“They were exciting times,
all the more so because we didn't know what we were doing,” Tarrytown's Rob DeRocker says
nostalgically, and perhaps too humbly, of his time when he brought not only Habitat to Humanity to New
York, but recruited the week-long labor of the former President of the United States.
There’s a nice New York Times article out that revisits DeRocker's youthful beginnings with Habitat for Humanity in NYC. The organization was embarking on its first urban project and for this he signed on one major helper – Jimmy Carter.
DeRocker was at work with volunteers renovating a 19-unit Lower East Side tenement called Mascot Flats dating back to 1902, which by the 1980s, was "burnt-out hulk," according to the Times, in an area ravaged by drugs and crime.
More from the article:
“There was no way to get to the top floor of that building without being a monkey,” recalled Robert DeRocker, who had just turned 25 and was running Habitat for Humanity in New York.
Mr. DeRocker persuaded former President Jimmy Carter to visit the derelict tenement, between Avenues C and D, that neighborhood volunteers were trying to salvage. Mr. Carter made it to the top floor.
“Well, I can see you’ve got some work to do,” he said during his visit in April 1984.
Carter didn't just visit for the photo op; he got to work. He came with his own local Habitat crew out of Georgia and spent a full week of heavy labor at the site.
Now almost 30 years later, Carter was returning to the tenement, where a surprising number of those original 19 tenants still live.
“Brings back memories,” said DeRocker. “It's especially gratifying to see that 12 of the original families are still there, and the building is holding up."
DeRocker was with the organization until 1987. Times of course have changed, though he joked that he hasn’t. “Habitat has changed, that neighborhood has changed, New York City has changed, but of course, I haven't changed a bit," he said.
Carter was in the city to launch another Habitat project, which he does annually, set to repair and renovate a total of 15 homes on Staten Island and in Queens damaged by Hurricane Sandy.
You can read the full NY Times article here.
You can read more on the history of Habitat for Humanity and its first NYC project in a book excerpt here.