Union Settlement has served the people of East Harlem since 1895. One of the largest settlement houses in New York, Union Settlement serves more than 10,000 East Harlem residents of all ages each year through its education, health, senior services, youth development, childcare, counseling, and economic development programs.
A Neighborhood of Immigrants
With a population greater than that of Albany, New York, East Harlem has long been a portal community to waves of immigrant populations. With each new generation—beginning with the Irish, Eastern European, and Italian populations of a century ago, to the more recent mix of Hispanics and African Americans, and the latest arrivals from Central and South America, West Africa, the Caribbean and China—Union Settlement has been able to transform itself to meet new demands and has proven to be a sustained and sustaining community bedrock.
- 1890s Over 3.5 million immigrants arrive at U.S. ports. Until the 1880s, most had come from western and northern Europe. New immigrants were from southern and eastern Europe, and were less prepared to fit into American life. Almost all had to start at the bottom of the economic ladder.
- 1895 Union Settlement Association is founded by alumni, faculty and students of Union Theological Seminary at 202 East 96th Street in response to the desperate conditions of immigrants struggling to make a new life in America. Within five months, the agency moves to its present site at 237 East 104th Street.
- 1896 Within one year of opening, Union Settlement programs serve 2,000 community residents each month.
- 1900 Union Settlement serves more than 3,000 people each week. Programs include Kindergarten, Library, Girls’ Clubs, Cooking Classes, Boys’ Clubs, Literary and Dramatic Club, Workingmen’s Club, Mothers’ Meetings, Helping Club, Coal Club, Music Classes, Penny Provident Bank, Sunshine Club, Sewing School, Classes in Physical Culture, Acorn Club, Young Ladies’ Union Club, Pleasure Club, Junior Athletic Club, Mandolin Club, Glee Club, playgrounds and parks.
- 1915 In response to the economic crisis of 1915, Union Settlement provides relief work, such as bandage rolling and rug making, for 300 unemployed East Harlem residents.
- 1917 Union Settlement establishes campgrounds in Palisades Interstate Park. Surrounded by lakes and woods, the camps provide important growth experiences to tens of thousands of youngsters from 1917 to the 1960s.
- 1930 Jobs are created to upgrade Union Settlement’s building. Food is purchased wholesale by Union Settlement to sell cheaply. Fuel is given out at Police Stations. Union Settlement creates an Emergency Relief Fund. Seventy-five percent of the East Harlem community is on relief.
- 1932 The New York Committee of the American Birth Control League opens a Birth Control Clinic at Union Settlement. The clinic is one of the first in the city and in East Harlem.
- 1935 The Federal Works Progress Administration provides recreation workers, teachers, craftsmen, artists and musicians to supplement the Union Settlement staff.
- 1937 Union Settlement opens a Cooperative Grocery, in league with the Consumer Cooperative Society, and the Farmer-Consumer Milk Cooperative, which remains open until 1960.
- 1940 Union Settlement provides onsite recreational and educational services to tenants at the New York City Housing Authority’s newly opened East River Houses on 105th Street and First Avenue. Tenants also have access to Union Settlement programs at its location on 104th Street.
- 1942 In response to the growing population of isolated elderly, Union Settlement initiates one of the first Old Age programs in New York City. The program is a precursor to today’s Senior Services program, and consists of recreation, meals and literacy activities.
- 1943 Union Settlement opens School-Age Day Care for children of working mothers.
- 1955 A Community Center and a Day Care Program open at Washington Houses, a large public housing project in East Harlem. Then and now, Washington Houses Community Center houses our Youth Services program.
- 1957 Union Settlement Federal Credit Union opens its doors for business. The credit union, a financial cooperative, is East Harlem’s first alternative banking system. Members pool their assets and lend money to each other at low interest rates.
The East Harlem Project is established to coordinate community service efforts focusing on schools, housing and tenant organizations. The Project, preceded by block associations in the 1940s, is co-sponsored by the James Weldon Johnson Community Center.
- 1959 Youth Employment Service is created in cooperation with other settlements in East Harlem (James Weldon Johnson and LaGuardia), schools, churches and individual community members. The Service provides literacy, job readiness and job support programs to high school dropouts. Thousands of young people are served during its 21-year history.
- 1960 Union Settlement is a joint sponsor in converting Benjamin Franklin Houses to Franklin Plaza, a middle-income cooperative located on 106th Street through 109th Street between First and Third Avenues. The goals are to bring an ethnic and economic mix into the neighborhood and provide commercial space.
- 1961 A $1 million Astor Foundation grant enables Union Settlement and six other settlement houses to implement the Pre-Teen Delinquency Prevention Project. The project reaches out to seven- to 13-year-old youngsters involved in gangs, glue sniffing and parking meter theft. Monthly home meetings encourage young people to participate in activities that are not illegal or violent.
- 1964 The Union Settlement building at 237 East 104 Street is demolished. Reconstruction begins at the same location on a new Main Building, Leggett Memorial Children’s Center and Gaylord White House, which provides apartments for low-income older adults. Today, Gaylord White also houses our Gaylord White Senior Center.
The College Readiness Program is founded. Jointly sponsored with Benjamin Franklin High School, the program encourages East Harlem students to go to college. The program celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2014.
- 1965 Union Settlement becomes the site of one of the country’s first Head Start Programs, the federally sponsored preschool initiative launched as one of the Great Society undertakings.
- 1969 Training and Employment Project begins with Dental Assistant and Photo Technicians programs. The project evolves into the state-licensed and nationally accredited Union Settlement Association Training School, which operates until 1988.
- 1970 Hotline Cares, the first telephone counseling service provided for and by inner-city youth, is founded at Union-Washington Community Center.
- 1971 St. Lucy’s apartments open on East 104th Street. One hundred units provide homes to low-income community residents.
- 1972 Adult Education classes, Literacy and Home Management programs are established.
- 1974 Settlement Health and Medical Services, part of a federal initiative, provides primary health care to East Harlem residents in a free-standing clinic. The program is separately incorporated in 1976.
- 1979 Union Settlement Home Care, funded by a city government contract, provides home attendants for homebound elderly people. The program operated through 2014.
- 1982 Union Settlement assumes responsibility for both James Weldon Johnson Counseling Center, which still operates today under our Mental Health Services program, and the East Harlem Council for Senior Centers, which is now part of our Senior Services program.
- 1984 After years of offering individual literacy classes, Union Settlement launches its Adult Education program, beginning with two Spanish grammar classes. Today, the program offers High School Equivalency English for Speakers of Other Languages, Basic Education in the Native Language and career readiness classes.
- 1992 Union Settlement opens the community garden El Sitio Feliz (“The Happy Place”) on East 104th Street. El Sitio Feliz is the site of free concerts and activities.
Union Settlement is selected to serve as the lead agency of the East Harlem HIV Care Network, a coalition of over 100 social and health service agencies that address issues of AIDS.
- Union Settlement and the Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y launched the Writing Through Reading Program, which is designed to help adult literacy students expand their English skills by reading contemporary literature, attending author readings and producing their own creative writing. Since then, we have served more than 3,500 students and brought a dazzling array of writers to East Harlem to read for and talk with our students and community members. Writers who have participated include: Isabel Allende, Julia Alvarez, Paul Auster, Sandra Cisneros, Jamaica Kincaid, Tony Kushner, Frank McCourt, Terry McMillan, Arthur Miller, Octavio Paz, Ntozake Shange, Maya Angelou, Amy Tan and Mario Vargas Llosa.
- 1994 The Youth Link Program is established in cooperation with the local police to work with drug-affected youth and young people involved in the justice system. Targeting 10 to 21 year olds, the program uses trained youth and drug specialists, street outreach and immediate access to drug treatment to combat the epidemic of youth drug involvement in East Harlem.
Union Settlement, Mount Sinai Medical Center, the Greater Emmanuel Baptist Church and Community Association of the East Harlem Triangle receive a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to design Project Linkage, a model housing program providing 70 affordable apartments for low-income, elderly East Harlem residents while expanding after-school care for the area’s latch-key children and providing intergenerational programs.
- 1995 Union Settlement celebrates its Centennial Anniversary. The Museum of the City of New York presents an exhibition featuring photographs, publications and memorabilia from Union Settlement past and present.
- 2000 In partnership with the New York Academy of Medicine, Union Settlement develops a preschool-based pediatric asthma monitoring and intervention program that becomes the model for all child care providers in New York City.
- 2007 Union Settlement Youth Services launches programs for disconnected youth and young fathers; both programs serve as models for other New York City social service providers.
- 2011 The inaugural Joan H. Tisch Community Health Prize is awarded to Union Settlement for its accomplishments in urban public health.
New York City honored Union Settlement and recognized its 116 years of service to the East Harlem community by adopting legislation officially renaming East 104th Street between Second and Third Avenues “Union Settlement Way.” The new street sign was unveiled on September 27th, which Mayor Bloomberg proclaimed as “Union Settlement Day” in New York City.
- 2012 – Union Settlement spearheads the creation of the East Harlem Community Alliance, a consortium of local businesses, non-profits, religious and governmental entities working together to enhance the vitality and well-being of East Harlem. The Alliance currently has over 200 members, and focuses on issues such as encouraging local purchasing, reducing local unemployment, connecting residents to needed services, and promoting East Harlem as a destination to visit, work, shop and live.
- 2014 – The Union Settlement Business Development Center is established. The center assists local small businesses, as well as entrepreneurs looking to start their own businesses. The center offers business education, technology training, access to capital and technical assistance, thereby helping local small businesses expand and thrive.
- 2017 – With the support of funding provided by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, Union Settlement launches the East Harlem Youth Opportunity Hub. The Youth Opportunity Hub is a network of more than 25 community organizations working together to support the development of youth ages 10 to 24 residing in East Harlem, and help prevent involvement in the criminal justice system. The Hub serves 500 young people every year, and provides a broad array of holistic, wraparound services that address their academic, social, personal, familial, recreational and vocational needs.
Union Settlement’s work has helped tens of thousands of children, youth and adults, many of whom have gone on to become leaders in the community and beyond. For example, former New York Secretary of State Lorraine Cortes-Vazquez and former New York City Council Member Robert Jackson are both Union Settlement alumni. Hollywood movie star Burt Lancaster played sports, acted in theater productions and learned circus arts at Union Settlement as a boy. He credited Union Settlement for “saving him from the streets,” and supported the organization all his life.
Written by longtime Union Settlement Board of Directors member Kate Buford, Burt Lancaster: An American Life is a critically acclaimed, best-selling biography of one of Hollywood’s brightest stars. Burt Lancaster is known to audiences around the world as the electrifying star of Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, From Here to Eternity and Birdman of Alcatraz, among many others. The biography brings to life his vivid, memorable on-screen presence as well as the off-screen life he kept intensely private. The first writer to win cooperation from Lancaster’s widow and close friends, Buford has written an intimate story of one of the last great unexamined Hollywood lives, capturing his roles as golden boy, husband, philanderer, and bisexual man. Buford’s portrait is compelling, comprehensive, intelligent—and definitive.