United Neighborhood Houses

November 22, 2019

The 100-year history of New York’s settlement house collective

Look back to early 1900s New York and you’ll find a city not only transformed by an influx of immigrants from around the world, but a movement to improve their living conditions. As newcomers to the city increasingly faced poverty, hunger, disease, crime and unsafe housing, community hubs like churches and synagogues began advocating for better living conditions. Settlement houses also played an important role in this movement for social justice. Their initial purpose of bringing more privileged, outside “settlers” into immigrant communities could be controversial, but it also forged bonds between different classes of New Yorkers who fought for issues like housing protections, stronger labor laws, and city sanitation efforts. Exactly 100 years ago, an organization emerged to better coordinate the efforts of settlement houses and ensure their advocacy into the future. United Neighborhood Houses was the city’s first umbrella organization for settlement homes with the goal to fight for equality and social change. Today the organization exists as one of the largest human service systems in New York City, holding up the city’s still-robust collection of settlement houses. The history of United Neighborhood Houses tells a larger story of the evolving role of settlement houses in New York: why they were introduced, how they integrated — with some bumps — into impoverished communities, and how they’ve grown into community hubs still servicing New Yorkers today.
The full history ahead