The House on Henry Street
The Enduring Life of a Lower East Side Settlement
Published by: NYU Press
- ISBN: 9781479801381
- Published: June 2020
Chronicles the sweeping history of the storied Henry Street Settlement and its enduring vision of a more just society
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.
Generations of new New Yorkers have found a friend inside its doors. Aspiring actors, from Jerry Stiller to Luis Guzman, have found inspiration in its arts programs. Ideas it first floated – like the Visiting Nurse Service of New York – have become institutions. Over 125 years, the settlement has spread to encompass 18 separate facilities. Its client base has grown too, with more than 50,000 New Yorkers annually taking advantage of its cultural programs, social services, and health care. In some ways, it is very different from what it was in 1895. In the most important way, however, it is precisely the same. ~New York Daily News
Henry Street Settlement holds a significant and singular place in the history of the NAACP, having served as a site for the initial meetings of the Association’s founders. It deserves study as a landmark in the Civil Rights, social justice, and community activism movements. ~Derrick Johnson, President and CEO, NAACP
This moving account of Henry Street Settlement reminds us of the good that can be done when dedicated souls heed what President Lincoln called ‘the better angels of our nature.’ This is a very American story—and more important, it’s a very human one. ~Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize winner for American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House
This wonderful history sets the House on Henry Street against the constantly changing backdrop of the Lower East Side. It explores how the settlement house movement reflected shifting ideas about poverty, disease, and opportunity even as it exposed the evolving realities of marginalization, survival, and engagement. We learn about the powerful and generous vision animating Lillian Wald and Henry Street’s other leaders and supporters. Most of all this is a book about citizenship, about the way pioneering settlements like Henry Street advanced notions of an inclusive citizenship that recognized a full range of human talents and gifts, helping society accommodate to sometimes desperate newcomers while helping their clients navigate the strange and difficult circumstances of their new environments. ~Morris Vogel, President, Lower East Side Tenement Museum
A truthful account of the Lower East Side and its acclaimed hero, Lillian Wald. A nurse, humanitarian, and pioneer, Lillian Wald’s life story is part of New York City’s history. During the turn-of-the-century health crisis, she initiated the public community nurse concept, placing nurses in schools. Writer Snyder-Grenier recounts the Henry Street Settlement’s patronage to its most vulnerable neighbors—whether it be those suffering from HIV or recent immigrants adapting to a new life. The House on Henry Street is a simply indispensable read that encapsulates a key piece of New York’s history and reminds us of our shared values of compassion and caring for one another. ~Congresswoman Nydia M. Velázquez
Ellen M. Snyder-Grenier’s The House on Henry Street is a delightful tribute to a New York institution. Well-written and well-researched, it tells the riveting story of how the Henry Street Settlement has gone on serving the poor, working people, and really all New Yorkers, for 125 years and counting. ~Kevin Baker, political commentator and best-selling author of Dreamland, Paradise Alley, and Strivers Row
Lillian Wald and Henry Street Settlement were already famous at the turn of the previous century because of the Visiting Nurse program and because the institution itself was central to the history of the most famous immigrant community in the United States. But what is most remarkable about the Henry Street Settlement House has been its longevity. In the twenty-first century, when almost all of the hundreds of settlement houses around the country have long since died, Henry Street is in the same location, performing many of the same functions, and fighting many of the same battles as its predecessors did so many decades ago. How it has continued successfully to follow in the footsteps of Lilian Wald for so many decades, and even to expand its mission, is the subject of Ellen Snyder-Grenier's impressive and beautifully illustrated and written book. Everyone who cares about the fight for social justice in American history will want to read this remarkable story. ~Kenneth T. Jackson, president emeritus of the New-York Historical Society and Barzun Professor of History at Columbia University.
The Henry Street Playhouse gave me an introduction to acting. I feel very much at home down there. ~Jerry Stiller, actor, comedian, and former Henry Streeter
An inspiring narrative for our challenging times. Ellen Snyder-Grenier’s utterly engrossing account of Lillian Wald, her companions, and her successors on Henry Street opens a window on the modern arc of antipoverty work writ large. This beautifully written and richly contextualized history of one of the nation’s most important social welfare organizations teems with insight into the history of public welfare systems more broadly; more importantly, it reminds us of what’s possible when compassion, commitment, and intention are harnessed for the good of our communities. ~Marla Miller, Director of the Public History Program and Professor of History, University of Massachusetts, Amherst; President of the National Council on Public History, 2018–2020
I will always cherish my time spent as a youth counselor at Henry Street Settlement. I had the opportunity to help change the trajectory of young peoples’ lives, and am grateful for that opportunity. Even now, many years removed from my time at the Settlement, I think fondly of the people I’ve met and the work that was done. I carry that pride with me, and am thankful Henry Street’s legacy continues to inspire and change lives today. ~Luis Guzman, actor
School nurses in U.S. schools exist today because of Lilian Wald’s belief that the “welfare of the child is the welfare of the nation.” Wald took action on behalf of children by placing a Henry Street Settlement nurse, Lina Rogers, in a New York City public school. Within a month, Rogers reversed high numbers of student absenteeism by providing health promotion and disease prevention. Today, school nurses continue student-centered care that promotes student health and well-being—all because of Lilian Wald’s fierce focus on children’s welfare. ~Donna Mazyck, Executive Director, National Association of School Nurses
Americans’ views of immigrants have not changed. Some people insist on pulling up the ladder now that their ancestors have found success in the United States. Others welcome the newcomers and know how the strength, diversity, hard work, and creativity of immigrants have enriched our nation. Ellen Snyder -Grenier’s account of Henry Street Settlement offers a readable and excellent history that reveals the rich American legacy of immigration and those whose service and concern for others made the lives of the poor better—a lesson we need to consider now, perhaps more than ever. In compelling and accessible prose, and with stunning illustrations, she reminds us how activists like Lillian Wald, Jane Addams, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett, among other American heroes, pushed American democracy forward through their service and caring. This book is a valuable read for anyone thinking about the issues that face Americans today from health care to women’s issues, poverty to the fight for social justice. ~Gretchen Sorin, Director & Distinguished Professor, the Cooperstown Graduate Program/SUNY Oneonta, and author of Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights(2020)
Several aspects of the book make it worth noting to public historians: its relationship to a physical exhibition space and digital counterpart; its central argument in defense of flexible yet principled civic engagement; and the model it provides in attempting to fashion a usable past from an extensive, still-accumulating, and sometimes fraught history. ~The Public Historian