The Rebirth of the Settlement House Movement

12/03/2010 6:00 AM |

University Settlement is celebrating a major anniversary this year, right?
AF: 125 years.

Tell me a little bit about the birth and development of the Performance Project at University Settlement—the program you now curate and manage. You mentioned that arts have been a part of the organization since the beginning, so what need does this new project fill?
I think what happened with the arts at University Settlement is very typical of all the other settlement houses and social service agencies in the city. There was a transition when funding started coming more from the government and less from individual donors or private foundations. We really appreciate the government funding but it does require a lot of work to quantify and, as we know, the arts are hard to measure. So, the arts got a little lost for a period of time. They were still happening within a couple of programs, but not in a centralized way.

I think what happened was the Lower East Side started to change. Over the last ten years gentrification has been super rapid. After the neighborhood resisted for a number of years it sort of caught up quick. It's really important that the settlement house be rooted in its community and we needed programs that were going to bring in old neighbors and new neighbors. So, we saw this arts program as a bridge program, as a way to let the community who may not need our essential services know that we are in the community. It's a way to say, "Hey, we're here and we still believe in our initial mission, which is that it's necessary to bring people from different walks of life together."

In terms of that notion of the community, what exactly is University Settlement's community? Is it the Lower East Side? Does it include Chinatown? What are the borders of the community you serve?
We have about 21 different locations. We've really grown a lot in the past decade. The vast majority of those sites are on the Lower East Side and I guess you could also say a little bit of Chinatown. But we also run after-school programs in a lot of different schools and we have a weekend program on East 12th Street. We've also expanded to Harlem and we have now 4 sites in Brooklyn—we just opened an Ingersoll Community Center on Myrtle Avenue. We also have a new early childhood program in East New York and then we are also affiliates with The Door.

And this is all mainly because when you've been around for 125 years you've really demonstrated that you know how to run programs, so a lot of these communities beyond the Lower East Side have actually come to us and said, "can you come in and help us run quality programming?"

And it's a question. There was an article recently in The Forward where our Executive Director, Michael Zisser, is really questioning these ideas of how big we can grow and still hold on to our original ideals. What does local mean today? But, certainly in a city that is becoming so stratified, I believe we're ripe to revisit this movement. And I think it's connected to the slow-living and green movements and all of that. It's kind of unfortunate that it's not something that people are familiar with. You tell people that you work at a settlement house and they say, "what?" It's a strange word. It's not a word that has great connotations in the contemporary world.