SALEM — The immigrant story is America’s story. Newcomers arrive, sometimes disoriented, sometimes with few resources. Yet they find a way forward. They create families, businesses, arts, customs and traditions, good food and neighborhoods.
And nowhere in our country have those endeavors been more present than New York City’s Lower East Side. There we find a lens onto a historic, dynamic, ever-shifting immigrant narrative. The Lower East Side, not far from Ellis Island, has drawn newcomers from around the world. Using services Henry Street Settlement has offered for 127 years, they find traction in their new homeland. The program now serves 50,000 people every year.
On Sunday, November 29, at 1 p.m., The House of the Seven Gables presents a virtual talk by Ellen M. Snyder-Grenier, a national award-winning curator, exhibition developer, and writer who focuses on urban history and social justice. Her live, streamed discussion about the Henry Street Settlement is free, though donations are gratefully accepted at this challenging time. Those interested in attending may use this link for tickets: https://bit.ly/3fd0m2l.
The Henry Street Settlement story began in March, 1893, when a young girl rushed up to Lillian Wald, a nurse teaching a homemaking class in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The girl’s mother was hemorrhaging and the doctor had refused treatment because she couldn’t pay the fee. Wald, led by the little girl, rushed to her tiny, crowded apartment and did what she could to make the mother more comfortable. But Wald was shocked to her core. The poverty, congestion and overall neglect in the neighborhood moved Wald so profoundly that she “settled” in the neighborhood and began to tackle the problems she saw.
From there, writes Snyder-Grenier in her new book, “The House on Henry Street: The Enduring Life of a Lower East Side Settlement,” Wald “built an enterprise that became one of the nation’s most important and renowned social service organizations.”
The network of 18 buildings and programs provides health care, social services and arts events. The rationale for such a wide range of activities hews to Wald’s beliefs. “She moved from case to cause, curing sickness and then agitating to end the conditions that produced it,” says Snyder-Grenier. The mission was adaptable, flexible and stressed interdependence. At the core of the mission was “the concept of brotherhood, of bringing diverse people together.”
Lillian Wald saw extreme need at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. Similar need, at a greater remove, existed in many places across the country including Salem, Massachusetts. In Salem Caroline Emmerton used her entrepreneurial spirit and resources to restore The Gables and offer paid tours to support a settlement program in the Derby Street neighborhood. Like Henry Street, The Gables’ settlement work continues.
“Henry Street Settlement is, at its core, an enduring vision of a more just society,” says Snyder-Grenier. “It’s places like this that keep me going. It’s a beacon of light shining on the good that people can do.”