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Madison House and the Great Depression

Stark, Naked Facts:  Madison House and the Great Depression

By Jeanne Talpers, Daughter of Philip Schiff, Headworker of Madison House 1934-1939


Introduction: Much has been written about the Great Depression and its impact on the country and the millions of people caught in its grip. This entry attempts to view the depression through the eyes of Madison House, a small settlement house, on the Lower East Side of New York City in the 1930s. My father, Philip Schiff, was headworker of Madison House from 1934-1939 — five years of the Great Depression. Every day, except Sundays, he left our house in Sunnyside, Long Island, early in the morning and returned home at midnight. He was lucky. Many of our neighbors had lost their jobs; at least we had food and shelter.  Like all settlement house workers at the time, my father bore witness to the economic tragedy that started with the collapse of the Stock Market in 1929 and soon overwhelmed the available social service networks.

Stark, Naked Facts About the Depression

“Never before in the history of the settlement movement has it been more strategically situated to serve its constituencies. The so-called underprivileged groups, beset by conditions which have overwhelmed them, look to us for help, not only in a materialistic and cultural sense, but expect that we will help interpret for them the kaleidoscopic changes which take place daily. … Whether or not we are equipped to adequately perform such functions, the fact remains that is our job. We are dealing with realities — stark, naked facts which are terrifying at times.”(Madison House Annual Report 1937-38)

“It is to settlement houses that the people of the neighborhoods have come, more than ever before, for help and guidance. Madison House has used its understanding and experience of many years to help people lost in the shuffle of life, help themselves better their own conditions.“

Over 75 percent of Madison House families were on some form of government relief. The Neighborhood Work Department was on the front line writing up food tickets; coordinating all clinical activities; processing applications for Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps; investigating requests for the Child Guidance Committee; working with organizations, such as the Social Security Board, Jewish Social Services, Catholic Charities, and handling the daily emergencies, including evictions.

In the early years of the Depression, there were no definitive ways to measure the extent of unemployment, but all around the country, bread lines, soup kitchens, home and farm evictions were increasing; Hooverville’s (shanties) were springing up; and many people were “bumming around the country looking for work. When the federal government did develop reliable unemployment data, the results were dismal. At any given time during the Depression, an estimated 25 percent of the population was unemployed.

Until the Depression, the concept of state or federal government assistance to local communities was not even imagined. For decades, Americans cherished the belief that private philanthropy — churches, charities, foundations — were obligated to try and clothe, feed, and shelter the vulnerable.

Social workers were trained to help people adapt to their environment or to use the new Freudian techniques to resolve clients’ emotional problems. Social workers who were not in private practice, worked for philanthropic or community organizations, investigating requests for relief. As the Depression worsened, all of these private efforts were swamped.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election in 1932 was the first glimmer of light in a dark sky. President Roosevelt immediately discarded the idea that private funds could resolve the crisis. The Federal government had to intervene. Imaginative, passionate leaders like Francis Perkins and Harry Hopkins were tapped by FDR to use their Lower East Side social work experience to design work relief programs that would provide financial assistance to the unemployed while permitting clients to maintain their dignity.

The same year (1932) FDR was elected president, Fiorello La Guardia was elected Mayor of New York City. Despite vast differences in background, the rumpled Italian-American and the elegant, aristocrat knew the politics and players of New York. Roosevelt had great respect for LaGuardia’s vision, ideas, integrity, and ability to get things done. LaGuardia had immediate access to Roosevelt. He could fly down to Washington, call the White House, and see FDR within the hour.

LaGuardia, knew what he wanted for his city. He wanted the New Deal to permeate every corner and touch every person. New York City became the laboratory for the New Deal. Roosevelt’s trust in LaGuardia ‘s judgment was the green light for New York to receive large grants for jobs, housing, construction, parks, playgrounds, and cash relief.

How did federal and city funds find their way into communities like the Lower East Side? Direct relief and work projects were major funnels. For example, from August 1, 1935 to June 30, 1936,the Works Progress Administration (WPA) spent over $204 million in New York City, mostly on construction projects. However, $30 million went to white-collar projects, including settlement houses, which were now in the loop.

This is how federal funds were used in Madison House:  To maintain a full schedule of activities for all ages from morning to night, Madison House relied heavily on two federally funded programs: the WPA and the National Youth Administration (NYA). WPA workers supervised the nursery school; taught arts, crafts, dancing, and music. The NYA workers, many of whom had had to drop out of school, worked in the library, helped in the recreation programs, and mentored young children. “There is no single activity that functions independently of the WPA workers. They play a vital part to the well being of Madison House.” (Madison House News, June1936)

One sour note: In June 1937, 250 Madison House children (8-12 years of age) presented an International Festival including plays, dances, and songs depicting the oppression of people in Germany, Spain, and Italy. The finale was a Spanish anti-Franco song. Lt. Col. Brehon H. Somervell, the local WPA administrator, denounced the festival as propaganda and demanded that 15 WPA workers be transferred from Madison House because they had participated in rehearsing the children, although they had nothing to do with writing the script.

“In my opinion, “said Col. Sumervell, “ the rehearsing of children in the recitation of criticisms of friendly foreign nations is not an activity in support of which the WPA should use public funds allocated for work relief.” (New York Times, June 12, 1937)

Despite efforts of Dad and a Madison House delegation, Col. Somervell did not rescind the order.

On a positive note, the Depression brought together Lower East Side community groups that were fast unifying the neighborhood. Madison House was very much part of this network. In every neighborhood throughout the city in which settlements are situated, they have acted as the birthplaces of many progressive and social movements. In the problems of relief, unemployment, peace, milk supply, labor, etc., the settlements have been centers from which have sprung much beneficial social action.

Youth and the Depression

One of my earliest memories is sitting in a car outside a large wall. Years later, a newspaper article in my mom’s files connected the dots. The wall was Sing Sing prison, and my mother, my brother, and I were waiting for my father who had gone to visit Ray Norton, a young man on death row. Ray Norton was a Madison House “boy.” who had been involved in a robbery and a murder. Although Mr. Norton had not fired the gun, he was considered an accessory. My father headed a delegation of 35 social workers who successfully pleaded with Governor Herbert Lehman to spare young Norton’s life.

“It is important to save Ray Norton’s life. Of just as great importance is the fact that it was not Ray Norton who was on trial but that society was the defendant, responsible for not making available to all the Ray Norton’s of New York City all the necessary recreational, vocational, and educational facilities properly the due of young people.“

“Idle, hopeless, powerless — not a good scenario for young people anywhere. In Germany, Italy, and Russia, youth were becoming militarized. In this country, communism and fascism were appealing options for youth and adults.

“These young people cannot be held in reserve or put in cold storage forever. The morale of the United States of America is in for a good trimming, unless we do something immediately for them.” (Philip Schiff, testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Education and Labor, March 18, 1936)

Youth were seeking answers and were getting mobilized. Over two million young people from all corners of the country met in 17 regional American Youth Congress conventions. They wanted guidance, education, and jobs. Most important, they wanted to be heard.

Fortunately, First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt (ER), heard them. Young people were at the heart of Eleanor Roosevelt’s concerns. Believing that youth should be part of the solution, ER listened, talked, and corresponded with them no matter how radical their ideas. She knew the appeal that fascism or communism had for youth in Germany and Russia, but she believed that America could come up with a better alternative.

Out of ER’s dialogues with young people, the concept of a volunteer youth service corps emerged. Working with Harry Hopkins and Aubrey Williams, the plan became a reality. The plan targeted youth between 16 and 25 years of age who could enlist for two years and be paid to work in public or nonprofit organizations, such as hospitals, settlement houses, schools, and libraries. States would administer the federal funds, select the projects, and assign the applicants. This was the kernel of the National Youth Administration (NYA), which on January 26, 1935 became a federal program.

Like all settlement houses, Madison House already had many youth programs including art, drama, music, athletics, discussion groups, and clubs. Vocational guidance and training also-were available. But like the “elephant in the room” —  the Depression was omnipresent, and most of the young people were unemployed.

Madison House affiliated with the American Youth Congress, and In February 1937, Madison House youth participated in a national, four-day pilgrimage to Washington to urge the President to support the American Youth Act. The Act called for jobs, educational opportunities, and vocational training and guidance of young people between the age of 16 and 25.

Thousands of other youth throughout New York City formed cellar clubs. For a few dollars a month, groups of young people could rent one or two rooms, usually in basements, for social and recreational purposes. Although some clubs were targeted and raided as “dens of inequity,” most had strict regulations about the use of the rooms and appropriate behavior. Many cellar clubs affiliated with the American Youth Congress.

Street theater was another tool used by youth to dramatize their problems and their need for a Youth Center. In May 1938, the Committee for a Youth Center, composed of 75 youth organizations, sponsored an open-air performance, “ Youth on Parade.“ Written and acted by members of the Committee, the pageant demonstrated the need for a youth center on the Lower East Side. Using a row of dingy, boarded-up tenements on Henry Street for background, the play depicted slum conditions and problems of unemployment. More than 3,500 people stood on the street or watched from tenement fire escapes and windows.

Although the cell doors had closed on Ray Norton, other doors were beginning to open.

Social Workers Enter the Political Arena

Every morning the first thing I see when I come downstairs is my Dad’s handsome face on an American Labor Party (ALP) poster announcing his bid for election to New York’s First Assembly District. Also on the poster are the names of LaGuardia and Vladeck and a handwritten note “To mom and my sisters who are as much responsible for all this poster represents.”

The year of the poster was 1937. After eight years, The Great Depression still was an overwhelming problem. Social workers and settlement house workers had participated in protests; investigated living and working conditions; testified at local, state, and federal hearings; advised the mayor, the governor, and the President in official and unofficial settings; and were appointed to cabinet and agency positions. But they had not entered the political scene until the election of 1937.

A story in the New York Post by Ernest L. Meyer, “Social Workers Leave the Classroom for Practical Work at the Front,” summarizes the reason for the change.

“One of the heartening features of the municipal campaign is the emergence of the social worker as a force in politics. Settlement houses, weary of the fake promises of machine politicians, are backing social work candidates (Stanley Isaacs, Mary Simkhovitch, Edward Corsi, Reuben Lefkowitz, Philip Schiff)… It seems to me that a trained social worker backed by an intimate knowledge of what poverty means and breeds, can do valiant service in eradicating slums, and this slate should be elected,”

My father’s decision to run for office reinforced Meyer’s article. In one of his ALP speeches, he repeated this theme of why social workers should participate in the political process. “My connection and experiences in the Lower East Side over a period of thirty years have brought me into close, personal contact with the problems our people have to contend with. As headworker of Madison House, I have studied at first hand the problems of what the rich call slum dwellers. As chairman of the Lower East Side Federation, an organization composed of churches, settlements, trade unions, social clubs, I know intimately the trials and tribulations of our neighbors.” (American Labor Party, 1937).

His opponent was James J. Dooling, chairman of Tammany’s Manhattan organization. Although Tammany had lost most of its power in the other boroughs, the Political Machine in the Lower East Side was still a major player. Despite endorsements from civic and social service groups, and protection by his older and bigger brother, Julius, my father did not make it to Albany. Stanley Issacs, who ran for New York Borough President, was the only social worker who won.

Although the election results were disappointing, there was still much to be done by the social work and settlement house communities.

The real strength and value of the settlements is indicated by the leading position taken by settlement graduates in initiating and carrying on the work of groups, such as… The Lower East Side Public Housing conference, the foremost tenant group in the city and the country. The Housing Conference has been under the leadership of Madison House graduates. The Committee for Youth Centers has broadened out and absorbed social clubs and other types of organizations. Consumers’ group for three years have traveled to Washington by bus to testify for a national housing bill,

“It is movements such as these, which are beginning to reach the broad masses of the people and are making them aware of the fact that their political representatives must be responsive to their needs, Settlement houses are becoming town halls and are renewing our faith in democracy and in settlement houses. (Speech by Philip Schiff to the Ethical Society, 1938.)

One Reply to “Madison House and the Great Depression”

  1. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to relive those wonderful years. I spent all of my leisure time with all my friends from the time I was a toddler to the time to the the day i was drafted into the navy for WW11. It brought back memories of my leaders Butch Lasky, Milty Newark and Lou Sivan.So thanks again for bringing those happy days back to me.

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