Neighborly Assistance: The American Settlement Movement in San Francisco

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It’s safe to assume that most San Franciscans—including those yoga classe participants at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House on De Haro Street, and those who drop their children off for preschool at the Good Samaritan Family Resource Center on Potrero Avenue—have never heard the term “settlement house.”

“Community center,” the more popular phrase of current times, may, for all its broadness, better describe the contemporary function of these establishments. But the term elides a complex history of Progressive Era social outreach that forged many of the fundamental tenets that continue to inform the practices of San Francisco institutions like Chinatown’s Cameron House and the Western Addition’s Booker T. Washington Community Service Center.

In 1884, Anglican cleric Samuel Barnett and educator Henrietta Barnett conceptualized the “settlement house” as a new form of charity when they established Toynbee Hall in London’s East End. Their revolutionary plan was to create, in one of the city’s worst slums, a residence for educated, upper-class volunteers, who, by “settling” among the underprivileged, would learn about the plight of the downtrodden while dispensing healthcare, education, and culture to their new neighbors. Their model caught on in the United States.  San Francisco’s first settlement house, the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center, was founded in 1890 by two young Sunday school teachers. It continues to operate today.

Settlement houses functioned not only as volunteer dormitories but as recreation centers, meeting halls, and social service agencies. Foremost, they sought to bring the rich and poor into closer contact to raise awareness of the problems of the Second Industrial Revolution’s urban underclass, so that these challenges might be solved through large-scale social change. Ultimately, settlement workers became fierce early advocates for public housing, a minimum wage, and the Social Security Act of 1935; they assisted unionizing workers and helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The settlement movement’s approach to charity was modern and “scientific,” hinging on the novel idea that poverty was a manifestation of defective social conditions rather than personal dysfunction. Operated typically by willful, independent women, settlements were, according to Jane Addams of Chicago’s famed Hull House, considered “wicked” by some. Nevertheless, many settlement houses bore religious affiliations, their workers motivated by a traditional sense of Christian charity.

The Good Samaritan Family Resource Center, in Mishpot, was founded by the Episcopal Diocese of California in 1894 as the Good Samaritan Mission. From the beginning it was, in the words of former executive director Will Wauters, “more than just a church with a parish hall” for community activities. Taking cues from the settlement movement, Good Samaritan set itself the task of providing practical services to San Francisco’s immigrant population.

Similarly, what would become the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House – commonly known as “the Nabe” – was initiated in 1908 to help a group of Russian religious refugees, according to San Francisco’s Potrero Hill, by Peter Linenthal and Abigail Johnston: “With memories of persecution in their homeland still strong, the Molokans of Potrero Hill kept much to themselves. After one of them was injured in an accident at Union Iron Works, Dr. William Parker, lawyer and pastor of the Olivet Presbyterian Church on Missouri Street, helped him get assistance from his employer. This event broke the ice, and the Russian community became open to the outreach efforts of the church, which included Sunday school activities, a choir for children, and English and citizenship classes for adults. By 1920, the small rented space in which the activities were held was no longer adequate, and the California Synodical Society of Home Missions acquired property. . .with the intent of building a community center.” The Julia Morgan-designed house at the top of De Haro Street was completed in 1922.

Unlike the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center, neither Good Samaritan nor the Nabe provided on-site worker housing, although the Good Samaritan building has included 20 three- and four-bedroom units of low-income family housing since 1995.

In Settlement Houses and the Great Depression and Professionalism and Social Change, the historian Judith Ann Trolander links the decline of the American settlement movement in the 1930s to changes in the structure of charitable fundraising and professionalization of social work, among other factors. A precursor to the United Way, the Community Chest system originated in Cleveland in 1913 as a way to centralize nonprofit fundraising “by having one large drive replace many smaller drives and for the funds from the large drive to be distributed to the member agencies in such a manner as to eliminate needless duplication and inefficiency among the charities.” This model spread to other major American cities. Instead of accumulating donations piecemeal, a settlement house thenceforth lived or died according to its standing with the Community Chest, which typically was controlled by conservative business leaders who opposed labor organization and other liberal endeavors that initially defined the settlement movement’s central impulse toward advocacy and political action.

As settlement houses lost their luster among high-minded reformers, they turned to paid workers—primarily holders of the newly invented Master of Social Work degree, who were institutionally trained in casework rather than social reform—to staff their facilities. In Trolander’s view, “an M.S.W. helped people on the basis of professional expertise through a professional, not a personal or neighborly, relationship. The separation of the professional from the personal could not be reconciled with the traditional settlement house idea. Something had to give, and it was residence in the settlement house.”

In 1979, the National Federation of Settlements, which had promoted the American settlement movement since 1911, changed its name to the United Neighborhood Centers of America. Whether the radical social experiment begun in the 1880s had truly ended or simply been absorbed within a broader movement of local activism, organization, relief, and recreation remains a subject of scholarly debate.

Many settlement houses refused to adjust to the changing demographics within the neighborhoods that contained them, as Trolander chronicled: “In 1919, Pittsburgh’s Kingsley House abandoned its new black neighbors and moved to a new location to continue serving whites. Chicago’s Eli Bates House closed its doors. On the other hand, when a settlement, such as Chicago’s Abraham Lincoln Centre, made a valiant effort to run an integrated program, white neighbors tended to quit using the house.”

According to Edward Hatter, executive director of the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House, African-Americans were excluded from the Nabe until 1956, when his father, then a well-liked student at Daniel Webster Elementary School, was allowed to participate in the Nabe’s afterschool programs.  The facility drifted into a stagnant period during the 1960s, when it became a squat for conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War.

According to Hatter, in 1972, the Nabe’s board of directors begged his grandmother, Enola D. Maxwell, a lay preacher at the Olivet Presbyterian Church, to take over leadership.  Hatter recalled that she turned the job down at least twice before accepting it. Maxwell revitalized the house’s interior decoration scheme, painting the walls psychedelic colors; and its programming, adding classes in photography, pottery, and music, as well as a youth crime prevention program,

A 1976 article in the Sun Reporter noted Maxwell’s observation that “a small racist element in the community” had sought to slow her progress, withholding previously pledged grant money and applying unusual legalistic scrutiny to the Nabe’s activities and conditions. Still, she predicted, “Black people are going to repair this house and they are going to use it.”

In the Mission, Irish, Scottish, English, and German immigrants had given way to a largely Latino population by the 1970s.  Good Samaritan’s “faith values of treating people with respect and dignity, and helping them adjust to their new home” never wavered, according to executive director Mario Paz. Unlike the Nabe, which, with just 13 paid workers, relies mostly on volunteerism, Good Samaritan has a paid staff of “approximately 36 employees.”

During his tenure, from 1984 to 1990, Will Wauters strove to make Good Samaritan “the living room of the Mission. That’s what an immigrant is looking for. They’re not just seeking out specific programs; they’re seeking out a place they can belong to.”

In the 1980s, Wauters befriended Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers, who slept on the Good Samaritan gymnasium floor when they visited San Francisco. But during the Sanctuary Movement of the same period, Wauters regretfully declined to register the nonprofit as a refuge for Central American refugees, “primarily because I was worried, and the board was worried, that, had we done so, the border patrol would come. We were too easy a target for them; you could do a sweep of Good Samaritan on any given day and you could pick up 400 people that didn’t have documents. . .I tried to protect the institution.”

Mario Paz grew up in the Mission, and recalled visiting Good Samaritan’s food pantry with his mother when he was a child. He feels he’s come “full circle;” the same is true for many Good Sam employees who “were former clients—people who arrived here and went through several of our programs and pursued a career of giving back to the community.”

The reformist mindset of the early settlement movement—though perhaps generally exercised more judiciously today—remains apparent at both Good Samaritan and the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House. Maxwell was a well-known civil rights activist even before her Nabe directorship; her grandson, Hatter, is an active participant in debates over Rebuild Potrero. The Nabe seeks to reduce violence in the Potrero Annex-Terrace housing complex through casework programs for “transitional-aged youth” between 16 and 24, and with a new anger management program in local elementary schools to teach “coping skills for kids who are in trauma, coming out of trauma, or just angry about issues they’re dealing with on a day-to-day basis,” as Hatter put it.

Although Paz serves on San Francisco’s Immigrant Rights Commission, he acknowledged Good Samaritan’s emphasis is on “providing services” rather than “developing a social justice policy agenda. Our model today is really to build leadership among our community and let them be the leaders, so we don’t have a dedicated advocacy component; it’s primarily done through our involvement with many other partners in the community.” For the past two decades, Good Samaritan has conceived of itself as a “comprehensive family resource center,” reaching out to immigrant parents and children alike with English-as-a-second-language classes, early childhood development programs, and a Planned Parenthood satellite clinic.

The Potrero Hill Neighborhood House provides programming for the needy, including daily activities for mentally and physically disabled seniors; a daily $2 meal for seniors; a weekly general-population pantry; after-school tutoring; and meetings for Alcoholics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and Narcotics Anonymous.  “Our goal is to bring everyone together,” said Hatter. “I’m still dealing with educating the northeast side of the Hill [so that residents know that] everything that goes wrong is not the fault of the housing development.” He distinguished his expansive community-based organization from “what my grandmother used to call the ‘designer CBOs,’ the ones that picked one certain task to do, and that’s what they did,” focusing all their efforts “behind that single task,” whereas “neighborhood centers have to focus behind the health of the neighborhood itself.”

Trolander believes that by “having twin objectives—immediate services and basic reform—settlement houses have had the flexibility to survive conservative as well as reform periods.” For her, the “common thread uniting settlement houses over time and distinguishing them from similar social agencies is their multifaceted focus on, and ties to, low-income neighborhoods. Other agencies, like [the YMCA], have neighborhood branches, but are essentially franchise operations with a national headquarters. Still other kinds of neighborhood organizations of a grass-roots variety lack the breadth of issues, programs, and varied people involvement of the settlement house.”