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.
Wow. Drug dealers are just awful. Congratulations on your sobriety.
Thirty one years and hallelujah for every day. Here’s to many more, and many thanks for your stories!
What a testament you give to the awful and destructive power of addiction and substance abuse to people, to families, and to communities. It is not a bad year or two – too often it is decades of suffering and loss and poverty and no control, taking a toll on everyone.
That cheap heroin in the mid 60s was not just in the projects. A former Horace Mann teacher of that era recalled hearing about it from his more “adventurous” (wild) students – he said he had students who were “experimenting” with injecting by 1965. Their families may have had more resources to intervene – but the timing of his story matches yours exactly- sounds there was a serious market being developed. Too many waves have followed.
My mom and dad lived to 95 and 93 respectively.Were married and together for 73 years. I had great parents and great brothers. thank you for the comments.
I’m sorry for the loss of your brothers and glad you were able to pull out of your own spiral. People losing their minds over the unbelievably offensive sight of homeless people on the streets of the UWS should realize that they are people just like you (and them).
Sarah – Nail. Head. Hit. Not sure why this is so hard for people to comprehend.
Mr. Johnson, you were very brave to write this and very strong to have survived. Thank you for taking the time and sharing your story.
happy that you appreciated it. Thanks
Amazing articles. Thank you West Side Rag for the great journalism every single day.
Thank you for this article, and the one before that. So glad you are writing and sharing your story with WSR.
Thank you for the kind words.
Thank you for this beautiful and important piece!
Thanks for the kind words
I am not overly impressed by this story. Living
near the crossroads of the world and having two parents did not not prove sufficient to stop the disaster that befell this family. There most be more than meets the eye.
what are you “not over impressed” with? The fact that young kids are given free heroin to suck them in – and that it ruins lives and communities? Sometimes parents are not enough.
Drugs are rampant in these housing projects. More police need to move in if parents cant help.
Did we read the same article? Mr. Johnson relates what countless others have repeated through the decades with regards to drug epidemics–that police are not capable of attacking root of the problem, rather a response to a symptom that ultimately exacerbates the issue.
I grew up a few blocks north of the pjs. Lots of young guys/gals got lost in that heroin onslaught. That drug swept through neighborhoods like a deadly plague.
I’m 71 now and thank the GOOD LORD and a good family that kept me on the straight and narrow.
May GOD bless those that did not survive it.
I am 73. I share the same thoughts. Thank you.
Thank you! Al Johnson I’m one of many those individuals who had seek refuge at one of those non-profit organization you were affiliated with. You and your administration guided, inspired, and gave me a blueprint on how to live. this I will carry in my heart forever!
Thank you, hope all is well.
Gates Avenue forever.
Thank you for sharing your story, Mr. Johnson. I am so sorry for the loss of your brothers and your community – this is just so heartbreaking to read.
Thank you for your kind words.
Thank you for this honest memory, Alton. Over the decades there has been so much dishonesty, just plain nonsense from so many quarters. How refreshing to
read the truth.
Thank you for your kind words. The drug plague in America has fostered untruths since at least the 1960s (war on drugs?). Thank you again.
Look, u came up rough,as a lot of kids did…but YOU overcame…I know there are others who did and I admire you all…here’s to you God bless and keep you