As America honors the life and legacy of former US President Jimmy Carter, who recently entered hospice care at the age of 98 — W42ST recalls the 39th president’s lesser-known Hell’s Kitchen connections through the eyes of someone who met him one summer in Midtown.
Carter served a term as president from 1977 to 1981 before losing re-election to Ronald Reagan. Just a few years after his time in America’s highest office, Carter, his wife Rosalynn and 40 of their friends spent 27 hours on a bus to Midtown, arriving at the gritty streets of 1984 Hell’s Kitchen and the Metro Baptist Church on W40th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues. The Carters and the rest of the volunteer group planned to stay at the Metro Baptist Church (now the home of Rauschenbusch Metro Ministries) before heading down to the Lower East Side to complete Carter’s first-ever Habitat for Humanity renovation.
While the trip seemed to some as spontaneous, Rob DeRocker — a member of the Metro Baptist Church and the executive director of the Lower East Side’s Habitat for Humanity project — revealed that the collaboration stemmed from a series of coincidences.
“One day in 1984 I picked up a copy of The Daily News — which I never read,” said DeRocker, “and there was a little clip saying that former President Carter was going to be in New York for the 25th anniversary of the installation of the Greek Archbishop.” DeRocker wrote to Habitat for Humanity co-founder Millard Fuller with the news and said: “Wouldn’t it be great if President Carter stopped by our project?”
DeRocker knew it was a long shot. “Back then, the notion that a former leader of the free world would visit the Ninth Precinct on the Lower East Side — which had the highest homicide rate in the city — was just unfathomable,” he said. “But I thought, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I sent off the letter and forgot about it, and then Millard called me one morning and said, ‘I got news for you — Jimmy Carter’s coming to your project.’”
DeRocker was instructed to meet the former President and his Secret Service at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel before taking them down to see the dilapidated house. “I had just turned 25 and had never been in the presence of someone of that stature or anything close to it,” he recalled. He purchased a “thrift store suit that looked like something Al Capone would have worn,” and prepared to meet America’s 39th President.
As Carter approached, “it was as if somebody had stuck a vacuum cleaner hose into my mouth and sucked out all the moisture, I was so nervous,” said DeRocker. “But I managed to say, ‘Hello, Mr President’ and reached into a bag to give him a Junior’s Cheesecake. I said, ‘Mr. President, if you don’t come back to New York for any other reason, you have to come back for Junior’s cheesecakes.’”
Not only did former President Carter accept the cheesecake, but he agreed to tour the Habitat for Humanity project. “We get up to the roof of the building and look south and see Wall Street, the World Trade Center, and north to Midtown Manhattan,” said DeRocker. “He looked in the backyard of the building and saw an elderly woman cooking her breakfast over an open fire, and that clearly moved him.” The President turned to DeRocker and said, “Robert, you know, Millard Fuller is my boss. He said, if there’s any way I can help you here, just let him know.”
DeRocker blurted out the hope that Carter would send a few carpenters to help with the E6th Street building renovation. “The next day he called Millard Fuller and said that not only was he going to send carpenters, he was going to be one of those carpenters.”
“It was 3:30 on Sunday afternoon when the bedraggled group arrived at the Metro Baptist Church in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, a seedy neighborhood just south of Times Square,” read an article in People. “Dressed in shirt-sleeves, khaki pants and Topsiders, Carter hoisted his bags up four flights of stairs to a sparsely furnished dormitory in the men’s quarters, where he and four others spread out over three double bunks. He and Rosalynn had been offered a private room, but they turned it over to a newly married couple. ‘This looks just fine,’ the former President of the United States said with a grin as he swung his suitcase onto an upper bunk.”
Clergy from the Metro Baptist Church were just as delighted to host the former head of state and donated $5,000 (about $14,000 today) to the cause. “I’m thrilled to death that President Carter is participating in this project,” said pastor Gene Bolen. “It gives feet to his faith.” DeRocker agreed. “It’s one thing for him to come down for 45 minutes and tour a building — it’s quite another for a former president to come up and work for a full week,” he said, adding, “the story just got more unbelievable as it went along.”
Making his way down W42nd Street past the prolific porn theaters and smut shops of 1980s Times Square, former President Carter “sang a hymn” and “waved to stunned passersby” as his group headed to the F train. “Though some members of the party were scandalized by the lurid marquees and advertisements promising live sex shows for 25 cents, Carter gamely marched across 42nd Street from 8th to 6th Avenues singing This is The Day that The Lord Has Made,” reported Marcia Kramer of The Daily News. Stopping to pose in front of a sign advertising a “Dirty Radio Sex Goddess”, Carter quipped, “make sure you get the marquee.”
DeRocker clearly remembers President Carter’s F train subway ride to the project site. “I was on the car with him, and there were two older women sitting on the subway seats,” he told W42ST. “One of them said to me, ‘Is that…’ and I said, ‘Uh huh,’ and she said, ‘I don’t believe it.’ President Carter said, ‘My daughter’s not going to believe this either.’” And they didn’t always take the subway — DeRocker and the former President once even jogged to the project from the church, with Carter sporting a Metro Baptist t-shirt. “He was a runner, so we jogged four miles down to the Lower East Side and went to work,” said DeRocker.
Carter and his carpenter crew lived out of the Metro Baptist Church dormitory for a full week while they repaired the derelict building at 724 E6th Street — and it wouldn’t be his last time making waves in Midtown. In 1985, Carter returned to Hell’s Kitchen and the Metro Baptist Church to bunk ahead of another Habitat for Humanity project. He held an impromptu press conference on the steps of the church while delivering pointed criticism of the Reagan administration’s response to South African apartheid.
He also highlighted his continued campaign to build more American housing, noting that “you only have to walk from here to the nearest subway early in the morning to see literally hundreds of people sleeping on the sidewalk — some older women, some younger people — in the richest city in the richest nation on Earth,” said Carter. “It’s a shame for Americans not to be concerned with this everywhere.”
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And while 37 years later, affordable housing is still a dire issue in New York City and nationwide, the former President’s work with Habitat for Humanity leaves a legacy of having personally built as many as 14,000 homes in 14 countries. Looking back on Carter’s first venture in 1984, DeRocker called it, “the hammer swing heard around the world.” He added that while the renovation “wasn’t going to solve the housing crisis on E6th Street, let alone New York City, it gave Habitat for Humanity a household name. It emboldened all these other cities around the country, where you had volunteers that were trying to get a Habitat for Humanity project started, a new kind of exposure.”
And his own memories of Carter? “People ask me, ‘what was he like?’” said DeRocker. “My experience is just a snapshot, of course — but when I think about his legacy and about him in general, it’s that rare combination of intensity and humility.”