Christodora House: A leader in the settlement house movement

Christodora House

The Villages and Noho have long been recognized a breeding ground of activity around civil rights and social justice — a fact GVSHP has recently sought to highlight with our own civil rights and social justice map of the Village, East Village and NoHo.  Today we take a closer look at just one of a hundred incredible sites charted out on that map — the East Village’s Christadora House.

 

The late 1800’s saw a large movement toward establishing Settlement Houses in our neighborhoods. Inspired by social reformers in England who sought to provide social services and education to poor workers, the settlement house movement in the United States was a response to growing industrial poverty. The major purpose of settlement houses was to help to assimilate and ease the transition of immigrants into the labor force by teaching them middle-class American values.

A revolutionary characteristic of the settlement house movement was that some of the most important leadership roles were filled by women, in an era when women were excluded from leadership roles in business and government. Approximately half of the major US settlement houses were led and staffed predominantly by women. Among the most influential leaders were Jane Addams, Mary Simkhovitch, Helena Dudley, Lillian Wald, Mary McDowell, Florence Kelley, Alice Hamilton, and Edith Abbott.

Christodora House was constructed in 1928 as a settlement house for low- income and immigrant residents, providing food, shelter, and educational and health services. It was founded by Christina Isobel MaColl and Sarah Carson to care for “the physical, social, intellectual, and spiritual development of the people in the crowded portions of the city of New York, and the training of those who shall be in residence in practical methods of settlement work.”  Christodora House also launched the career of social reformer Harry Lloyd Hopkins, advisor to Franklin D. Roosevelt and architect of the New Deal programs.

Christodora’s bold experiment in providing both housing and services in the same building was an important but challenging one.  The combination presaged the mix typically found in public housing, which began in New York around the same time just blocks away at First Houses. However, in part because of the massive expansion of publicly funded public housing nearby providing similar services and housing, Christodora’s model became more and more financially burdensome, and the building was sold via condemnation to the City in 1948. The building remained abandoned or semi-utilized until 1975, when the City sold it to a private owner.  After changing hands many times in the ensuing years, in 1986 work began to convert the building to high-end residences, and it became a symbol of gentrification in the neighborhood, as well as a flashpoint for resistance to it. That said, the building has housed a number of notable artists and activists in the years since its conversion, including Iggy Pop. Today the East Village Community Coalition also calls the building home.

While the Christodora House is no longer a settlement house, similar work lives on in Christodora, an organization that builds on this tradition to serve over 2,000 motivated NYC students each year. Christodora’s goal is to build leadership skills and academic success through an awareness and understanding of the natural environment by:

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  • engagement in public school classrooms, where Environmental Educators teach a customized 7-week environmental science curriculum
  • engagement in weekend urban ecology and community service programs, especially at the New York Botanical Garden
  • camping and outdoor experiences at the 85-acre Manice Education Center in a remote corner of the Berkshire Mountains
  • engagement with distinguished partner institutions providing opportunities for advanced study and wilderness programs

Want to explore more civil rights and social justice pioneers?  Check out our civil rights and social justice map HERE.

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