Summer 1998, Vol. 5, No. 3
Settlement Houses: Old Idea in New Form Builds Communities
by Barbara Trainin Blank
As the National Association of Social Workers celebrates the social work profession' 100th birthday this year, it pays tribute to some institutions as old as social work itself. One is the settlement house.
Settlement houses have changed, but contrary to many people' perceptions, they do exist. Some no longer continue the primary orientation toward immigrants, although others do serve newer immigrant populations from different shores, such as Asia and Latin America.
“It' a very interesting movement,” says Bernard J. Wohl, executive director of the Goddard Riverside Community Center on Manhattan' Upper West Side. “It started with immigration, but it was also on the cutting edge of social reform and child welfare.”
The old settlements taught adult education and Americanization classes, provided schooling for the children of immigrants, organized job clubs, offered after-school recreation, and initiated public health services. They offered trade and vocational training, as well as classes in music, art, and theater. They combatted juvenile delinquency and gave recreational opportunities to kids and the elderly.
Some of these services, in altered form, continue today.
By 1918, settlement houses had become permanent fixtures on the urban landscape, with 400 of them stretching across the country.
Settlement houses were characterized not by a set of services but by an approach: that initiative to correct social ills should come from indigenous neighborhood leaders or organizations. Settlement workers were not dispensing charity; they were working toward the general welfare.
Underlying all those services was a philosophy of upward mobility, a struggle to help each immigrant group become part of the mainstream and the “American dream.” Working in settlement houses was also, coincidentally, a way of entry into national affairs by women such as Jane Addams and Frances Perkins. These women' paths might otherwise have been blocked because of their gender, according to Margaret Berry, past executive director of the United Neighborhood Centers Association, Inc., who wrote a history of settlement houses.
The “settlement house” was at one time practically synonymous with social work in this country. The movement began officially in the United States in 1886, with the establishment of the Neighborhood Guild, later called University Settlement, in New York City. Its founder was Stanton Coit.
But the idea was not originally American. The settlement house was modeled after Toynbee Hall, established in London two years earlier by Canon Samuel Barnett.
America' most famous settlement house, Hull House, was the creation of Jane Addams, later a Nobel Laureate for Peace, and Ellen Starr. Established in 1889, it was intended as a place where the two women could share their knowledge of art and literature with the people surrounding the institution, mostly immigrants.
The enterprise expanded well beyond their expectations. Because the people who came to participate in their activities brought along so many children, Hull and Starr began a kindergarten program. Many more clubs and activities developed-some planned and some not. The flexibility and responsiveness of Hull House became the hallmark of settlement houses.
The focus of settlement houses, then as now, was on city slums and the amelioration of wretched living conditions. There was often a religious motivation for the sponsors. Jane Addams was a Quaker, a group also behind the Friends Neighborhood Guild in Philadelphia. Many settlements today still have affiliations, even if loose ones, with religious groups.
Because of the cultural diversity among immigrants, settlement workers had to come to their task with a certain humility. They had as much to learn from the immigrants as the new Americans did from them.
Much has changed about settlement houses. Gone, most notably, are the resident social workers settling within the neighborhoods they served-who gave the settlement house its name.
Over time, the number of settlement workers who actually resided in the settlement house or neighborhood center became limited, says Wilfred Isaacs, executive director of United Neighborhood Centers Association (UNCA), once known as the National Federation of Settlements. Another critical change was that workers, once all or largely volunteer, are now paid-although volunteer opportunities abound. “However, all local centers remained committed to providing neighborhood services with as much local control and staff as possible,” says Isaacs.