Former president Jimmy Carter and his late wife Rosalynn Carter were long at the forefront of Habitat for Humanity, the nonprofit that helps communities build new homes and improve existing residences. While the Carters’ work with the organization over nearly four decades brought them to neighborhoods in need across the country and around the world, their first major project with Habitat for Humanity was closer to our own homes, right here in the East Village.
In the 1970s and ’80s, many buildings in Alphabet City were empty, stripped of their resources such as copper plumbing and marble staircases, and left uninhabitable. Some were burned-out hulks abandoned by their landlords and left open to the elements; others remained empty as speculators held onto them to rebuild someday for wealthy tenants. In either case, little was being done for the individuals and families who stayed in this part of the East Village and wanted to keep calling the neighborhood home.
One such building was 742 East Sixth Street (between Avenues C and D), a 24-family tenement constructed in 1902 and known as Mascot Flats. By the 1980s, the site was vandalized, dilapidated, and used as both a drug den and encampment for the homeless. In 1983, Bruce Schoonmaker, a minister running the Graffiti Ministry Center on East 7th Street, helped convince Habitat for Humanity to start a project at this building; for the previous six years, the organization had focused on smaller home-building efforts in several states and a few foreign countries. That July 1983, they purchased the building from the City as its first large inner-city renovation, with apartments that would be sold at a very low price to the community’s poorer residents who also committed 1,000 work-hours to the rebuilding efforts.
In April 1984, Robert DeRocker, then Habitat for Humanity’s New York executive director, persuaded the former president who was in town for a speech to tour the site. Carter had already worked with the nonprofit to build a house in Americus, Georgia, a few miles from his home in Plains. What the ex-president found was a building in total disrepair, with no roof or permanent staircase, and interiors fire-blackened and knee-deep in garbage.
‘”There was this old lady — she was 65, maybe 70,” Carter told the Times. ”She was living in the next building and there was no water, no heat, no electricity. And she was cooking her meal on a trash fire that she built between two bricks. I realized then how much Habitat could mean to a neighborhood like this.”
For the following two summers, Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter were joined by volunteers from his church and local residents on a gut renovation of the building. The ex-president’s furniture-building skills qualified him as one of the group’s carpentry experts. Together, they replaced rotted beams, rebuilt the roof deck, and laid new floors, among other tasks to build 20 apartments for East Villagers in need and make 742 East 6th Street livable again. Since then, Habitat for Humanity has renovated more than 1,000 homes and apartments across New York City.
“Rosalynn and I have never had a more memorable and fulfilling experience than the two work camps we led to the Lower East Side in Manhattan,” Carter said shortly after the project ended. “The work was difficult, dirty, and sometimes even dangerous, but every moment was packed with a feeling of gratitude that we could be part of the project.”
This also marked the first effort in what came to be known as the Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter Work Project, an annual week-long blitz in which the Carters worked with more than 100,000 volunteer builders to construct more than 4,000 new homes across the country and in 14 nations around the world. Projects have ranged from town homes on Chicago’s West Side, one-story ranchers in the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and once-vacant row houses in Baltimore, to new living spaces for those in poverty in Central America, the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific.
“We look on the Habitat projects as meeting one of the basic human needs of people: having a decent place to live,” Jimmy Carter related to the Times in a 2013 interview. “And it has taught us a practical way of breaking down the almost impossible barrier between the rich and the folks who live nearby with a completely different economic and social status who we otherwise might never know.” And it all got its start at a six-story building in the East Village.
To learn more about this history of this and every other building in the East Village, explore our East Village Building Blocks website.