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By Ralph da Costa Nunez and Ethan G. Sribnick

Ralph da Costa Nunez is president and CEO of the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness, where Ethan G. Sribnick serves as a senior research associate. Nunez and Sribnick are the co-authors of the recently published The Poor Among Us: A History of Family Poverty and Homelessness in New York City. This book explores the experiences of impoverished men, women, and children as well as public and private efforts to confront their plight, from the time of the first European settlements in New York to today.


On a rainy March morning in 1893, the life of a young nurse named Lillian Wald changed forever. Wald was giving a lesson in bed-making at a school on the Lower East Side when a young girl appeared and hurriedly requested that Wald attend to her sick mother. Following the girl over broken roadways, “dirty mattresses,” and “heaps of refuse”; passing “reeking” tenement houses, “odorous fish stands,” and “evil-smelling, uncovered garbage cans,” Wald finally arrived at the crowded apartment where a woman had hemorrhaged during childbirth.  Seeing the woman’s “wretched” and “pitiful” state and providing aid to a family with nowhere else to turn had a profound effect on Wald. “Within a half an hour” of coming to this woman’s assistance, Wald later wrote, she had determined that she would move to the Lower East Side.[i]

Lillian Wald was the founder and longtime director of the Henry Street Settlement and a leader in the movement for social reform in New York City. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Wald’s response to this experience—what she called her “baptism of fire”—is telling. Not only did she want to work to assist families like this one, but she also wanted to live among them. Within six months Wald and her fellow nurse Mary Brewster had rented an apartment on Jefferson Street and begun a mission to provide health care to their new community. In 1895 Wald and her nurses’ settlement moved into a house on Henry Street purchased for her by philanthropist Jacob Schiff.  The organization, taking its name from its new address, would become known as the Henry Street Settlement.[ii]


Today, Henry Street Settlement, headquartered on the Lower East Side, offers health-care services, job-placement assistance, transitional housing, and youth programs. Courtesy of Henry Street Settlement.


This impulse to live among the poor was common to Wald’s generation. It formed the basis of the movement to build settlement houses in poor communities around the world. Established during a period of social, economic, and political reform that historians have termed the Progressive Era, settlements became central to reshaping public policy toward poor families. Today, many of these settlement houses still exist as community-based social-service providers. They no longer house workers seeking to live among the poor and working class, but they continue to serve economically disadvantaged families in a very different economic and social context from that in which they were founded.

In 1884 British university students opened Toynbee Hall, the first settlement house, in London’s impoverished East End. The students believed that living among the working class would bring about cross-cultural understanding and resolve the class tensions of an industrialized, urban society. Inspired by the example of Toynbee, where he had lived for three months, Stanton Coit established the Neighborhood Guild (later renamed University Settlement) on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1886. In 1889 graduates of the nation’s elite colleges for women opened College Settlement on Rivington Street, also on the Lower East Side. Wald and Brewster themselves stayed at College Settlement while they found their own place to live in the neighborhood. More settlements quickly followed in other working-class neighborhoods.  Mary White Ovington helped establish the Greenpoint Settlement in Brooklyn in 1896. Mary K. Simkhovitch founded Greenwich House in Greenwich Village in 1902. By 1908 there were more than 100 settlements across the United States, including 19 in New York City.[iii]

The first settlements, especially in England, focused on the spiritual awakening of the individual. Settlement organizers believed that meetings between members of the working class and the middle class would improve the lives of both. Much of the early settlement work focused on cultural activities—music, art, lectures—that would lead to communication between the classes. In the United States, settlements—while maintaining cultural programs—often put more focus on the social environment and less on the individual. Economic and social forces had created dehumanizing conditions, settlement leaders argued, and settlements should work to confront these conditions directly. Settlements, then, aimed not only to provide services and assistance to their neighbors but also to spur reform that could improve the way the poor and working class lived.

Women directed much of the settlement movement in the United States. While some organizations, such as University Settlement, were started by and for men, the majority of settlements either allowed only women residents or were open to both sexes. And middle-class women thrived in this environment. In the years after the Civil War, new women’s colleges had opened and older universities had begun to admit both men and women; before the turn of the century, women made up 36 percent of the nation’s undergrads and 13 percent of graduate students. But after women graduated, many professional opportunities remained closed to them. Settlement work provided a unique opportunity for college-educated women to engage in work they found meaningful.[iv]

The playground in the backyard of Henry Street Settlement is shown. Settlements provided a range of activities and classes for children and encouraged safe, supervised play. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The typical settlement house evolved to offer a range of services under one roof. In the morning, young children would arrive for day care and kindergarten programs. During the day, families in great need might come for referrals to charitable organizations for relief or medical assistance. In the afternoon, school-age children would arrive to play, take part in organized recreation, or produce crafts.  The evening would bring the meetings of various clubs, at which neighborhood residents could discuss the issues they faced and devise community solutions.  Some nights, settlements would host dances, festivals, or concerts, providing an alternative to the neighborhood saloon or dance hall.  Ideally, settlement workers formed close relationships with their clients, so that settlements could offer the social-service programs that answered the most urgent community needs. In neighborhoods where few residents spoke English, for example, settlement workers might offer evening language classes.  Other communities might prefer more specialized training, as did those who participated in the Social Science and Social Reform Clubs at the Neighborhood Guild.  In every case, settlement workers tried to ensure that a spectrum of offerings was available from day to day to serve as many neighborhood residents as possible.[v]

But settlements did not see themselves only as service providers; they also intended to become centers of neighborhood reform. Settlement workers looked to foster activism among their neighbors in order to create meaningful change. “If social improvements are to be undertaken by one class on behalf of another,” wrote Simkhovitch of Greenwich House, “no permanent changes are likely to be effected. The participation by all concerned is necessary for sound improvements.”[vi] To better their communities, settlement workers led movements for child-labor laws, public playgrounds, housing regulations, and public aid to widowed mothers. Yet it was not always clear that members of these communities supported such reforms. There were frequent complaints, for instance, that child-labor laws removed a source of income for families or that parents found it more difficult to supervise children on playgrounds than in the street.

The perspective of settlement workers would prove influential in the creation of a national Welfare State during the New Deal.  Many of the people who crafted the Social Security Act of 1935 and other reform legislation of Franklin Roosevelt’s administration were either current or former settlement workers. Yet while the settlement movement achieved national influence in the era of the Great Depression, this was also a period of financial crisis for many individual settlement houses. Nearly half of the settlements that had been in operation in 1910 closed by the 1930s.  Those settlements that survived were forced to reduce their budgets. The influx of New Deal spending on work relief and social-welfare programs temporarily assisted the settlements, but the period of the Second World War and the years after proved to be a low point in the settlement movement.[vii]

The War on Poverty in the 1960s would revive many settlements. In fact, some of the models of the community action program were created at settlement houses. As the federal government expanded its support for social services and community-based nonprofit programs, the settlements thrived.  For instance, the federal government invested $30 million in programs on the Lower East Side.  In Chicago, Hull House expanded from a staff of around 40 in 1962 to more than 300 in 1969.  And due to public funds this growth has continued. A former executive director of Henry Street, Danny Kronenfeld, has noted that in 1966 the settlement’s budget was about $100,000, much of it coming from private sources, but that by 2002 its budget was $33,000,000, with 80 percent coming from government sources.[viii]

Many observers and settlement-house participants have argued that in the process of becoming publicly funded social-service providers, settlements have sacrificed their uniqueness and their sense of mission. To be sure, settlements have lost much of their activist culture and have, in many cases, limited their political involvement. But the transformations they have undergone do not reflect a diminished sense of the settlement mission so much as a change in the nature of social-welfare policy in which the settlements work—change that the settlements themselves helped bring about. The Progressive Era settlements received little public funding, but that was partially because little public funding was available.  The transformation of settlements into publicly funded social-service providers has allowed these organizations to survive and, in some cases, to thrive.[ix]

And settlements have continued to be incubators of creative thinking in social policy. One example of policy innovation was the creation of the Urban Family Center in 1973—forty years ago this year. As New York City witnessed the beginning of a crisis in family homelessness, Henry Street responded by creating the first service-rich shelter for families to help them transition back to permanent housing.  This model proliferated across the city and the country as family homelessness continued to rise over much of the 1980s and 1990s.

Today, the settlement house remains one of the primary community-based social-service providers in New York City.  In neighborhoods throughout the city, places with names like “neighborhood house,” “settlement house,” and “community center” are often part of the settlement-house tradition. Recognizing the strength of neighborhood-based services, newer organizations such as BronxWorks (founded in 1973) or Queens Community House (founded in 1975) have identified themselves as settlement houses. Settlements today are very different in many ways from the houses founded in the 1890s and 1900s—they no longer have workers living as residents, they receive more public than private funding, and they no longer see creating cross-class relationships as central to their mission—but they still reflect the initiative of the settlement-house founders to provide direct services to communities in need.

Click here for a historical map showing the location of several settlement houses in the city. This was created as part of the website, which will launch in late August.

[i] Lillian D Wald, The House on Henry Street (New York: H. Holt and Co., 1915), 1–7.

[ii] Ibid., 7–25.

[iii] Allen Freeman Davis, Spearheads for Reform; the Social Settlements and the Progressive Movement, 1890-1914 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 1–14; William Isaac Cole, Motives and Results of the Social Settlement Movement (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 1908), 7.

[iv] Davis, Spearheads for Reform; the Social Settlements and the Progressive Movement, 1890-1914, 31–38.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Mary K Simkhovitch, Neighborhood; My Story of Greenwich House, 1st ed. (New York: Norton, 1938), 93.

[vii] Davis, Spearheads for Reform; the Social Settlements and the Progressive Movement, 1890-1914, 242–245; Robert Fischer and Michael Fabricant, “From Henry Street to Contracted Services: Financing the Settlement House” (presented at the The Settlement House Movement in New York from Lillian Wald to 2002, Gotham Center For New York City History, 2002),

[viii] Danny Kronenfeld, “Shifting Priorities: Social Action, Professionalization and the Settlement” (presented at the The Settlement House Movement in New York from Lillian Wald to 2002, Gotham Center For New York City History, 2002),

[ix] Judith Ann Trolander, Professionalism and Social Change : from the Settlement House Movement to Neighborhood Centers, 1886 to the Present (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987).