Our History

Remembering The Past... Envisioning The Future

The settlement house movement began in Britain in 1884, and took hold in the United States in the late 19th century. The idea of the movement was for people with resources, education, and compassionate hearts to settle in impoverished areas, and, through their influence and resources, help lift their neighbors out of poverty. This original incarnation of grassroots community building was built on the belief that neighbors helping neighbors enriches not only the lives of those most in need, but also of everyone involved. Through the mid-1900s, settlement staff lived this commitment; they resided in the same buildings in which neighborhood residents participated in their programs and services, living as true neighbors. At the turn of the 20th Century, the boom of over 400 settlements in less than two decades heralded the birth of community-based activism in America. To this day, settlement houses act as a nexus for social service delivery and political activism and advocacy, working to achieve social change through individualized approaches in cities across the country. 

Grand St. Settlement was founded in 1916, in the Lower East Side of Manhattan by a group of young people working at Madison House, another local settlement. These young adults recognized the need for smaller settlement houses to create a place where community members could gather for social and recreational activities, assistance, or learning, and it would truly feel like a second home. One member of this group, Rose Gruening, would continue to figure prominently in the history of the agency and the Lower East Side; a fierce champion for her community and neighbors, Gruening would go on to donate Camp Moodna to Grand St. Settlement, providing a safe retreat and refuge from the city and all its harsh conditions for generations. Grand St. Settlement immediately distinguished itself within the settltment movement; a forerunner of tenant unions, child care and kindergarten for children of working parents, and the first provider of free dental care, Grand St. Settlement responded directly to needs of families. Through an approach that covered activism and reform, education and employment, and public health needs and services, the settlement became a reflection of the diverse and vibrant neighborhood it serves. For nearly a century, we have been a second home and family to tens of thousands of New Yorkers.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Settlement's main services were provided through clubs for girls and boys and young men and women. Young immigrants learned how to make it in America thanks to classes in English language, financial literacy, household management, and parenting. Socialization and recreation were equally important elements, as these clubs featured art, sewing, and dance. Grand St. Settlement also operated a kindergarten for the children of working parents and household management and child-rearing programs for parents, making it one of the first human services agencies to recognize the critical linkages between stability, independence, and childcare. 

In 1925, Camp Moodna, located in Orange County and donated to Grand St. Settlement by Rose Gruening, offered a respite location for girls and women working in factories who needed a break from the harsh conditions and  summer heat. The camp expanded and evolved over time to include summer day camps for both boys and girls. Today, the tradition of summer day camp continues. Each year, the settlement hosts summer camps at a multitude of locations across the city for over 550 campers.

By the 1930s, the agency had expanded, and professionals joined volunteers on staff. As human services became an established field of employment, service delivery became more specialized. Core programs in the late 1930s into the 1940s included childcare, daycare, and for the first time, health and personal services.

Beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, the settlement began to see an influx of diversity, both in the people it served and the services needed. With the arrival of new immigrants from the Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia, Grand St. Settlement grew to incorporate new services, cultures and traditions. As the immigrant and migrant communities within the Lower East Side expanded, and changes in city economy, development, and real estate changed the face of the neighborhood, Grand St. Settlement found that its communities stretched well beyond the boundaries of the LES. With more New Yorkers and neighborhoods in need, the settlement expanded again, this time to include neighborhoods on the other side of the Williamsburg Bridge. With the addition of Bushwick, Brooklyn in the 1980s, and Williamsburg, East Williamsburg, and Brownsville after 2000, the Grand St. Settlement family has continued to grow.