At the age of 26, Lillian Wald moved to the Lower East Side, as many young people do today. As a nurse who had recently embarked on medical school, she was struck by the poverty and hardships endured by immigrants who lived in the neighborhood and knew she had to do something to help. She founded the Henry Street Settlement as a place for her and her colleagues to offer nursing care to residents in their homes on a sliding-scale basis. Eventually Henry Street also began offering music lessons, recreation, and a variety of social services as well. Did I mention this was 1893?
Fast-forward 125 years and Henry Street Settlement now serves more than 50,000 New York City residents every year, mostly in its Lower East Side community. True to its legacy “as an immigrant enclave and the hub of Progressivism in New York” that community today is vibrant in terms of demographics but suffers from one of the highest poverty rates in Manhattan with 30% of households in the district earning under $20,000 a year. Henry Street Settlement is helping to bridge that gap as a multi-functional service organization with programs largely divided among social services, healthcare and the arts.
A number of employees have either received services from Henry Street in the past or live in the neighborhood. Programs such as Intern & Earn, summer youth employment, computer access and training, and adult education have helped people like Kendra Legrier, a young mom who had not finished high school, find a career. After earning her GED, she landed an internship in Henry Street’s finance department before eventually being offered a full-time position as an accounts payable clerk.
Executive Director David Garza sees workforce development as an ever-changing piece of the organization’s success, “We look at the workforce picture through two lenses—that of the jobseeker and of the employer. For the jobseeker, we are developing talent to meet the needs of the rapidly growing industries in this area, which right now particularly include hospitality and construction. For the employer, we see the whole constellation of available workers and connect them with a diverse talent pool.”
Henry Street Settlement not only offers ESOL and job-readiness classes to help community members prepare for careers but also takes a more targeted approach for each person who walks through the door. Whether it’s interview skills and help with resumes, to navigating the affordable housing lottery once stable income is established, they’re constantly working toward a more equitable neighborhood.
And as Garza points out, affordability is one of the ongoing challenges facing the area: “The Lower East Side is a microcosm of the world; the pressing issues are no different from anywhere else: There’s increasing disparity between the haves and have nots, and housing is an issue that is at a crisis point. The sense of community and affordability that enables such a wide variety of people to live here is being threatened for those who have defined the Lower East Side.”
So many people have been helped by or utilized Henry Street’s various programs over the years that its reputation extends far beyond the immediate neighborhood. Henry Street Settlement has maintained its commitment to every wave of immigrants who have come over the years, knowing that immigrants have built this country and they deserve respect and dignity and whatever help they need to become successful in the United States.
When asked what he loves about the Lower East Side, Garza says without pause, “Diversity. The Lower East side is one of the few remaining neighborhoods that really captures what it means to be New York City. It has character and grit, and a strong sense of community that has been passed down for generations.”
You can visit The House on Henry Street exhibit, located at 265 Henry Street, for an in-depth look at the history of Henry Street Settlement and the neighborhood by taking our NYC Ferry LES route to Corlears Hook and walking about 12 minutes.