Sunday, January 29, 2012

Hull House

I was saddened to read that Hull House, founded in Chicago by Jane Addams over a hundred years ago, is closed. I had first read about her in a social work class many years ago  at Kent State. It was one  of the first settlement houses, established  at that time to help immigrants acclimate to the new world. Since many of then were poor when they arrived, settlement houses were located in those sections of cities where people lived in poverty. These places became centers where people could gain the skills needed to get out of poverty, offering all sorts of tools need to accomplish that: literacy training, English, cooking, sewing, typing, advice on nutrition and generally what Albert 'iggns called "middle class morality," and he didn't mean that as a compliment. Middle and upper class white women would descend on impoverished communities, armed with what they saw as weapons against the conditions in which people lived in hopes of making things better. And it worked, first for immigrants from abroad and then for migrants to big cities from agrarian parts of the country. Hull House and Jane Addams were the pioneers. I guess as the culture changed, and educated women moved into the work place, with the kinds of careers that could not have been possible in Addams' time, even though social work became a respected profession and bureaucratized, the army diminished and the problems of the poor became more overwhelming, those settlement houses began to disappear.
Cleveland has Karamu House, founded about a hundred years ago,which took as its mission the arts: painting, sculpture, and its world class theater,  along with the usual services. It is honing on by a thread, however, constantly struggling with funding. I  knew two guys in college who had been Karamu House beneficiaries growing up in Cleveland, One was a painter and a dancer - Karamu House had a wonderful modern dance program back in the 30s and 40w when he was growing up. One was a gifted sculptor.
There is another settlement house in the Tremont area, which has gone form Jewish to Latino over the last fifty years or so. Besides the settlement house, this area also has a magnificent socially conscious church, which built a gymnasium annexed to the church for the use of the local residents.
The last two years I was working, I was asked to consult in the poorest community in the county to see what kinds of needs out agency might be able to address in the area of drug/alcohol prevention and education. I attended a series of community meetings over a period of months. This community is very old, one of the Western Reserve towns in this part of Ohio. However during WWII, throngs of folks moved in to work in the arsenal, which was producing ammunition, including some pretty evil bombs and incendiary weaponry. To accommodate the influx and series of wooden barrack like apartments were thrown together and rented to the newcomers, many of whom were from Appalachia, After the war, people stayed on, since jobs were plentiful, but not very well paying. Over time, some of the barracks burned down, some were deserted and some were  lived in by transients. About forty years ago, they were bought up and rehabbed - a bit - and became low cost and Section 8 housing for the marginally employed. One of the reasons I was asked to consult there is that an acquaintance of mine had bought a group of them. He is a community organizer of sorts and his goal was to change the tenants from renters to buyers, and he wanted to prepare them for home ownership and middle class morality, you see.  I spent several months at gatherings where he was trying to help them take ownership of the idea of owning and maintaining property.
They were fine people but as far as I was concerned, drugs and alcohol were the least of their problems; in fact probably one of the ways to cope with their sense of helplessness about their powers to take charge of their lives. It's a largely white community, many single mothers on ADC, poor or no transportation. The town is located at the fat north edge of the county, with all the resources  (hospital and doctors, dentists, inexpensive  grocery stores, county services like food stamps, domestic violence shelter) 20 miles to the south. Looking around at the people at the meetings, I saw obesity, missing teeth, swollen legs, inadequate clothing, all the hallmarks of people in need who didn't seem to know that they deserved better. One woman talked about the bad water in her apartment and that she didn't want to call the water department because she didn't want to get the owner (the guy who was trying to get them to become owners themselves) in trouble.
When I got back to the office the next day after hearing this, I told my boos that what they needed there was a settlement house, a place where they could learn about nutrition, get job skill, child care, literacy training, have a satellite county service center, and them maybe we could look into what kinds of info they might need about alcohol and drug problems and what to do about that. Organizing a settlement house was not part of out mission statement, nor was there any other agency prepared to do that.
A few years ago, there was a new elementary school built in that community. and the old school has been turned into - a community center, offering almost all of the services I imagined all those years ago. I don't know whose idea is was, but it is a very active and busy place, in which everyone takes great pride. The library shares the building and from what I see in the local newspaper, it seems to be the sort of library that goes beyond providing books and CDs and draws all ages with fun activities.
This is the best kind of "settlement house," which sprang form the community on its own, with people seeing a need and bringing it to life without being told what they need. I haven't been in touch with the acquaintance who got me involved all those years ago, so I don't know how his rant to own strategy worked, but I'll bet he's happy with what the community has done for itself with his help at the beginning.

And Hull House in Chicago is  no more.

1 comment:

Expat Hausfrau said...

You need to get back into social work!