James Sullavan is the modern Boo Radley of Bushwick, Brooklyn.
Like Harper Lee’s character from To Kill a Mockingbird, James is quiet, not necessarily a recluse but still shrouded in mystery. Walking the stretch of Troutman Street between Wilson and Irving Avenues, you are bound to see this tall, dark skinned gentleman, clad in a navy workman jacket, long khakis, latex gloves, an old school newsboy cap and classic aviator glasses that hide dark eyes that many have truly never seen. He sweeps dirt meticulously off the stoops, removes the trash from the cans, hoses down the sidewalk in front of the apartment doors. Then he repeats it over again. You don’t know where he came from nor how long he has been there. He appears as you walk to work and vanishes by the time you return.
“You want the dramatic story, huh?” Sullavan’s body language quickly changes when asked to talk about himself. It’s not every day this man is asked to speak freely about where he is from and how he was raised and that is clear. So instead, he begins with what he feels the most comfortable talking about: his job. Sullavan, a super for six buildings in the neighborhood since 2000, was first introduced to his job because of a broken furnace in his apartment years ago. “The landlord didn’t have anybody to turn it on and he had tenants in the building…I was able to get the furnace working and maintain it. From then on, the landlords asked me to look over their buildings before the big changes.”
By “big changes” Sullavan refers to the stream of people who courageously trekked over the Williamsburg Bridge in the early 2000s, to settle in the still abandoned warehouse streets of Bushwick. Merriam-Webster defines gentrification as “the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.” Sullavan has seen a first hand account of this change and refers to the members of the gentrification herds as young, working people. “I don’t like using the term ‘whites’ to define gentrification, I’m seeing people of all color come into our buildings. Just because you see a majority of white people coming in, doesn’t mean it’s just white people.”
Sullavan doesn’t mind the new residents that Bushwick has managed to seduce. He finds these young tenants endearing and admirable even; with a chuckle, he considers some as his own children. “Whatever you do for a living is fine but it is the character of the peoples that makes this neighborhood,” he insists. Yet many still question the gentrification of Bushwick, or as some call it “East Williamsburg,” as it remains abandoned for the most part. Sullavan paints a clear picture of an old Bushwick that included herds of fifth generation rats seen crossing the streets at dinnertime. “It took a lot of diligence to ward them off,” and it was only after the Health Department stepped in in 2003 that tenancy picked up again. Even crime rates have fallen drastically since then. According to city statistics, major crimes in the neighborhood are down 75% since 1990 and 20% since 2001. “Families were starting to feel alive again because people had their heads down [before] and weren’t looking at the beauty of life. And they weren’t greeting each other.”
Sullavan has sacrificed his own health for the betterment of the neighborhood. Shedding light on why he chooses to cover himself up in so much clothing, despite the summer heat, he explains of a rare skin malady that landed him in the hospital and knocked his immune system. Equivalent to first degree burns, cellulitis is a skin infection caused by bacteria; it is likely he was exposed to the bacteria due to the lack of proper protection while rebuilding the neighborhood. “I had to be here a lot to do my job because the children were at risk.” Cellulitis can be fatal-the disease killed a 40 year old man in the neighborhood last year, but Sullavan has survived. “Most of it is gone, but I still have a long ways to go before it finishes,” he said.
Jeopardizing his own well-being to create a sense of community is key in James Sullavan’s life. Coming to New York City around 1983, he reminisces on the suspicious and accusatory ways people reacted towards him then. Women often clutched themselves and held onto their purses, perhaps thinking Sullavan sought after their bodies or money but, “You give them time,” he said. “You gotta be patient with people.” It’s a trait he acquired from his father, a man he looked up to while growing up. “He would speak to strangers and I was puzzled as to why. [This stranger] hadn’t been to our house, why did my father speak to him so friendly like that, treating him like a brother?” What appears as a small tear trickles from Sullavan’s right eye but his voice does not quaver. “I believed in treating someone like a neighbor, like a brother, a sister, a son or daughter. And the response I got was amazing. People were actually human enough to respond. You could see it in their demeanor, like I’ve given a thirsty person a glass of water. They don’t have to gulp and say ‘thank you,’ they just have to drink it and breathe deep, and that’s thank you enough.”
Sullavan’s place of birth and upbringing is unclear. Darlington, South Carolina, his first response, helps to place that previously unidentified Southern drawl you hear. But he continues, in a blasé manner, with Beaufort and Norwalk, also in South Carolina, and mentions looking after some of his siblings (how many is unknown). In those days, the community became his extended family. “It helped tremendously for the sake of maintaining a social consciousness with people,” he explained. Parents, grandparents, annoying younger siblings? “I don’t want to get my family involved.”
So Sullavan keeps to himself most of the time, saying he spends his free time recuperating from the day’s work. But when he isn’t recuperating or working, Sullavan indulges in his favorite pastime: photographing the tenants around the neighborhood. “[These moments] may be small to some people—like if you were coming out of your house, or the way you are dressed or the way you fixed your hair [that day]—I’ll have to capture it for you. I’m capturing history.” Sullavan does not disclose any of the photographs, taken on a digital point-and-shoot, with the subjects of the photos. He hopes to instead create a collage book filled with these snapshots and only then to share it with the neighbors. “[I want to] present them to you and say, ‘This is what you are. This is the good part of you that we appreciate.’”
James Sullavan is a mysterious figure indeed, but also an important part of the Bushwick neighborhood—an icon almost. And when expressed to him, this humble Boo Radley grins, shakes his head and softly says, “I do my part, I do my part.”