The first time I headed down to Chinatown, I stepped into Henry Street Settlement Playhouse instead, and got to chat about the settlement house movement with David Garza, Henry Street’s Executive Director.
My father used to tell me about activities at Madison House–one of the settlement houses existing in New York in the early part of the last century. At the time, one could participate in the arts there–theater, dance, writing, painting, etc. (Now, combined with another settlement house to become Hamilton-Madison House, it tends more toward the provision of only basic social services.) Hearing my father’s stories about the artistic stimulation provided for slum-dwellers in his days living on the Lower East side made me want to learn more about the settlement house movement with a view to how it might be adapted to today’s world.
I noticed Henry Street Settlement House on a map and set out to walk left on Grand street to visit it before heading east to Chinatown. Fortunately, a native New Yorker directed me to the new Henry Street Settlement House–the playhouse–since the old one is now used as an administrative office and would have required a longer walk on a hot day to no purpose.
When I explained my interest to the two people I found inside, the man–Garza–said to the woman that he’d take care of what I was asking. And he talked with me for at least 20 minutes, telling me about the current umbrella organization, United Neighborhood Houses, telling me that Hull House (in Chicago) has been closed, and explaining the difficulty of doing now what was done in my father’s day because gentrification has destroyed the cohesiveness that communities had back then.
I was very impressed by Mr. Garza. Unlike many public faces of organizations, I strongly felt his sincere concern was for what this movement is trying to do, not for the furtherance of his organization or himself.
I do hope to do research on this subject and write in greater depth about it (not necessarily on my blog). This visit was meant to be a beginning. Walking in off the street, I did not expect to get lucky enough to speak with someone at that level, and very much appreciate the time he took to do so.