This is the second part of Alton Johnson’s story about his childhood in the Amsterdam Houses in the 1950s and 60s. The Amsterdam Houses are a New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) development bordered by Amsterdam and West End Avenues, 61st and 64th Streets. In the first part, Al wrote of an idyllic time, but hinted of changes to come. You can read Part 1 here. Things turn dark in Part 2.
By Alton Johnson
I remember the day heroin came to the Amsterdam Houses. It was 1964 and I was 15 years old. Prior to heroin coming to the projects, life was very good. Days were filled with school, family dinners, playing with my friends. Life was simple and overall fun.
There were pre announcements that something big was coming. Wondering what it was got everyone’s curiosity. I did not know the guys who brought it in. The one I saw was supposedly a relative of a friend of my older brother and someone I knew, but he was five or six years older than me. He lived in the Phipps Houses.
For the first couple of weeks it was given away for free. Then there was a $2-per-bag cost. It hit hard. When I say it hit hard it was actually very hard. The drug was plentiful and the cost was cheap. I started sniffing heroin in late 1964 and started shooting it in mid 1965 all while still in high school. My older brother began using in 1964 before me.
Prior to this onslaught there were about 10 older guys using heroin and the projects were still very safe. The users went outside of the projects to get their money via crime. The projects were so safe that in my building we could sleep at night with the door cracked for ventilation because there were no air conditioners. With the increased number of [heroin] users the environment began to change and the neighborhood slowly but surely became completely unsafe over the next two years.
The projects had one security guard, Larry, who everyone knew and loved. Larry would break up fights and tell your parents if he thought you were up to no good. NYPD rarely came to the projects, usually only if called. This led to open selling and using. The increased number of users led to petty crime that permeated the neighborhood. This led to fear and people getting arrested and going to jail and prison. The Amsterdam Houses would never be the same. With Lincoln Center directly across the street, the NYPD increased their presence in the area and this led to more arrests and incarcerations.
Along with friends disappearing in jail or prison there were also deaths by overdose. It was not odd to see someone on a bench in the projects dead by overdose. It became a fact of life. At the time I thought I was invincible and these deaths although sad, were simply accepted.
In my family my older brother was the first to succumb. He was my role model and the person I looked up to in life. We shared a room and his descent into heroin shattered me and my parents. Things would never be the same. My parents had no idea how to combat heroin and eventually my older brother was lost. He survived until 1992 when HIV took him. My baby brother also ended up losing his life to drugs. He lived until 2000 when he also died from AIDS. Neither of them made it to 50 years old.
My personal battle with heroin ended in 1968. I stopped using by entering a drug treatment program. I went to college and got a B.A. in 1977 and thought I was on my way. But drugs and alcohol are insidious. I continued to drink and use other drugs and once again my life spiraled out of control. I stopped the drugs and alcohol after a year and a half of homelessness in NYC in 1989/90. I have been drug and alcohol free for 31-plus years and thankfully I was able to show my parents that I had seriously changed over the last two decades of their lives before they passed. I have also had the opportunity to work for two not-for-profit organizations that enabled me to help both homeless and addicted people. I was able to use my personal experiences to help others understand that addiction can be overcome. It has truly been gratifying.