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The Phoenix House Foundation commissioned the Columbia Center for Oral History Research (CCOHR) at INCITE to carry out a long-discussed oral history project. The goal of the project was to conduct a series of interviews in order to document the history of the Phoenix House and its leadership in drug treatment innovation.

A total of 31 individuals were interviewed for this project over a total of 80 hours of recorded audio. Some of these narrators were involved in Phoenix House for a short period of time, while others remained connected over the span decades. Each speaks to a series of themes that captures the richness and dynamics the intuition’s history.

Together, they illustrate how Phoenix House changed drug rehabilitation by proving that the power of treatment lies in the peer group. The Phoenix House story gains from the diversity of narrators’ voices whose perceptions, experiences, and opinions at times complement and at times compete with one another. Themes emerging from the project include:

  • The birth of Phoenix House when the 6 heroin addicts moved into 205 West 85th Street

  • Power of community

  • The Therapeutic Community model of treatment, its evolution over time

  • National Guard helps Phoenix House move from Hart Island to Riverside

  • The City of the Forgotten demonstration outside of Gracie Mansion; Beame’s private tour

  • National expansion to California

  • Nancy Reagan- collapse of Nancy Reagan Center Project in California, Vanity Fair article

  • New real estate acquisitions- location and timing

  • Acquisition of competitors; Daytop (Florida), Marathon (Northeast), APPLE (Long Island)

  • Partnership with RAND’s Drug Policy Research Center focusing on treatment outcomes

  • Impact of national and state policies on treatment and funding

  • Narrative of resilience

CCOHR delved deeply into the activities at Phoenix House in an effort to understand its development, important internal changes, leadership transitions, expansion of programs, and so on. In order to create an oral history that was both rich and representative, we identified three periods of inquiry in Phoenix House’s history: origins, growth, and leader. We selected periods that make the most effective use of the actual experience of potential interviewees, spanning the House's founding in 1967 through today.

Themes discussed by the narrators of the Phoenix House Foundation Oral History project include increasing medicalization of the treatment model and professionalization of staff, new health insurance funding structures, the self-help model of drug treatment, organizational culture and expansion, leadership, educational programs, incarceration and drug courts, the evolution of the board of directors, research and evaluating outcomes, sustainability of treatment, methadone and other drug therapies, fundraising, acquisitions, psychology, spirituality, addiction, government regulation, philanthropy, adolescents, advocacy, public relations, built environment, abstinence, marijuana legalization, journalism, consulting, social networks, stigma, therapy, crack epidemics, and more.

Interviewers on the Project include:

  • Caitlin Bertin-Mahieux is Senior Project Manager at INCITE, which houses the Columbia Center for Oral History Research. She holds an MPA in Social Policy from Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, and an MA in Peace Studies from Trinity College Dublin.

  • Sue A. Kaplan, JD, is a Research Associate Professor in the Department of Population Health and a Research Scientist at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. The focus of her work is on disparities in health outcomes for vulnerable populations in urban areas. 

  • Kristin Murphy is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at Columbia University. She holds an MA in Sociology from Columbia University.

  • Lance Thurner is a freelance oral historian and PhD candidate in the Department of History at Rutgers University. He holds an MA from Columbia’s Oral History Master of Arts program.

  • Cameron Vanderscoff is a freelance oral historian. He holds an MA from Columbia’s Oral History Master of Arts program.