OUR History

A Settlement House for the 21st Century

Settlement Houses have never been more relevant. The model, because it evolves, remains evergreen. Our history informs us but does not bind us. We honor it. As our neighborhoods change, we change. And as our neighbors shape our work, and our efforts help shape public policy, our city changes – for the better.


In the 1880s, the Lower East Side was flooded with new immigrants living in poverty, nurturing a dream, and struggling to adapt to a new country. Into this overcrowded urban neighborhood came a group of reformers — people like Stanton Coit, Charles B. Stover and Carl Schurz — who settled in the community, became intimately acquainted with its problems, and recognized a need for change.

They didn’t believe that handouts or paternalistic charity were effective or honorable answers to immigrants’ poverty. Instead, in 1886, Coit, Stover, and Schurz established University Settlement — a physical, psychological and spiritual haven where people of all ages, from all countries and every walk of life could seek advice, assistance, education or a simple respite from the harsh realities of everyday life. With University Settlement, the American settlement house movement was born and other settlement houses soon followed, on the Lower East Side, in Chicago and across the country.


As the original settlement house in the United States, University Settlement’s history is marked by firsts — the first public bath, the first kindergarten in New York, the first round of Head Start. Our distinguished alumni include individuals such as George and Ira Gershwin, Abraham Beame, and Jacob Javits. Over the years, Eleanor Roosevelt, John D. Rockefeller and countless others have lent support. Today, a paid, professional staff of more than 500 joins with dedicated volunteers to uphold the founders’ original mission to meet the ever-changing needs of our community. Thanks to these tireless efforts, University Settlement continues to be a pioneer in the field of social services.


As the Lower East Side gentrified in the late 90s and early 2000s, we evolved along with it, engaging waves of new immigrants while continuing to build responsive programs alongside our neighbors. We realized the benefits of 50 years of advocacy in 2006 with the opening of Houston Street Center, which brought a wealth of resources to the community, including a competition-sized pool and a wide variety of meeting spaces. We also sought to find ways to build trusted partnerships in new neighborhoods where our approach resonated, learning different approaches with the benefit of fresh perspectives.

In 2000, seeking to deepen our investment in youth development, we entered into a strategic partnership with The Door, an internationally recognized leader in that work. Over the course of that productive and deep collaboration, which concluded in 2021, University Settlement launched cutting-edge programs for youth across dozens of sites, including many just across the Manhattan Bridge in Brooklyn. We later expanded our mental health and early childhood offerings to those neighborhoods, keeping as our guiding principle the belief that every location of University Settlement is an important part of One House.

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