The House on Henry Street: The Enduring Life of a Lower East Side Settlement

06/08/2020 - 2:18pm


The House on Henry Street: The Enduring Life of a Lower East Side Settlement 

By Ellen M. Snyder-Grenier

Published by NYU Press

Today we are proud to partner with our friends at New York University Press to present to you a terrific and important story about our home, the Big Apple. 

On a cold March day in 1893, 26-year-old nurse Lillian Wald rushed through the poverty-stricken streets of New York’s Lower East Side to a squalid bedroom where a young mother lay dying—abandoned by her doctor because she could not pay his fee. The misery in the room and the walk to reach it inspired Wald to establish Henry Street Settlement, which would become one of the most influential social welfare organizations in American history.

Through personal narratives, vivid images, and previously untold stories, Ellen M. Snyder-Grenier chronicles Henry Street’s sweeping history from 1893 to today. From the fights for public health and immigrants’ rights that fueled its founding, to advocating for relief during the Great Depression, all the way to tackling homelessness and AIDS in the 1980s, and into today—Henry Street has been a champion for social justice. Its powerful narrative illuminates larger stories about poverty, and who is “worthy” of help; immigration and migration, and who is welcomed; human rights, and whose voice is heard.

For over 125 years, Henry Street Settlement has survived in a changing city and nation because of its ability to change with the times; because of the ingenuity of its guiding principle—that by bridging divides of class, culture, and race we could create a more equitable world; and because of the persistence of poverty, racism, and income disparity that it has pledged to confront. This makes the story of Henry Street as relevant today as it was more than a century ago. The House on Henry Street is not just about the challenges of overcoming hardship, but about the best possibilities of urban life and the hope and ambition it takes to achieve them.

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A Young Nurse Creates a Blueprint for Action

Ellen M. Snyder-Grenier

“We answer calls from the private doctor, the free doctor, hospitals, charity workers, neighbors, the families of the sick, the street sweeper, and the janitor.”

–Henry Street Settlement founder Lillian Wald, 1914

It was a crisis not unlike today: When Henry Street Settlement was founded by Lillian Wald in 1893, thousands on the Lower East Side struggled with incurable diseases, unemployment, and access to food. The Settlement was established to provide low or no-cost home medical care and a wide range of social services to the Lower East Side’s poverty-stricken immigrant community.

Wald, a 26-year-old nurse, was a visionary. At the turn of the 20th century, in the world’s most crowded neighborhood—a place where a breadwinner’s illness could plunge a family into destitution—Lower East Side residents faced harrowing conditions with few protections or safety nets. Seeking to serve the city’s most vulnerable, Wald made Henry Street a place where New Yorkers could turn for help.

Today, the work continues. Henry Street’s history provides a blueprint for making decisions in the present as it meets the challenges of the current pandemic. The story of the house on Henry Street—a story about taking action, on the ground, in the community, to care for one another in times of need, is now more than ever a story for our times.

 

Lillian Wald and the Lower East Side neighborhood she came to serve in 1893.  Courtesy of the Print Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, and the Library of Congress

Lillian Wald and the Lower East Side neighborhood she came to serve in 1893.  Courtesy of the Print Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, and the Library of Congress

Lillian Wald and the Lower East Side neighborhood she came to serve in 1893.

Courtesy of the Print Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, and the Library of Congress

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