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.
Since World War II, the number of settlements has fluctuated. Today, it is estimated that there are more than 900 settlement houses in the United States, according to UNCA, an association of 156 of them. Formerly known as the National Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers, UNCA was actually founded in 1911 by Jane Addams and other pioneers of the settlement movement.
There is also an International Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers, which was organized in 1926 and now has a membership of more than 4500 settlement houses and neighborhood centers around the world.
“The group work concept actually developed out of the settlement houses,” says John Ramey, general secretary of the Association for the Advancement of Social Work With Groups, which includes many settlement workers. Ramey once headed the Neighborhood Settlement in Akron, Ohio, and labored in other settlements.
“Today, there are other community-based organizations, including Ys, community centers, and neighborhood centers that work with that same orientation,” he adds.
One reason for the near invisibility of settlement houses is that despite some associations, each one works to some degree alone in response to its individual community. Another reason is the name confusion.
“Essentially, settlement houses are neighborhood centers,” explains Ramey. “The reason they don't stand out, perhaps, on a national level is because each center decides what to do and what to call itself. Some are called neighborhood centers, some just centers. You can't tell the function from the name.”
In fact, neighborhood centers may not be distinguishable in some cases from community centers. “As far as I know, there are no true settlement houses anymore,” Ramey asserts. “It' not like when my wife and I were married, and we lived in one. We had no car. That' why there' a confusion of the term.”
To purists, says Wilfred Isaacs of UNCA, the change of his organization' name from Federation of Settlements reflects a loss of some of the history and identification of the movement. “But basically we dropped the name because people didn’t understand the difference between settlement house and neighborhood center, or community center,” he says. “People assumed the name ‘settlement’ came from the fact that it settled cases. There was a lot of misinterpretation.”
Part of the fine line between community centers and settlement houses lies in history. “Our philosophy is distinct,” Isaacs explains. “It is to build community, with and not just for neighborhoods. We work with neighborhoods to develop their strengths, not just to provide services.”
Settlement houses are still involved in advocacy, and many work with community residents “from birth to death,” points out Wohl. “Settlement houses take on the needs of the time. We never expected to be involved in housing for the homeless, but that' what the area we're in called for. Now Goddard Riverside operates 500 units for former mentally ill individuals, homeless, and the elderly.”
Settlement houses today are more professionalized and more institutionalized than their predecessors, although the idea of neighborhood access hasn't changed. “They're still organized to be able to do whatever it takes to bring the community together and to improve life,” Ramey says, “whether that means working in small groups or large.”
“Settlement houses are laboratories where social workers and others can experiment, try things,” adds Wohl. “What Goddard Riverside is really all about is values. It's about caring. We try to cut across racial, economic, sexual, and other lines, to do what it takes to build communities.”
Mentioning settlement houses may provoke an “ah-hah” reaction in some big cities. In New York City, for example, individual houses such as Henry Street and Educational Alliance are famous. But the network is much more extensive than most people realize.
United Neighborhood Houses in New York City offers more than 430 programs and activities, according to the organization' Web site. Goddard Riverside is one member. Services provided include early-childhood education, after-school programs, teen centers, English as a second language, GED classes, job training, and tutoring.
Also included are recreational activities, meals for the elderly, mental health counseling, drug prevention, art, music, and drama. UNH also works for policy changes in child care, senior services, literacy, employment, housing, education, nutrition, and health care.
In a very different part of the country, the Good Neighbor Settlement House was established in 1953 in Brownsville, Texas, and is affiliated with the United Methodist Church. Its four major areas of service are supplying meals to those in need and the homeless; continuing programs, such as Girl Scouts, nutrition classes, adult education for the developmentally disabled; a housing rehabilitation program; and a thrift shop for the community.
Germantown Settlement in northwest Philadelphia, established in 1884, works to revitalize the neighborhoods and improve the lives of the 195,000 low- to moderate-income residents who live within Greater Germantown. Elsewhere in the Philadelphia area is the Lutheran Social Mission Society, which provides a domestic violence and counseling program, education program, employment and training, a teen parent program, food center, and senior center, among other services.
The Settlement House in Salem, Massachusetts, was founded in 1908. Its purpose was to respond to the needs of immigrant families in the community. Today, programs include child care, intergenerational activities, cultural and recreational experiences, entry-level information and referral services for job seekers, parent support groups, meals and snacks, and an academically oriented preschool program.
Along with professionalization comes the opportunity for trained social workers who would like a career or at least some experience in settlement houses. Joe Rogers, program director of the 99-year-old Southside Settlement House in Columbus, Ohio, is an MSW whose interest in various forms of social work was sparked by an internship at a resident summer camp.
One thing Rogers likes about settlement houses is their diversity. “Every day is different,” he says. “We have scheduled groups, but beyond that, the settlement house deals with a wide range of concerns.”
While not a mental health agency, the settlement house may refer individuals to counseling. It may become involved in education, such as special-needs issues. Some programs, such as GED training and AA meetings, take place at the settlement house, although they are are not actually sponsored by it.
Free lunches are served at the settlement house. Because of Southside's open-door policy, says Rogers, community residents just stop in and talk sometimes. Clients served range from the young to senior citizens.
“We’re a cross between a recreation center and a community center,” says Rogers. “But we also try to work with kids on conflicts. We're a grass-roots institution that tries to build the community and relationships. We promote community clean-up and community events.”
Casework does come to play in settlement houses, especially in terms of referrals. Rogers says he “occasionally” does some counseling, although the focus is on groups.
Rogers had worked earlier in the mental health field, and finds settlement houses less restrictive. “The work is more flexible and autonomous,” he claims.
“You can’t look for patterns in settlement houses,” agrees Ramey. “They are set up as independent organizations to help define community needs. That may mean setting up tutorial centers or setting up neighborhood parks. Sometimes someone sets up a settlement house, and the neighborhood spins off that unexpectedly.”
Changes have come to settlements. In order to make the most of limited resources, the United Neighborhood Houses of New York has installed a computer network linking two UNH offices and five settlement houses to common stores of data. That saves caseworkers many hours of paperwork by consolidating records and storing them electronically.
Other links are becoming more common for settlement houses. One is the tendency for settlements to band together-either locally, regionally or even nationwide-to discuss common concerns. There are consortia of settlement houses in Cleveland, New York City, and Philadelphia, and the trend is growing.
Sources of funding have also changed. “All (settlements) have been transformed from the settlements of the turn-of-the-century reformers, whose work in poor, immigrant communities was funded by donations, into
large multiservice agencies, still located in poor communities but funded primarily by the government,” wrote Susan Landers in the January 1998 issue of NASW News.
There are some new issues, such as welfare reform. But, noted Landers, based on the observation of settlement workers, the basic aspect of working with people, the kind of philosophy inherited from Jane Addams, is still very strong. So is the concept of the settlement as a self-help, community-supported agency that helps the community remain independent and enhance the quality of life of members.
Some things never change.
Barbara Trainin Blank is a freelance writer in Harrisburg, PA. She writes regularly for THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER and other national publications.