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University of Chicago Settlement: 1896

University of Chicago Settlement

by George C. Sikes, University Record, December 9, 1896.

Editor’s Note:  This is a remarkable document in that it provides a detailed description of the neighborhood in which the University of Chicago located just two years after it was founded.  It includes details about employment in the packing house industry, the nationality of the residents and the early programs offered to the neighborhood residents by the staff and residents of the agency.

The University of Chicago settlement is located at 4638 Ashland avenue, in the heart of the stock yards district. It is in the 29th ward but reaches the larger territory included between 29th and 35th streets. The settlement was opened in January, 1894, under the auspices of the settlement board of the University of Chicago. This board, or philanthropic committee, as the formerly was known, had been engaged since the first year of the university in investigating districts suitable for settlement work. In fact, the plan for a university settlement antedates the opening of the university itself, having formed a part of the original purpose of the institution.

After careful search the committee reported in favor of the stock yards as the best location and a modest beginning was made at 4655 Gross avenue, a short distance from the present home of the settlement.

The district thus chosen is an interesting one (economically), as well as sociologically considered. It is primarily an industrial community, owing its existence to the one great industry which supports its citizens. In that sense it is somewhat analogous to the town of Pullman and to the “factory towns” of the east and of England. “The yards,” including the packing houses, furnish practically all the employment to be found in the neighborhood—the shops and other similar occupations being of course indirectly dependent on the yards. Some 75,000 persons thus look to one highly specialized industry for daily bread—their fortunes rising and falling with the fluctuating employment in the yards. This employment is extremely (uncertain). When a company receives a heavy shipment of cattle an extra force of men is put on at once to dispose of the animals, so that the company need not bear the expense of their maintenance longer than is necessary. When the pressure of work is over the extra men are laid off. In short, the stock yards firms, by keeping an extra force of men in reserve, waiting for work, practically shift the burden of maintaining the cattle from themselves to the workmen. Students of the situation declare that all the workmen concerned would be better on if 25 per cent of them were permanently discharged, and thus forced to leave the neighborhood.

The introduction of machinery in recent years has largely affected the employment of labor, as well as the wages paid since an unskilled workman can operate a machine nearly as well as a trained worker. This is one of the chief causes of the lack of organization of labor in the stock yards district. It is difficult to form successful unions where they cannot command a monopoly of skill. There are too many untrained workmen always ready to do the work. Another reason is doubtless to be found in the opposition which efforts at labor organization have met from employers in the locality. It is said that the whole district is dominated by the yards to such an extent that it is impossible to get even a petition against the smoke (hazard) signed in the neighborhood.

The nationalities included in the district are chiefly Irish, Germans, Poles, Bohemians, Jews. Finns, Russians and a sprinkling of the old race of Lithuanians are also to be found, all forming, in the words of the head settlement worker, a “conglomerate that must in some way be Americanized and harmonized.”

The number of dependents in the stock yards district is smaller than in some other parts of the city. The population is made up of self-respecting workers, who support themselves when there is work to be had. The greatest drawback of the community is lack of initiative in working for reforms and improvements that might easily be secured by organized effort. Better civic leadership, freer social intercourse, more neighborliness—not charity—are the pressing needs of the community.

The settlement has outgrown its first meager quarters in Gross avenue, and now occupies four flats as dwellings and classrooms, besides a hall two or three doors away, where larger meetings are held. There are four men and five women in residence, the head worker being Miss Mary E. McDowell, at one time with the Northwestern university settlement. While in residence at Hull house, she organized the Woman’s club of the neighborhood, which is still in a flourishing condition. The head resident and housekeeper receive salaries. The other residents pay their own expenses and contribute their services. One of the men, Mr. A. M. Simons, conducts a branch of the bureau of charities. The other men residents are: Mr. Millis, a student of sociology at the university; Mr. Beffel, a medical student: and Mr. Walker, a university undergraduate. The settlement furnishings are homelike, and give an effect of cheer and welcome as one enters. The comparatively small size of the “plant” has aided in preventing the appearance of “institutionalism,” which all settlements aim to avoid.

Here, as in most other settlements, no definite religious work or instruction is attempted. The kindergarten, under the direction of Mrs. Mary B. Page, was the first thing undertaken, and has been a pronounced success from the start. Two choruses (the Orpheus for adults and the children’s chorus) are conducted by Miss Marie Hofer, with excellent results. The day nursery is supported by an association of south side women. It has been in operation since the early days of the settlement. The same association maintains sewing and home dressmaking classes. There is also a dispensary, a free lending library (a private enterprise of the settlement) and a university extension center, where lectures are given by university professors. Two or three lawyer friends of the settlement have hours in which they give free legal advice to those who need it. Occasional art exhibits and weekly Sunday concerts of the best music are helpful in developing and gratifying a taste in these directions. The cooking classes have outgrown the limits of the settlement kitchen, and recently were moved to larger quarters. Clubs of various sorts have been organized. Of these, the Woman’s club, conducted by Miss McDowell, is one of the most notable. It is an attempt to organize the more progressive women of the community in such a manner as to put into living operation the ideas developed in the settlement. The social distinctions are as well marked in this as in other neighborhoods, and the problem has been to separate the idea of neighborliness from its accompaniment of “over the back fence” gossip, and of the familiarity which might imply lowering of standard, and to infuse into it the true conception of sympathy, courtesy and friendly sharing of material and spiritual good. The Woman’s club has so far caught this spirit that it has established a “loan collection” of articles for the sick—bedding, hot-water bottles, etc.—contributed by the members. But the chief benefit is doubtless the breaking down of rigid lines separating neighbor from neighbor, the interpretation of one to the other, and the union of all around a common interest larger than their own immediate affairs.

One object of every settlement is to compel the municipal authorities to provide the privileges to which the neighborhood is entitled and to agitate for further improvements. The university settlement repeatedly has called attention to the fact that the dumping ground for the 31st and 32nd ward garbage is within the district, that the death rate of the 29th ward is three and one-half times that of the 32nd, and that to dump garbage within the city limits is an offense punishable by law. The settlement has also agitated for a branch of the public library and for parks and public baths, though as yet without result.

The official relation of the settlement in the university is through the settlement board and the Women’s University Settlement league. The former is consulted by the settlement on questions of financial and other issues. It is nominally a board of control, though seldom exercising any restraining power upon the settlement. It also acts as a means of communication between the settlement and the university as a whole when matters of general interest are to be presented. The present chairman is Prof. Shaller Mathews. The Women’s University Settlement league is composed of the women connected with the faculty. The students are kept in touch with the settlement through addresses delivered by the head resident and others, through the exercises of “Settlement Day,” on which the children’s chorus sings at the university, and through their own assistance at the settlement.

The cost of maintaining the settlement is about $3,500 a year. This is raised largely through the university and its friends, but contributions are also received from other sources, notably the South Congregational and Drexel Boulevard churches, and the South Side Church Association. The increased interest taken by Kenwood in the settlement and its objects, and the more sympathetic attitude of its inhabitants on many social questions, is reckoned by the settlement as one of its most valuable achievements.

Source: Wallin, Madeline. Papers, [Box 1, Folder 17], Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

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