The 19 red-brick towers of the Jacob Riis Houses lining Avenue D look much as they did when they opened in 1949. Many families have come and gone in the 1,768 apartments, but 13 of the original families are still there.
Immediately after World War II, returning GIs and soaring construction costs created a housing shortage, and NYCHA gave preference to the veterans. When Jacob Riis Houses opened, the tenants reflected both the racial composition of the surrounding neighborhood–white ethnic immigrant families–and the more integrated makeup of the United States Army.
The buildings' site was once the home of some of the most infamous of the tenement communities that Jacob Riis himself documented, eventually inspiring the housing movement that spurred Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to create the New York City Housing Authority in 1934.
By 1938 NYCHA had 36,000 applications for 13,000 apartments. Tenants were selected according to a rigorous point system, requiring bank accounts, insurance and citizenship. Housing officials chose residents according to the race of the surrounding neighborhood. The policy continued until the civil rights movement forced NYCHA to establish an office to “assure a fully integrated tenant body” in 1958.
Although Alphabet City was one of the country's toughest neighborhoods during the 1970s and 1980s, five of these original tenants also remember a neighborhood of community gardens, jazz clubs, and families that looked out for each other's children.
They were taking veterans first, they had preference, so we got in right away. Quite a few Jewish people on this floor. They all moved away in drifts and drafts. There were a lot of Irish people living here, too. I was the only Italian and my husband was Russian. I imagine he was the only Russian.
My husband was born in this apartment. I personally came here at the age of 4. I started out in the Lillian Wald Houses. I had to travel from 6th Street all the way to 9th Street to go to school. That's where I met my husband, I was about 10 then. But I didn't like him at that time. He became the resident cook of all the parties. Yeah, everybody called him the Duke of Barbecue. The community garden on 8th Street, he helped them build it up. That's where my husband spent most of his time, they'd play dominoes and checkers. That's where they'd chew the fat with the guys, they all end up there after work.
You see that park with the bases and all? That wasn't like that. They only had a couple of swings out there, wasn't no grass or nothing. We signed a petition for them to make the East River Park look pretty, something for the kids to play ball. And they fixed the playground up and all, but it didn't change the neighborhood at all. If we coulda kept it funded, it wouldn't have been like that.
Nobody's lived in this apartment but me. I stayed right here. It was very nice, compared to what I had up in the Bronx, you know. When I first came down here, I thought I had come to the wrong place because I didn't see any black people in the office, you know. Only me. But I waited until they called me. I moved in, and there was mostly Jewish and Italian people. And we all got along beautifully. Course, they have moved now. Some of the people I've met, like my race, they moved down South and bought homes.
My daughter's been to college; I made sure my son did too. Those are two things I'm proud of. My son, I got him out of here when he was 14 years old. And he lived in Maine and come home on Thanksgiving, Christmas, summers and things like that. I wanted him to have the best chance possible, 'cause most of the kids coming up here were getting killed, getting busted, in and out of all kinds of trouble. I got to the point I didn't want him to come home. I missed him, but at the same time–it was dangerous out here.