The Rebirth of the Settlement House Movement

12/03/2010 6:00 AM |

Most people who have seen contemporary performance work in downtown Manhattan have at the very least heard of Abrons Arts Center and the organization that gave rise to it—Henry Street Settlement. But fewer people are aware of the organization that came to the Lower East Side before Henry Street—University Settlement—or of the new series of public performances that's been growing there over the past three years.

Inspired by a desire to recapture some of the radical impulses that gave rise to settlement houses in the US at the end of the 1800s, Alison Fleminger, the curator of the Performance Project at University Settlement, is hoping not only to build a new platform for artists, but also to find concrete ways to reestablish and articulate the importance of the arts within not only the education system, but also the community at large. I spoke with her by phone about University Settlement's past, present, and future relationships with the arts, as well as her own.

The L: Tell me a little bit about the history of the University Settlement.
Alison Fleminger: University Settlement was the first settlement house in the United States and the second in the world. The first settlement house was in England, in London. Stanton Coit, the guy who started University Settlement, actually spent some time there [at Toynbee Hall, London's first settlement house]. The idea was that these very Romantic-minded, progressive thinkers looked around towards the end of the [19th] century and said "here we are, running around saying how life is so beautiful, but maybe we need to take in the fact there are people living in unprecedented squalor as a result of the Industrial Revolution."

The radical concept of the settlement house movement was that people who were struggling weren't struggling because of some deficit or because they were born to struggle, they simply weren't getting the access to the resources that they needed to be able to make their lives better. The idea of the settlement house was that people who had access to all the cultural capital would come and settle into struggling communities and be that resource. It's very literal—the settlement. The idea was to bring the best of university life to the people who needed it the most.

University Settlement's headquarters on Eldridge Street was built a few years after the settlement was established, so it was really designed as a building where volunteers who were university-educated would come and live for about a year or two to do their service.

The arts, from the beginning, were always central to the model because community and the arts are so intimately entangled. It's hard to imagine what people would do to engage a group of people that doesn't involve some form of art, whether it be storytelling, singing, dancing. So University Settlement was built with this beautiful theater space [Speyer Hall] because that was part of the values of the movement—bring people of different walks of life together to celebrate themselves, to understand that it was important to have aesthetic values, as well as to understand the social function of art.