Local settlement houses have a long and honorable history in North Brooklyn and they have served as a cultural and educational oasis for generations of local youths. Still, many people might not fully appreciate the historic and current role settlement houses play in our area.
Settlement houses first appeared in England in 1884. Several young graduates from Oxford and Cambridge saw that the working class had little access to education or to culture, so they opened the first settlement house and hoped to share their knowledge and culture with their low-paid, poorly educated neighbors. The idea quickly spread to America where millions of illiterate, or semi-literate, immigrants with little or no English language skills began to populate the nation’s cities.
Many middle-class Americans feared that these immigrants and their children posed a danger to American culture and democracy. Something had to be done to help “Americanize” these newcomers and the settlement house quickly became the answer.
In 1889, Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr founded the famous Hull House Settlement House on Chicago’s west side. Hull House served the needs of recently arrived immigrants from Eastern Europe and it served as a model for approximately five hundred similar institutions that sprang up around the country.
Two settlement houses based on Hull House were founded in North Brooklyn. One was funded by Brooklyn’s richest man, Charles Pratt, on the ground floor of his model apartment building, The Astral Apartments, which still stands on Franklin Street and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The settlement house in the building ran a kindergarten, English language classes, home economics courses and civics classes for many of the newly arrived immigrants from Poland, Russia, Lithuania, and Italy.
The other settlement house was destined to become famous thanks to the author of the classic novel “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” Betty Smith who was educated at least partly in Greenpoint and at the settlement house on Jackson Street, which was started just after the turn of the century by a local principal in an effort to shield the area’s children from the effects of poverty. Upper-class Brooklynites volunteered in the settlement house and an anonymous donor put up money to buy the building.
Born locally on December 15, 1896 to German immigrants, Smith grew up in poverty in Williamsburg and had to combine a job and school. One of the most formative influences on young Smith was the time she spent at the Jackson Street Settlement where she learned to sew, dance sing and act on stage.
In 1943, she published her blockbuster novel, which soon was made into a film. A 1945 Brooklyn Daily Eagle article described her return to the settlement house and the pride that the directress took in the success of its most famous pupil.
The tree that serves as the chief metaphor for the book grew in the back of the settlement. Smith in the novel, however, placed it in the back of her building. The protagonist notices a tree is growing out of the cement. This type of tree, known as the ‘Tree of Heaven,’ only grows in the poorest of neighborhoods and the worse conditions. It can thrive in cement and without water or fertilizer. The tree represents the tenacity and strength of the poor inhabitants of the neighborhood, who survived with little food or money.
Like the tree that receives so little care and nourishment, the people of the Williamsburg in Smith’s story survived and even thrived in such extreme poverty without adequate food, while wearing threadbare clothing, through which they feel the biting cold.
The 1945 Eagle article also mentioned that the tree Smith described in the book was actually cut down because of an infestation of caterpillars, but still grew back.
It was at the settlement that Smith saw the personification of education and refinement in the person of her settlement house teacher whom she described, “Miss Jackson can live in the middle of a dirty neighborhood and be fine and clean like an actress in a play; someone you can look at who is too fine to touch.” Jackson inspired Smith to achieve and the rest is history.
Though North Brooklyn is profoundly different from the early days of the settlement’s founding there are still many local children like Betty Smith whose lives could be changed by exposure to all that the settlement houses have to offer. That’s why news of the new settlement house on Jackson Street is so welcome.