How Did Settlement Workers at Greenwich House
Promote the Arts as Integral to a Shared Social Life?
Residents of Greenwich House, a New York City settlement founded in 1902, spent their first months on Manhattan's lower west side advocating for day nurseries to care for children when parents worked, publishing a tenants' manual, and beginning investigations into the neighborhood standard of living and its high death rate. This work, however, comprised only a portion of the settlement's endeavors. Like settlement workers across the country, Greenwich House settlers organized handicraft and dancing classes, summer outdoor concerts, and called for a new neighborhood hall where "a large concert or dramatic entertainment" could be held. In other words, music, dancing, theater, crafts—the arts—took up precious energy and resources of these busy reformers. These activities expressed some of the deepest reform impulses of the settlement movement. Through them, settlement activists sought to empower citizens and broaden the meaning of citizenship beyond basic political rights to include access to culture and self-expression. They also hoped to foster the collective life of the nation and broaden the public sphere through the shared experience of making or watching works of art.
The documents in this collection show that Greenwich House leaders confronted a difficult challenge when they organized these arts programs. Largely middle-class women, they had been brought up and trained in the ideals of "high" culture and they envisioned programs that reflected the biases of their backgrounds. They also had ambitions for themselves as female professionals who guided and directed art, music, and other schools. And these documents do show that elitist impulses to instill standards, instruct in "the best," and regulate culture were a thread in the arts work at Greenwich House. At the same time, settlement arts workers held commitments to reform and broad-based democratic social change that had deep implications for the way they conceived of reforming society through culture. This document project thus also shows that settlement arts workers developed a much more democratic and expansive vision for their arts work that often eclipsed the elitist impulses.
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