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'The House on Henry Street' Exhibition (Part 1)

September 12, 2018

HHS_entrance signThe first time, eleven years ago, Susan LaRosa, then a new marketing officer, pulled opened a cabinet drawer in her office at Henry Street Settlement, she discovered some forgotten letters written by the agency's founder, Lillian Wald, and early twentieth-century New York City civic leaders Louis Abrons, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and Jane Addams. The existence of the letters wasn't the surprise — LaRosa knew Wald had attracted many influential New Yorkers to her project. But the discovery made her wonder whether Henry Street's remarkable history was adequately preserved and what lessons that history might have for the present.

The questions her discovery sparked eventually proved to be the catalyst for a new exhibition, opening September 17, that explores the legacy of community through the story of a remarkable institution.

When I learned earlier this year about the upcoming exhibition and its designers' plans to include documentary films, a particular interest of mine, I decided to reach out to LaRosa to learn more about how the exhibition came to be.

Founded in 1893 by Lillian Wald, Henry Street Settlement, located on the Lower East Side of New York City, was one of hundreds of settlement houses that sprang up around the country in the late 1800s, primarily in cities with large, impoverished immigrant populations drawn by the huge demand for labor in a rapidly industrializing United States.

Settlement houses soon became a feature of the Progressive Era, a period of widespread social reform that understood poverty as primarily a social phenomenon rather than a failure of individual character — a distinction that continues to generate debate in our time. Settlement houses typically offered some combination of social services, recreation, education, job training, health care, and arts and culture, all geared toward helping lower-income working people, particularly immigrants, improve their living conditions and economic opportunities. There were once more than four hundred such houses around the country, and many still operate as community resource centers.

With its roots in Wald's original mission to provide visiting nurse services to the indigent on the Lower East Side, today's "Henry Street" serves sixty thousand people at seventeen neighborhood sites and thirty public schools with social services, education, and health care programs, and operates the Abrons Arts Center. A century ago, Wald mobilized support for the agency from wealthy supporters such as Abrons, whose family was among its first clients and whose descendants have continued their involvement with Henry Street up to the present.

"I soon realized the building was oozing with history," LaRosa told me recently as we sat in Martin Luther King, Jr., Community Park behind the Henry Street offices; the space includes a rain garden, part of the organization's green infrastructure program. "I kept finding things that seemed important to preserve and make accessible to the public. But we're a working social service agency, not a museum or historical society. We didn't have the staff time or budget to even pursue a book idea."

LaRosa couldn't get the notion of preserving Henry Street's history out of her head, however, and eventually she realized that a special program would be a nice fit with the agency’s 125th anniversary in 2018. She consulted with Sally Yerkovich, a nonprofit administrator who had worked at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and, with Yerkovich taking the lead, they developed a project inspired by people who, on a regular basis, have some connection to the history of the neighborhood and stop by looking for a tour of Henry Street and to learn more about the settlement house movement in general.

"When we decided to approach the NEH, our executive director, David Garza, was completely supportive," said LaRosa, who (with Yerkovich) dedicated a portion of her time to mobilizing the necessary human resources. The NEH approved a $40,000 planning grant, and the Sun Hill Foundation provided additional support in the form of a $20,000 grant. Ellen Snyder-Grenier, an historian and curator, and Keith Ragone, an exhibit designer, along with other experts and a panel of historians, signed on to the project.

"Even before we got the NEH grant, we began reaching out to our stakeholders, including ongoing funders like the Sun Hill Foundation," Garza told me. "These are relationships that go back decades, and there was an immediate expression of interest."

"The House on Henry Street" concentrates on the humanities aspect of Henry Street's work, engaging the surrounding community with materials in English, Spanish, and Chinese, as well as scholars interested in the Lower East Side, women’s issues, urban history, social work, and nursing.

With Snyder-Grenier, humanities scholars, media designers, and fabricators in place, NEH subsequently approved an implementation grant of $360,000 for a project manager, an exhibition designer, an evaluation expert, and a public historian. (The rest of the exhibition’s budget is still being raised.)

"The House on Henry Street" includes a permanent historical exhibit; an interactive website (www.TheHouseonHenryStreet.org); a walking tour; a series of public programs; a book; and other components. The public programs were launched this spring, while the other components will be rolled out over the next few months.

The permanent exhibit at 265 Henry Street, the organization's main office and its first headquarters, includes photos, film, artifacts, and interpretive text that tells the story of Lillian Wald and the creation of Henry Street Settlement within the larger context of the Progressive Era and the settlement house movement.

"The exhibit focuses primarily on the late 1800s and early 1900s, the period that best illuminates the factors that led to the settlement’s creation and the movement in general," Snyder-Grenier told me. "Our project scholars advised us on the various issues that surfaced in this time period: immigration, women's rights, labor, rising poverty, and more — as well as the history of the Lower East Side."

Created, as were the exhibition's media elements, by Bluecadet, "The House on Henry Street" website takes the exhibition beyond the townhouse and into the present, with photos, expository text, digital images of artifacts, and a curriculum for high school and college teachers. (The site also features a short commissioned film, Baptism of Fire, and several archival films.)

Based on extensive research and polling of current Henry Street clients, including seniors and ESL students, public historian Katie Vogel created the content for a mobile walking tour app featuring Henry Street Settlement locations and relevant neighborhood sites, enabling participants to learn about the history of Henry Street while learning more about a dynamic, modern social service agency.

The public component includes a series of lectures, discussions, food tastings, and other events, some of them organized in partnership with the nearby Tenement Museum and the Museum at Eldridge Street, while portraits of more than a hundred people who have had a special engagement with the agency are featured in "Humans of Henry Street," an informal series of photos, filmed interviews, and quoted material. Last but not least, a book (LaRosa's initial idea) will be published later this year and will include historical texts, images, and a bibliography for those interested in doing further research.

As LaRosa told me, the evolution of the project is a story of challenges, creativity, and choices.

The first challenge was figuring out how to focus the exhibition. There's a lot of history to tell, and not just about the origins of Henry Street. There's also the history of the Lower East Side, which in the late nineteenth century was home to immigrants from Germany and Ireland who, as the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, were joined by legions of newcomers from Eastern and Southern Europe. And there’s the history of nursing, one of the very first professions open to women, and the critical role nurses played in the well-being of immigrant families; Lillian Wald herself was a nurse, and a pioneer in the field.

In the end, as I'll explain in my next post, the designers were able to do justice to all that history through the judicious use of twenty-first century exhibition tools and aesthetics. Stay tuned!

Kathryn Pyle is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. You can read more of her posts here.

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