Despite recently establishing itself as a trendy neighborhood, Bushwick is still one of the poorest areas in New York. NYC Health reports 30% of residents live below the Federal Poverty Level, and the unemployment rate is the second- highest in Brooklyn. The neighborhood is also predominantly Hispanic, and made up of 91% minorities. The last thing you would expect to see is a group of two dozen white people with 4,000-dollar cameras swinging from their necks the second you step off the Jefferson L stop, but thanks to Free Tours by Foot, this is the newest unusual sight long-time residents are subjected too.
Free Tours by Foot is a tour that leads a group of tourists through blocks of a collection of street art that makes up the Bushwick Art Collective. Although the tour’s concentration is on the street art that adorns much of the walls of Bushwick, their website also states, “if the wall to wall artwork isn’t enough for you to look at, then you will certainly be intrigued by the personal style of Bushwick’s residents.”
“I feel like they’re putting us on display,” says Natalie Sullondo, a 25-year-old Latina woman who has lived in Bushwick her entire life. “All summer I watched that parade of gringos wander around my neighborhood, taking pictures like it were a zoo. Putting up with rich white tourists in midtown, I get that, but not when I’m running to my bodega and there’s a group of people with iPhones out. This isn’t the statue of liberty, that’s my abuela’s house, show some respect to the people who live here. We’re not your entertainment.”
Respect seems to be a common theme amongst much of the criticism residents of Bushwick have for the walking tours.
“It’s just disrespectful,” says Donald Rivera, who has lived in Bushwick for eleven years. “They have no idea how hard it is out here. Poverty is not a spectacle and they have no idea what they’re even taking a picture of. My entire life is just a cool addition to their instagram page.”
Rivera’s twin brother, Tam, also commented on the subject of the tourists photos.
“I remember all this street art going up, they were criminals, a lot of them would’ve been arrested for it. They did it for the neighborhood, though, the art was for us. Things started changing a few years ago when Bushwick started getting gentrified. I remember when they started covering the murals with ads, it was so weird. Now these white people don’t even know they’re taking photos of advertisements half the time. They can’t tell the difference. None of these gentrifiers would know real street art if it bit them in the ass.”
Tam Rivera is referring to a time around 2014 when ad space started being bought in Bushwick around the Art Collective. A converse ad was painted over a mural and a four-story tall Coors light bottle looms over the center of the collective. An offer of $24,000 dollars was made to rent a wall on Wyckoff Avenue for a year. The Bushwick Art Collective had now become a certified tourist attraction, with reviews on yelp and companies buying up ad space to exploit it’s newfound “coolness”. Just this year, McDonalds was caught in a lawsuit against many of the artists from the collective after the company allegedly used their artwork in a promotional video without permission.
“It’s like everyone wants a piece of us,” says Tam Rivera. “They’ll appropriate our art, and our culture and chip and chip away without ever paying us for shit. Where’s my money from the ghetto tours? I haven’t seen a dime of it, yet here they are all week, parked on my block, oohing and awing at my culture for a few hours.”
“Ghetto tours” is what many Bushwick residents have started calling the walking tours. The nickname started as a joke, when residents couldn’t believe an area with a violent criminal rehab center was attracting tourists. When the gentrification became too much for many of the long-time residents to stomach, the nickname switched to being spoken with an air of annoyance.
Free Tours by Foot itself does not acknowledge the negative responses it has gotten since opening four years ago, despite the many stories being told of Bushwick residents interrupting the tours by yelling out of car windows. It has only released a statement somewhat addressing criticism stating, “we definitely feel that we are a
welcome member of the community and that we bring a positive experience to the area.”
“I don’t mind you if you’re visiting the area, spending money in our shops and eating at our restaurants,” Sullondo says. “The problem is they don’t do that, I never run into these tourists at bars after dark. They don’t care about Bush