Legacy of Light

by Jeffrey Scheuer

Chapter One of “Legacy of Light: University Settlement’s First Century,” (New York: University Settlement, 1986).

For complete copies of this monograph, please contact the author.


Cast yourself back in time to the New York City of the late 19th Century. Imagine you are standing on the Brooklyn Bridge, the lastest marvel of American engineering, looking westward toward Manhattan on a warm summer evening. As the sun goes down and the lights of the city begin to twinkle, you notice a curious void in the skyline: a whole section of the shoreline, beginning just north of the far end of the bridge and extending uptown for about a mile, remains dark. This dark area is the Lower East Side. Although it has no electricity — and no public parks — the neighborhood contains the densest crowding of human habitation anywhere in the world. Crossing the bridge and walking north on Eldridge or Allen Street, you would be vaulted into a city within a city, where the sounds of Russian, German, and Yiddish are heard; where a pungent smell of vegetables fills the heavy, stale air. The narrow streets are crowded and noisy, with pedestrian traffic, pushcarts, and horse-drawn wagons competing for room on the muddy cobble. Surrounding on all sides are dark, shabby tenements, five and six storey walk-ups, most of them without plumbing.

American history lends a touch of irony to the scene. In the 18th Century, much of the land that is now the Lower East Side was part of a farm belonging to the Delancey family. A provision in a family will stated that the entire section from Rivington to Broome Street, and from Forsyth to Essex, should revert in perpetuity to the City of New York for use as a park. But because the Delanceys were Tories at the time of the Revolution their lands were confiscated, and the Lower East Side developed into what we now see in our mind’s eye.

Reaching Delancey Street, you would find people sleeping in the grassed enclosures dividing that boulevard: whole families have brought their bedding here to escape the stifling heat and crowding of the tenements. others are sleeping on fire escapes. In the twenty or so square blocks that make up the heart of the Lower East Side, upwards of 3,000 people live in a single square block. The tenement building normally had four apartments on each floor; a typical apartment would consist of one small room that was well-lighted and ventilated, and several others that were wholly dark, and might house a family of five or more, and perhaps a boarder. The annual income of that family might be $600 or $700, if the mother or an older child worked, and a third of that sum might go to pay the rent.

Most of these people were immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe: Rumania, Hungary, and the Russian pale. And in some respects, they had never known such freedom. In Russia, for example, the Jews — when not actually massacred in pogroms — were confined to the towns of the Western pale; they could not own or deal in real estate, hold public office, or work for the Czarist government, even as common laborers; and they were allowed very limited educational opportunities. Thus persecuted and confined, they had made the synagogue the center of their world. But they did not easily adapt to the chaotic freedoms of the New World, and disillusionment was common; they found, not milk and honey, but poverty and crime, political corruption and yellow journalism. The work available to them was menial.

Indeed, the immigrants not only lived in squalor, but worked in it as well. With the labor movement still in its infancy, and little government regulation, they formed a vast pool of unskilled labor for the garment industry. Working for meager wages, in crowded, uncomfortable, and dangerous sweatshops, they endured the most exploitive conditions in American history after the end of slavery, producing about half of the ready-made clothing sold in the United States.

Few of them spoke any English; and the fact that their children learned the new language more quickly only intensified the generational tensions in their culturally uprooted families. It was hardly an ideal place for a child to grow up: aside from the sweat shops and street peddlers, the most ubiquitous forms of commerce in the district were saloons and houses of prostitution.

Into this world, in the 1880’s and ’90’s, came a group of reformers from the mainstream of middle class Anglo-Saxon America. They were outsiders; but their purpose was not simply to patronize the immigrant poor by dispensing charity, or to proselytize any religious or social doctrine. Rather, they aimed to perform a bold new social experiment: to settle in the community, learn its particular problems and needs, and provide a place where people could come for social and recreational activities, for advice, assistance, or learning. These oases of hope in the squalid immigrant neighborhoods were called social settlements.

University Settlement, founded on the Lower East Side in 1886, was the first such settlement to be establihsed in the United States, and the second in the world. Dozens of other settlements would follow in its wake — in New York and Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and other ports of entry for immigration. By 1910, there would be over 400 settlements in cities across America. Nor was University Settlement alone on the Lower East Side: in a few years, it was joined by Henry Street Settlement, Grand Street Settlement, Christadora House, the Educational Alliance, the Church of All Nations, Stuyvesant Neighborhood House, and others.

Eventually, having played a unique and crucial role in the history of social welfare in America, many of those settlements would disappear into the cracks of history. In many cases, they pioneered in areas of social service that were emulated and eventually taken over by government agencies, or by professional social workers, thus rendering themselves defunct. But some of those institutions have survived — adapting to new conditions, responding to new problems, and devising new techniques and goals for helping more recent generations of American immigrants. They have not outlived their usefulness. Among those survivors is University Settlement, which in 1986 celebrated the beginning of its second century of work on the Lower East Side.