‘Brooklyn Before’ in Photographs

7th Avenue Musicians by Larry Racioppo, “Brooklyn Before, Photographs, 1971—1983” (Courtesy of the artist, via Bklyner)

With the more than 100 black-and-white photos published in his book “Brooklyn Before, Photographs 1971-83” Larry Racioppo chronicles a South Brooklyn that existed pre-gentrification. On Dec. 19, he’ll give a talk at the Central Library of the Brooklyn Public Library at 10 Grand Army Plaza, where a retrospective of his photographs is on view through Dec. 29.

Bklyner’s Pamela Wong spoke with Racioppo about his photography, which shows the Irish American, Italian American and Puerto Rican families that populated South Brooklyn’s neighborhoods.

Born in South Slope, Racioppo’s family moved to 40th Street between 4th and 5th Avenues in Sunset Park when he was in second grade. “When I was born my parents had an apartment on 6th Avenue between Prospect Avenue and 17th Street,” he explained over the phone. “The building was torn down to build the Prospect Expressway.”

“My parents, my grandparents, all came from southern Italy,” he continued. “They worked as laborers. My grandparents never learned how to speak English. They had Italian friends that had Italian bakeries, Italian stores. They all settled in South Brooklyn and Sunset Park. My dad and five or six of my uncles were longshoremen. They all worked on the docks,” he recalled.

“We referred to it as ‘the neighborhood,’” he said of the area he grew up in, which serves as the setting for his book. “This vague thing, somewhere from 10th Street to 18th Street, from 4th Avenue to 6th Avenue. All my mother’s friends and cousins lived there. They were all from southern Italy.”

In the 1970s, he took on various jobs as a cab driver, photo assistant, and bartender to earn a living, all the while photographing his home borough. For most of the 1980s, he worked as a carpenter for a living. Then, beginning in 1989, he was hired on as photographer for the NYC Housing and Preservation Department [HPD], a job that he would hold for twenty years.

“I shot the whole Brooklyn waterfront—Williamsburg, all along Kent Avenue, the tremendous change of the waterfront,” he said when asked for some of his favorite projects shot in Brooklyn for the agency. “There’s a good chance that I photographed every vacant lot in Brownsville and East New York. They would give me maps and I would go out, spend two to three days, and take photographs, take notes.”

It was during his time at HPD that Racioppo started working on longterm before-and-after photo projects, documenting abandoned buildings including movie theaters (i.e., the Loews Bushwick), the Spook House at Coney Island, schools, and churches both before they were demolished and what’s become of those sites since. He shot the Church of St. Leonard in Bushwick before the building was torn down to be replaced by apartments and St. John’s Grammar School before it was transformed into condos.

Go to Bklyner to read about the project Racioppo, now retired, is working on.

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