Three-room Apartment in 1920S House


Location Jamaica (Queens)

Rent $0 (inheritance)

Square feet 600

Occupant Janet Henry (artist; teacher, Brooklyn Heights Montessori School)

You’ve lived in this house for almost 40 years—since you were a teenager! My mother left it to five of us kids in 1987. “Kids” is kind of ridiculous now, since everybody’s almost 50 or over. My sister Valorie lives downstairs. Originally we grew up in East Harlem, the Johnson Projects. Back then, the projects were considered to be a step up. People who lived in the projects had ambition. Later, everybody bought homes in the Bronx, Queens, Flatbush. My mother raised us herself. She got a lot of help from relatives. But when I was nine, she decided she was going to get a profession, went to nursing school, and sent two of us at a time to Antigua to live with cousins. No, it was not great. West Indians—they basically break you down. Then they build you back into what you’re supposed to be—someone to toe the line, not be an obstreperous American kid with idiosyncrasies. It comes out of British society, that class thing, not to be unusual. Antigua’s been independent since the ’60s, run by black people. My cousins lived in town, in old-fashioned wood beach houses with shutters. They didn’t have indoor plumbing. I came back to New York in ’59, went to Art and Design High School, got a scholarship to SVA, then went to FIT. We moved here to Queens in the mid ’60s, when it was remnants of Italians. Cuomo went to elementary school around here. The Italians are mostly in Ozone Park now. There were always blacks. The Portuguese started coming when we did. They’re still here.

Do you hear them singing the fado? No. A lot of men do construction. Does everybody get along? This kind of environment, we’re all in it together. There’s a retirement home down the street, full of Koreans. When they first came, you’d see them walk in groups, holding on to each other, terrified. Not now. When we moved out here, we still went to church in Harlem, St. Martin’s Episcopal. We were all in the choir. I was a project kid who was kept indoors. It was my whole social life. A bunch of girls hanging out together. In summer, everybody came out here to my mother’s house. Today people complain about coming to Queens. We have another house in East Elmhurst that my grandmother left to us jointly. She said, anyone contests it, they get nada. My mother left us her St. Croix house. We have my grandfather’s on Antigua.

You’re these big, wealthy property owners. No. You don’t make money on property. Nine-tenths of rent goes to maintenance, taxes. You just want to make a house pay for itself. We just remortgaged this one to pay for renovation so we could rent out two of the apartments.

What a wonderful thing to live where you did when you were young. Artist Joseph Cornell lived in his mother’s house on Utopia Parkway until the end. That’s where Tony Curtis would come see his work. People always tell me about Cornell! They also say I look so much younger than I am. But I think it’s because I didn’t get married. It became evident that romance wouldn’t give me the sustenance I wanted. My relationship with my sisters is my emotional life. And my work. My nonartist friends think about retiring. Artists don’t retire.

Retirement is kind of corny. Plus who can afford to these days? People have to work until they fall over. I just got a Penny McCall grant. She came here a few years ago to see my work. She and her husband were the ones who got killed in a car crash doing relief work in the Balkans. Until the grant, I kind of went where the wave swept me. Now I can travel, but I want to come back here.

Your glassed-in porch is filled with plants. All the children in the family have portraits taken on my porch. I have a night-blooming cereus. It has a fragrance to attract pollinators. No, there’s nothing to pollinate it here. It sits on the porch and it beautifies.