Aliyah Lewis sat on a plastic chair at the edge of the auditorium at the Jacob A. Riis community center, surveying the excitement in front of her.
Prominent politicians, including U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney and Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, along with the Riis Settlement directors and board members, rushed to arrange themselves into a receiving line. Outside the building, more than a dozen members of the media jostled for position.
Mary, Crown Princess of Denmark, was on her way.
After wondering aloud whether the princess would show up wearing a gown or a crown, Aliyah, 17, turned to a couple of teenage boys sitting nearby.
“How do you become a princess anyways?” she asked. They laughed, but one of them had a question of his own: “So why is the princess of Denmark visiting us?”
In fact, the Danish royal family has a long-standing interest in the Jacob A. Riis Settlement House’s community programs, which mainly serve the residents of Queensbridge and Ravenswood Houses. The Danish Queen’s sister, Princess Benedikte, is the patron of Riis Settlement – in part to honor the Danish founder that the center is named after, Jacob A. Riis (1849-1914).
“Jacob A. Riis was from the small Danish town of Ribe….He immigrated to New York in 1870,” explained Flemming Heilmann, chairman emeritus of Riis Settlement. “He had a famous career in America as a social reformer, photographer and journalist—he published How the Other Half Lives—but he’s only recently become more recognized by the Danish.”
The most recent royal visitor, Princess Mary, had arrived in New York on Wednesday with her husband, Prince Frederik, the heir to the Danish throne. Her tour of the Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement House headquarters, located at Queensbridge Houses, was one of the last stops during the four days the royal couple spent in New York City.
The princess —wearing a light blazer, cropped black pants, and python print stilettos—stepped out of a nondescript black sedan and barely spoke a word as she was led on a whirlwind tour. After six months of careful planning, the Riis Settlement staff only had one hour to give the princess a sense of the array of programming that the non-profit organization offers residents of Western Queens.
The event began with short speeches in the auditorium, where previous participants of the Danish Cultural Exchange program explained how their visit to Denmark had enriched their lives. The tour then moved downstairs, where Princess Mary observed a workshop about body image put on by the Girls Inspiring in Real Life program, or G.I.R.L. for short.
When the Riis Settlement staff tried to move the tour along to the citizenship program ceremony for new immigrants, the princess interrupted the brisk pace of the tour by saying to the girls, “I’m interested. What else can you do to build healthy body image?”
Despite the gaggle of camera operators and politicians sharing their classroom, the girls remained well spoken and poised as they chatted with the princess. But after she left the room, they hugged each other and beamed with pride.
The princess’s visit on Sunday signaled to some Queensbridge residents that the Danish royal family’s support of their community is sincere.
“It’s a pleasure to be able to meet her,” said long-time Riis Settlement participant Elizabeth McQueen, 76, who has lived in Queensbridge Houses for the last 50 years. “Her visit shows that she cares and wants to see how our community center is doing.”