For immigrants, an open house


Chicago: A settlement building founded 100 years ago continues to provide neighbors with support, education and camaraderie.

June 24, 1999|By Charles Leroux | Charles Leroux,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO -- The words come from a manuscript called "From One Volunteer to Another," the reminiscences of an unnamed early worker at Association House, which celebrated its 100th birthday this month.

The author of "From One Volunteer to Another" goes on to explain the concept of settlement houses, places such as Jane Addams' slightly earlier, somewhat better-known Hull House. They were outposts of the American way of life in immigrant neighborhoods, places and people offering the vocational, language and citizenship classes that would help "foreigners" fully share in the promise of this nation.

The settlement idea emphasizes that the process is a two-way street. Volunteers invariably say they learned at least as much from the neighborhood people as they taught. For Association House, familiarly known as Sose House, the neighborhood was West Town on Chicago's near West Side, an area of about 10 blocks' radius. That circle encompassed the lives of German and Swedish immigrants who worked in the small factories of the area.

Many of the factories made garments and employed women sent to this country ahead of their families because work was available to them. Some of these pioneer women -- alone in a new land where life in and out of the factories could be harsh -- were as young as 10. Living was crowded, sanitation primitive. Free time meant the occasion to choose between good and evil: the sermons and Sunday school at the neighborhood Cortland Street Church or demon drink at the 23 saloons in the area.

"A group of these women -- some say 150; some give other numbers, but it seems to have been at least 100 -- got together under the auspices of the YWCA," says Marilyn Perry, who is putting together a history of Association House. "The original idea apparently was to start a secretarial school."

The women were led by Susan Poxon, a missionary of the Moody Church who taught Sunday school at the Cortland Street Church.

The secretarial-school idea quickly gave way to general educational and recreational programs, "alternatives," Perry says, "to the saloons and dance halls of that part of the city." The YWCA rented a building on North Avenue that formerly housed a tavern and, after a mothers'-club scrub party, opened a settlement house. Later in 1899, the group separated from the YWCA; but, in tribute to the organization's initial support, it kept "Association" in its name.

"It is hard to express what the word settlement stands for," the anonymous volunteer wrote, "because it is such an individual and personal thing. A person or a group goes to live in a neighborhood different from the one in which they have been brought up because they want to know intimately, and as neighbors, a different group of people, of different backgrounds and education. They hope, through friendship, to exchange customs and skills and ideas, then to work out with these new neighbors the things which the community needs."

These young volunteers, most of them women, tended to be recent college graduates of middle- to upper-class backgrounds, some holding a new kind of degree in social work who sought to make a difference in the world.

One was Ellen Holt, whose father was a founder of Lake Forest and of Lake Forest College. Though she can't prove it yet, historian Perry thinks the unnamed author of "From One Volunteer to Another" might be Holt.

By 1913 the neighborhood was a reflection of the influx of Jewish immigrants. Half of the children enrolled at Association House were Jewish. Board-meeting minutes taken during this time indicate an initial bewilderment about how to deal with these people. Should the goal be conversion to Christianity or should the newcomers' religion be embraced?

The latter was the course chosen. In 1915, Association House offered Wilson Hall, named after the first head resident, Carrie Wilson, for use as a synagogue.

History clings to the walls of the Association House building at 2150 W. North Ave., a rare edifice built specifically for use as a settlement house. The cornerstone of the red-brick structure was laid in 1906 in a ceremony in which Jane Addams was the featured speaker. Poxon deposited a box containing memorabilia of the time and Holt laid the cornerstone.

Just as 100 years ago, classes are offered in English literacy, vocational training and citizenship. Association House expects to aid 400 people in completing citizenship applications this year. In the area of job training, it has received an unusual corporate gift, an executive on loan from United Airlines to direct the new community center. The center will provide specific vocational skills to make attendees attractive candidates for well-paying jobs.

Those long-established services have been joined over the years by many others, some of them pioneering.

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