Settlement Houses

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In 1886, New Yorker Stanton Coit founded the nation’s first “settlement house,” the New York Neighborhood Guild (today the University Settlement) on Forsyth Street on the Lower East Side. Inspired by the example of reformers in London’s Toynbee Hall, Coit and others moved to the city’s poorest neighborhoods to work with immigrants living in crowded, unhealthy tenement apartments. They lived as members of the community and helped local families receive health care, enroll in educational programs, join recreational clubs, and enjoy a range of social services.

Subsequent settlement workers—many of them young, college-educated women such as nurse and reformer Lillian Wald—increasingly came to believe that urban problems like poverty, unsanitary housing, and poor medical care required public solutions, and they became advocates for expanding government’s role in fighting social ills. Two new professions, social work and public health nursing, emerged from their efforts. By the 1920s, as activists came to believe that settlement houses could neither abolish urban poverty nor heal class divisions, they looked increasingly to government policies.

During the New Deal of the 1930s, New Yorkers such as Governor Herbert Lehman and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt used earlier experiences with settlement houses to help shape federal and state laws on childcare, housing, labor relations, and public health. New York City’s settlements thus helped to define social welfare and urban liberalism in the 20th century.

Today, 37 neighborhood settlement houses with an array of programs continue to help New Yorkers in need. 



Key Events

Global  Year    Local

Civil War begins


More than half the city’s population lives in substandard tenements

Toynbee Hall, the world’s first settlement house, founded in London’s East End 1884




Founding of the New York Neighborhood Guild (today’s University Settlement), America’s first settlement house

Publication of How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis 1890


Henry Street Settlement and Visiting Nurse Service founded 1893  
  1901 New York’s New Tenement House Law requires light, air, space, running water, and toilets in new apartments
  1904 National Child Labor Committee formed at a meeting at Carnegie Hall
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