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Hamilton-Madison House: Reaching the Hard Core of Poverty

Hamilton-Madison House

Editor’s NoteThis entry was copied from the original document.  It is both a history of settlement work on the Lower East Side of New York City and an excellent example of community organization in a racially diverse neighborhood. This proposal was written in the first year that Community Action grants were being awarded as part of the War on Poverty.

For Board and Staff Members Only

Hamilton-Madison House

50 Madison Street New York, N.Y., 10038

June 28, 1965


This is out of a proposal for support for Hamilton-Madison House’s approach to one of the crucial problems of our time: poverty amid plenty. On a scale large enough to constitute a meaningful contribution to New York’s stability but compact enough to be a manageable pilot project, Hamilton-Madison House is conducting a continuous,  community-oriented settlement-house program coupled with an intensive program among hard-core multi-problem families.

I. Introduction

The attention and the resources of nation and city are beginning to be focused on poverty. For example, the lead article in the  current issue of THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR magazine is a thoughtful discussion by John Hersey,

“Our Romance With Poverty.” We believe that Hamilton-Madison House can demonstrate that successful anti-poverty action depends — in the urban setting at least — on skilled, face to-face work in local neighborhoods. It is a campaign that must be won by the infantry men of social action: Platoons and companies and battalion combat teams moving through familiar terrain to select specific objectives. Anti-poverty is no mission for high-altitude bombers that try to drop megatons of money to compensate for imprecision.

Our  blueprint is this:

1) to move beyond the walls of the House into the community with community-organization workers who, through their efforts provide a cohesiveness and a sense ofbelonging to individuals and a meaningful community voice,

2) to move beyond the walls of the House to the doors of the multi-problem families, with our case-workers and group workers; and

3) to provide, in the neighborhood, a continuous, year-round program for people of all ages, from three to ninety-three.  This constitutes the base from which are launched the intensive services to multi-problem families and community.

To achieve our design,the directors of the settlement house are seeking term grants and endowment, to provide funds for expanded programs with multi-problem families, and to ensure the essential, continuous operation of the settlement house program.

II.  Sixty-five Years of Service: the H-M-H Story

From the beginning or the·century, when Hamilton House was founded, until after the Second World War, the wedge-shaped area between the East River and the Brooklyn Bridge and Manhattan Bridge approaches was a low­ income

A Doorway into Hamilton-Madison House
A Doorway into Hamilton-Madison House

Italian immigrant enclave, with some Greek and Irish residents. The neighborhood’s housing was dilapidated and further deteriorating as its residents became poorer. Many tenements that had been boarded up as un-inhabitable were reopened at the end of World War II at extravagant rentals: a. two-room apartment, with shared use of a water closet, cost a family of eight Puerto Ricans $90 a month. Newly arriving Negroes and Puerto Ricans had no choice but to accept such slum housing.  Friction between the old community and the new  was constant; one end of a block was Negro and Puerto Rican, and the other was Italian.  Several unsolved murders with racial overtones took place, and gangs of youth battled for “turf”.  The construction of the low-income Alfred E Smith Houses brought more diversity and greater tension. From one pulpit in the neighborhood came the pronounce­ment:  “We don’t want any Negroes, Jews and Puerto Ricans in our Neighborhood”.

A Participant in a Girl's Club at Hamiton-Madison House
A Participant in a Girl’s Club at Hamiton-Madison House

It was at this time (1950) that Hamilton House recognized its primary role: to weld diverse elements into a community. This could be accomplished only by moving out from the four walls ofthe settlement house. Hamilton House contacted every church and organized group in the neighborhood, the schools, P.T.A.’s, political clubs, veteran’s organizations and social agencies. Hamilton House staff pleaded and tried to persuade· them, “We all have too much in common and too many major problems to ‘go it alone’ any longer”. What finally fused diverse elements into the beginnings of a neighborhood organization was the concern of a group of parents that their children were seriously retarded in reading. They sought help from Hamilton House and the Educational Alliance (another settlement house), the Lower East Side Remedial Reading and Recreational Committee was organ­ized. Its early programs included experimental reading centers staffed by the Board of Education but located in the settlements, an after-school recreational center at an elementary school, and new plans for a local park (which were adopted by the Department of Parks).  After these success­es, the Committee went to work to have building-code enforcement and rent control extended to the slums tenements in the neighborhood. This neigh­borhood social action took several years. During them, Hamilton House staff provided the catalytic force and the settlement house provided the meeting place. Members of the community learned to determine their own objectives, thrash out their differences, and develop strategy.  There could not have been any action without the skillful professional help and the dollar-and-cents resources of Hamilton House.  In 1954 the settlement was strengthened by  being joined with Madison House, forming the present merged organization, Hamilton-Madison House.

Hamilton-Madison House
Hamilton-Madison House

The confidence gained from four years of success encouraged the participants to expand their cooperative efforts. Under the guidance of a social worker assigned full-time to community organization, representatives of twenty organizations formed the Two Bridges Neighborhood Council in 1955. Three serious problems faced the neighborhood at this time: Youth gang activity, youth without anything to do, and youth being lured into the use of narcotics.

To handle the first problem the Council formed an emergency committee that could meet on a moment’s notice, determine the facts in a “rumble”, and take civilian action to “cool” gang conflict.The inauguration of a vast community-wide, year-round recreation program involving five to six hundred youngsters in baseball, basketball, football and bowling partially solved the second problem. To this day all activities have been coached and managed entirely by citizen-volunteers, and most games are played in the park created by earlier neighborhood action. The third problem launched the Neighborhood Council’s  Narcotics Education  Committee, to work with both youths and parents. This locally sponsored committee has developed into an independent, Federally-supported narcotics pre­vention and control center with a budget of over $100,000 annually.

Perhaps the most important project launched by the Council was the development of a full scale master plan known as the Self-Renewal Plan, for the orderly renewal and development of the Two Bridges community. The plan embraced every facet of community living and before  it was pub­lished had the endorsement of all neighborhood groups and leaders. A natural outgrowth of the activities of the Council committees, it was drawing together and a coordination, as well as a testament of neighbors’ faith in the future of their community. This unique effort on the part of a non-professional neighborhood group, with the voluntary help of professional planners, has been widely recognized. The City Planning Commission adopted a portion of the plan and assigned it a priority for Federal study funds as an urban renewal area. The Metropolitan Committee on Planning, a group of professional planners, presented the Two Bridges Council with its annual award.

The  Two Bridges Neighborhood Council is still active and  healthy today, despite a  high mortality rate in comparable efforts  in other communities. Two  Bridges has been  the most  effective neighborhood council within the larger Lower East Side Neighborhoods Association,  which  it helped launch and  to which  it has  given many leaders.  Two Bridges has been  copied in many areas, and  the  United Neighborhood Houses  of  New York adopted its philosophy and  methods  (with  variations) for its  fifty-four member settlements. In order  to  encourage similar neighborhood efforts  to coordinate resources for summer programs, the  United Neighborhood Houses allocates more than  $35,000. each year to be  spent for neighborhood councils  in other  settlement  communities.

The  long-range,  neighborhood impact  of successful  Council activity has  been  to create a  community  of neighbors out of   diverse, hostile elements  who   previously lived in ignorance and  fear of  one another. It would  be  inaccurate to say  that there is absolutely no  tension in the Two Bridges Neighborhood, but there is effective  harmony  at a  time when other sections of the country and  city  are aflame with violence. The delinquency statistics  tell  the story: of  the  Health Department statistical areas on  the Lower East Side, Healtharea 78, the Two Bridges community was the only one  to show a  continuous decrease over five  years. The others have shown  delinquency increases of up  to 70  per  cent. That   these neighbors are willing to look at  their  problems together  is,we feel,  the big difference. They have dignity and self respect  born of the knowledge that they can live and work together, can  help in shaping their  own destinies, and can retail their individualities.  They do not any longer fear people who  are unlike themselves.

None of this  could have  come about without the leadership  and  inspiration  provided by  Hamilton-Madison  House, its professionally trained staffand its financial resources.  For the first seven years, the settlement supported the

A Class for Children of the Neighborhood
A Class for Children of the Neighborhood

Two Bridges Neighborhood Council entirely, giving it staff, headquarters and meeting rooms, and basis materials.  During this time the Council was also encouraged to raise its own funds to the limit of its ability, and it succeeded in doing so for certain programs, particularly the sports. Social change takes root only when men feel enough involvement in an innovation to undertake responsibility for at least partial financial support. Today, men and women are carrying on the objectives of the Coun­cil. They bear the responsibility and they represent the community’s inspiration. The most difficult problems facing the city and the nation are being tackled on a local basis by Two Bridges people today, and they show the same pioneering spirit that has characterized the Council from the beginning. For three summers they have provided local youths with jobs in adult-led work crews. This past year the Council ran a summer school (for) students, in cooperation with the Board of Education and Mobilization for Youth. The urban renewal project , the Two Bridges Self-Renewal Plan, is ready for implementation with the backing of the Housing and Redevelopment Board of the city.   This all represents a healthy and con­tinuing life of a neighborhood council that had its inspiration and its nourishment from Hamilton-Madison House, an, agency that is proud to act in the settlement-house tradition of social pioneering, by inventing new ways to attack age-old problems.  Hamilton-Madison House still provides part of the Council manpower, through board, staff, and member participation; the major financial burden is now shouldered by others.

III. A Stepped-up Approach to the Multi-Problem Families

Community-focused activities have never detracted from the many programs within Hamilton-Madison House, for individuals of ages from three to ninety-three — and for their families. Activities of this kind have actually been extended, for it is the settlement’s responsibility to seek out those youngsters and families whose inability to cope with the complexities of urban living makes them chronic problems to the schools, to law-enforcement agencies, to landlords, to their neighbors, and to themselves. These families and individuals are not able to be served by the more structures set up for “the poor”, for they can neither conform to clinic or case-work-agency appointment schedules nor travel half way across the city. We are the neighborhood resources that intercedes for them with the courts, the Welfare Department, the BoardofEducation, or the Health Department, which gives meaning to their lives, which coddles them at times, perhaps, until they are ready to take their place again in a highly competitive society. Our intercession never denies people the right of decision; instead it prepares them to exercise that right as soon as they are able.

Families of this type have, in recent years, become recognized as “hard core’ or “multi-problem” families. They are part and parcel of our communities; their problems are the community’s problems. We believe, on the basis of our experience, that when the Federal anti-poverty program gets down to cases in the urban areas, much of its work will be concerned with the families who are trapped in a cycle of problems, poverty, ignorance, more problems, and more poverty. When neighborhood youngsters come back from jail or Youth House, Warwick or Cedar Knolls, they belong to the settlement, both as members and as Hamilton-Madison House’s charges. Children’s Court judges regularly request that the settlement assume responsibility for this boy or that.  The alternative? — Elmira, already over-crowded and a known training ground for adult criminals. Every group worker on the settlement staff is involved with this type of youngster and his family, for there is never one without the other, and they can rarely be helped separately, The experienced family case­-worker on the staff provides expert diagnostic help — not at a distance but on the spot — willing to care and ready to act.

It is our experience, through sixty-five years of settlement-house work on the Lower East Side,that specific programs among the poor/under-privileged/deprived/depressed (the terminology changes but the problems remain) are most effective when carried on with a background of community activity, and that certain of them are almost ineffective without that backdrop. Services do not become effective by the mere fact of their being offered. A polio-vaccine program run from a Health Department trailer parked in Madison Street will get a few takers. The same program offered at the settlement — with Neighborhood Council support and with publicity through the mothers’ program, the teenage program, the children’s program, and the nursery school — has a chance at 70 or 80 per cent coverage. And, because H-M-H is part of a community, our professional workers will probably be told of the woman with six children who, through fear or ignorance or language difficulties, is not availing her family of the life-saving vaccine. A psychiatric social worker on 23rd street does not help the mother who remains, with her children and her problems, on an upper floor in the Smith Houses. But a service offered in the community through the settlement has the greatest chance of the widest acceptance.

Hamilton-Madison House has been reaching out to the multi-problem families to provide both casework and groupwork services on an intensive basis. Doing this requires time, energy, and significantly more professional manpower. Our objective is to extend our program to each multi-problem family in our Lower East Side community.  We know who they are and where they are because our House is the center of the community, and  because the families neighbors work and play with us, know us, talk with us.

What is needed is an  expansion of staff. A  program of endowed case­ workers for multi-problem work is as  fundamental to the operation of the settlement house as an endowed professorship of English Drama is to the operation of a college or university. Indeed, the analogy is wholly appropriate because an endowed social-welfare program, is as enduringly useful to society as a faculty chair. In the group work sector of our program, an enlarged staff will permit more intensive service. For it will permit us to structure our groupings so that we reach more people, and in smaller-sized groups.  As in classroom teaching, a smaller pupil­-teacher ratio permits more effective communication.

We see as our responsibility the need to go to the problem families because, in the urban setting, no agency other than the settlement house can.

Source: Hamilton-Madison House Records. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Social Welfare History Archives. Minneapolis, MN:

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Hamilton-Madison House. (1965). Retrieved [date accessed] from /?p=8674.

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