The slight, soft-spoken, gentle giant behind Harlem’s Addict’s Recovery Center (ARC) is a lightning rod for change. James Allen, the 86-year-old founder and director of ARC, has been helping those trapped in the prison of substance abuse find help, hope and regain their lives for more than 50 years.
Allen, a former jazz musician, was himself an addict. He lived in California with his father. It was there he met a trumpet player named Zeke Trent. Allen liked the instrument and went to a pawnshop and bought his own. He organized a band and learned to read music. “I lost a couple of rooms with that trumpet playing,” he joked.
He went to Los Angeles and worked as a waiter. He heard a ukulele at a party and liked the sound of it. He decided to buy one, but when he went to the pawn shop, he walked out with a guitar instead. That would be his instrument of choice.
Next, it was on to San Francisco, where he took guitar lessons and began playing with different groups. Then he went to Louisiana and joined a group called the Dukes of Swing. He worked with them throughout the South.
Allen later came to New York and worked as a solo singer and musician. He worked at the old Baby Grande. Nipsey Russell was the host. Allen accompanied the famed tap dancer Sandman, whom he recalls as a great pool player. “He beat me out of all my money,” Allen joked.
But every time Allen started playing music, he would get high, even sometimes stealing instruments from other musicians to support his habit. He knew he had to change. In 1957, at the urging of his wife, Mary, Allen went to a treatment facility in Lexington, Ky., affectionately referred to as “KY,” to kick his habit for good. During that time, he didn’t touch his guitar for two years. “But that was good because I was getting my spirit strong,” Allen said.
“KY was a U.S. public service hospital set up by the military and was one of just two places in the United States where a drug victim could go and withdraw from drugs,” he said.
“There were about 2,700 people there, people I knew, musicians and drug dealers. I was 33 years old then. I looked at all these people that I had looked up to and admired and realized that we were all a bunch of bums. I became desperate and wanted to get my life together. I remembered my grandparents and their relationship with God. I started reading the Bible. It didn’t make sense, but I read it. They gave you one sheet of paper a day at KY and I used that paper to write lots of notes. I found out who I was in writing about myself. I still have my notes,” Allen said.
“I came back to New York City in 1958, filled with the Holy Spirit. I told my wife that we had to go to church somewhere. We went to the Christian Reform Church on 122nd Street and Seventh Ave. Rev. Calender was announcing that an addict had come into the church and asked, ‘Does God love dope fiends?’ He started having meetings and I got involved. That’s how ARC got started.”
“He was inviting prestigious people in trying to figure out how to handle this problem. He developed skits with me and another addict. We would go to these political clubs and do these skits. That’s how I met Percy Sutton and Charles Rangel. We did that to show that there was no place in New York where you could go to kick a drug habit,” Allen said.
“The result was that we were able to join with the New York Council on Narcotics and pressure the city into opening up 17 beds at 17th Street and Second Avenue at Manhattan General Hospital. That was the first treatment that was made available. This was in the early 1960s. When the Rockefeller program came into being, we were able to get funds to open a drug residential program on 123rd Street and a day care center at 2285 Eighth Avenue. The police precinct is there now.”
“Since then, we opened 1881 Park Ave. It was just me and some more addicts who had started to hang on. We would go through the community and beg stores for food and cook it in the church’s kitchen. I used to buy jobs for people. That’s how addicts began to congregate around me. They would be happy to hang out in the church with me. But at the end of the day, they would look so sad.
“It’s all right, we’re safe here now, but then we have to go back out in the street and its back to drugs. That’s how we were able to profile the need for residential treatment. Right after Rockefeller became governor, I was able to get the program,” Allen said.
“There was a meeting at the Harlem YMCA and Rockefeller was speaking there. He was talking about the drug problem and everybody was booing him. I said we don’t have any treatment at all, so why don’t we listen to what he’s got to say before we condemn it? Everybody got quiet and listened to him. I was told later that he told one of his aids to find out who I was and that’s how we got funded. It was a God-inspired chance,” Allen said.
There are 204 addicts who receive treatment at the Madison Avenue facility and 75 at Park Avenue. Allen runs a tight ship.
“There are four levels of development. Probation is where they learn the rules of the program. Pre-employment is a holding pattern where they have to decide if they want to go to school, go to work or go into a job training program. Pre-re-entry occurs when they go to work. They have to start saving a third of what they earn. The state requires that they also pay a client’s fee. That’s good and it teaches the responsibility of paying rent.
Next, they go into the re-entry phase and plan on living outside the agency. We give them freedom at each level of these phases as an incentive to keep moving,” Allen said.
“The state has decided that people who work stay off drugs longer than people who don’t. They’ve funded us with an entire vocational department at ARC. I’m elated with that because it means that we can refer people to work in a more refined manner than we were doing before.
“There is another phase which is like the dungeon. That phase is called violation. When people violate the rules, they go into that minus-one phase. They have to get up early in the morning and have to attend meetings to try and determine why they relapsed. The duration of the program is nine to 12 months for all four phases,” Allen said.
Between 1,800 to 2,000 people come through the program each year. ARC also employs many of its graduates.
“When we could not renew our lease at 253-55 W. 123rd Street, Percy Sutton called me and said a friend had a building. So we looked at the Park Avenue building and we were able to get funds to renovate it and turn it into a residential program. Mayor [David] Dinkins made it possible for us to get a certificate of occupancy and that’s where we operated. It was one of the first places in New York City where HIV/AIDS victims could have a bed.
“The mortgage was $130,000, which we couldn’t raise. That’s why we organized the choir. The choir would sing in different churches and raise pittance sums of money. We gave a concert at Town Hall, Center Hall and Union Seminary, and we paid off that mortgage. I realized when the choir paid off the mortgage that God didn’t just put them together to pay off a mortgage, and they’ve been singing ever since,” he said.
The crown jewel of ARC is its world-famous choir. There are two groups, one that performs with music and an a cappella group that Allen directs. They sing every Wednesday from 11 a.m. to noon. Hundreds of tourists flock to Harlem’s Metropolitan Baptist Church at 126th Street and Madison Avenue to hear them.
The choir has performed in France, Italy, Germany and Japan. Their song, “Walk with Me,” was used by rapper Kanye West and in a few movies too. The choir has just finished recording a new CD that will be released soon.
“Every thing started with that addict asking, ‘Does God love dope fiends?’And I believe that everything that we have done is God’s answer to that question,” Allen said.
For information about the Addicts Recovery Center, call (212) 427-6960.