate portraits in a photo exhibit which opens Friday from 5 p.m. - 7 p.m. It runs through April 27. The exhibit is free and open to the public and is open Mondays to Fridays, from 9 a.m. 3 p.m.
"I told my mother, 'Oh, we're going to be famous!'" Aida Irizarry recalled. "When my mother was photographed she looked so professional. She was posing. She was calm. I was nervous having my picture taken."
The seeds for Saunders' project began soon after she moved to Bushwick in 2006 from the Flatiron District and felt aware of her outsider status. Moving near the Jefferson L train station before it became popular, she said she was shaken after witnessing a shooting on the street by her apartment.
"It was pretty gritty," she said, "like the Wild West, like the movies, which makes the people who have been living here the pioneers."
Saunders began "Pioneers of Bushwick" as an attempt to chronicle what long time residents who predated her had witnessed over the years, and how they dealt with the incoming population, She was awarded a city artist residency at the Diana H. Jones Center, she photographed all her subjects in a makeshift studio there.
Finding willing subjects, however, was a challenge.
"People here are working very hard, they're busy raising families, and they're not accustomed to being approached for a photo project — it's separate from their lives," said Saunders.
But as she spent hours with each subject and delved beneath the surface for their stories, she came to feel more and more a part of her new neighborhood.
"Bushwick is their home," she said. "It's almost like a small town, even though it's an urban area."
Aida Irizarry misses the more close-knit environment of Bushwick's past, when she recalls everyone at her 464 Bushwick Avenue complex helping one another as needed. Still, she appreciates her neighborhood's improvements that have come with recent times.
"I feel proud Bushwick's changing," she said. "Everybody's proud it's getting better."
Angel Mendez, 69, another "pioneer," called the recent improvements to Bushwick's infrastructure and safety "beautiful," but he mourned the loss of many neighbors.
"Most people have left or died," he said. "But my children that are still here, they make Bushwick special."
Saunders is photographing more Bushwick old-timers for another upcoming exhibit, "Pioneers of Bushwick" Part II, in June during the neighborhood gallery event Bushwick Open Studios.