The Rebirth of the Settlement House Movement

12/03/2010 6:00 AM |

Right, it has a kind of colonialist connotation.
Exactly, and that's the irony. The settlement house movement kind of pioneered this idea of what it means to serve a community and that it's not about imposing one culture onto another, it's about giving people the tools and the resources they need to make their lives stronger.

And it's a really proud chapter of our country's history. Settlement houses led the whole progressive era. Because of settlement houses we have forms of government that actually support people. 125 years ago there was no welfare, there was no lunch in schools, no social services in general. If you were struggling you had very few options. You had to go to a religious organization and you had to play by their rules. So the idea of the settlement house was, all you need to do is come in and it's all here for you.

University Settlement had the first public bathhouse in New York and it was the site of the first kindergarten in the city. They even had a bank in the basement. It was a place where you could really find the support that you needed in order to be able to build a better place for yourself. I think it's so important, especially at this time, which has so many connections to when the settlement house movement first began. The Industrial Revolution was coming along and totally changing the way people lived and worked. And here we are in the Information Age and really struggling to adapt to the fact that there aren't the jobs that have traditionally been there and they are probably not coming back even when this recession is over.

I think it's something to really look at again, to think about how we can be innovative and pioneering at this time. We've gotten so used to these ideas and concepts that we don't really recognize that 125 years ago they were completely radical.

In terms of University Settlement's importance to arts in the city, I know I've heard you say in the past that Speyer Hall, at the Eldridge Street headquarters, has been important to the dance world for some time. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Well, what I do know is that the most famous person to have danced there is Eleanor Roosevelt. She was a volunteer when she was about nineteen or twenty years old. What she did was teach dance, which was really fortunate because years later when the New Deal was in effect and artists were being hired through the Works Progress Administration, the government was getting tons of criticism about why they were giving money to artists, and she said, "I know that when communities are struggling, this is what's important." That was from her direct experience.

Fast forward from there. Risa Jaroslow had her company in residence here in the early 1990s. So she brought in a lot of great choreographers, people like Tina Croll, a lot of members of The Construction Company, a lot of people who were involved in the Judson Church. They quietly rented the space and performed in it. It seems to me, though I'm not a dance world person—I've had to learn a lot—that most choreographers have University Settlement on their resumes and have come through here at some point.

In my time curating our series I've really tried to keep some of the choreographers who are in their fifties and sixties who have been lovers of the space involved. And that's been wonderful. I think that the work that they've done there has been incredible and they've been really appreciative of this institution giving them a little more exposure, more than just a rental situation.