It never fails: The writer or subject of a Rag story is praised profusely in the comments; the accolades are universal — almost. There’s always one commenter who likes to “poke holes,” as Alton Johnson, 73, puts it. And that’s the one that gets focused on.
So it was with Alton’s story about his childhood in the Amsterdam Houses, the NYCHA project between W. 61st and W. 64th Streets, Amsterdam and West End Avenues, in the 1950s and 60s, right after they opened in 1947. The projects were new and untarnished then; Lincoln Center was just being built. Al remembers the time as idyllic in Part One of his story.
But it didn’t last, and Alton witnessed — lived — the reason why: heroin. Part Two describes the deadly plague that swept through and took down the Amsterdam Houses, the Johnson family, and nearly Alton himself.
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.
Alton could have just let the comment go, surrounded as it was by expressions of support and admiration. But it bugged him, he said. So, he wrote Part Three.
By Alton Johnson
My parents were born in 1920 in the deep South and suffered through the harsh segregation that existed down there. My father lost a brother at an early age when he was stopped for a traffic violation and later that day killed in a police station. This incident did not even make the newspaper and no explanation was given to my grandmother. I mention this because, yes, there was always a lot going on in my family, from day one.
My parents were married down South and they moved to NYC to escape the racism and segregation of the South. My father worked as a tailor but wound up in the military. He fought in World War 2 and was wounded in the segregated Black army. He stated that in Europe he was treated better by the white Europeans than his fellow soldiers.
Upon returning from the war my folks lived in quonset huts, which were temporary housing for WW 2 vets. That is where I was born. From there, in 1950, we moved to the Amsterdam Houses and my father began working for the U.S. post office, which he retired from in the 1980s. My dad bought a car and, while young, we drove to New Orleans regularly. This meant that we were routinely stopped and searched in the southern states.
My experiences in the South were mixed. It was wonderful to see my aunts, uncles and cousins and my grandmother. But, my brothers and I got to see racism firsthand. Separate bathrooms, water fountains and movie entrances for Blacks. And the big rule, which was no eye contact with any white folks.
On one of our trips my older brother made the mistake of breaking the eye contact rule, which resulted in us being chased to my grandmother’s home by a mob of white folks. What saved us was that one of my uncles knew some of them and was able to explain that we were visiting from up north and the crowd dispersed. Back up north and to the Amsterdam Houses where life was peaceful and safe and the area was mixed, black, white and hispanic.
My father always treated my mother like a queen. In my house, racism was not taught. My parents believed that all people were equal. I had black, white and hispanic friends. The Amsterdam Houses were completely insulated from racism. It clearly did exist in NYC, but not in the projects. My Mom went to school in the late 1950s and became a Licensed Practical Nurse in the early 1960s,which she did until she retired in the 1980s.
When the heroin hit the projects everything changed rather quickly at the Amsterdam Houses. Crime increased and safety decreased. Thus began the rapid decline of the projects and my family. My parents went to the church for help but there was no help to be had. There was also no help from the police — other than the beginning of mass arrests in the neighborhood. My family and many other families were hit hard by the onslaught.
So to those who imply there must have been more going on in my family, I agree. Its called life, which is extremely complicated and can take many turns. My family did the best that they could under the circumstances. The heroin took a huge toll and along with crack, cocaine and other drugs continues to be extremely destructive throughout America.
So, yes, there was indeed a whole lot going on in the Johnson family.