Houston Street Center in the WSJ

Apr 13, 2016 |

HSC was in the news this week, as Ralph Gardner Jr. wrote about the history of University Settlement and how it has adapted to changes in the populations that it serves and in the makeup of the Lower East Side in particular. Several active members of the center are discussed.  

Read the full piece below, or check it out on the Wall Street Journal's website!

Community Spirit Lives in the Bowery

Ralph Gardner Jr., April 13th, 2016. 

     A fort in Indian country was the analogy that came to mind as I sat in a conference room at University Settlement's Houston Street Center on the Bowery and listened to Melissa Aase, the organization's executive director, discussing the onslaught of gentrification.
Though "gilding" may be a more apt description for the luxury transformation of a neighborhood once known as the city's Skid Row.

     "We used to be able to see the sky from here," Ms. Aase lamented as she looked out the window of the center's conference room. It was blocked by a new condo-hotel rising next door. "This was our only daylight."

     It wouldn't be quite accurate to describe University Settlement, one of the city's oldest and largest social-service providers, as a bulwark against the forces of gentrification. Rather, it's a place where every element of the community—from wealthy, to middle class, to poor, many of them immigrants—can congregate.

     "It's accessible to the whole community," Ms. Aase said, referring to the Houston Street Center. "It makes the place a much richer place, vibrant and inclusive."

     University Settlement started in 1886 as a haven for the flood of impoverished immigrants arriving on the Lower East Side. The Houston Street Center, celebrating its 10th anniversary, is a few blocks from the group's headquarters on Eldridge Street. And were further proof required of the forces of change, it shares the ground floor of the apartment building where it's located with a Whole Foods.

     "We know a little bit about the neighborhood," Ms. Aase explained. "We just turned 130. We've seen so many changes."

     The community spirit is on display nowhere as much as in the gym and swimming pool that the Houston Street Center shares with the Chinatown YMCA. On a recent afternoon, it was a beehive of activity.

     "It's a 50/50 partnership with the 'Y'," Ms. Aase explained as neighborhood residents ran on treadmills that overlooked the pool.

     The two groups even divide the pool. "The Y has a certain amount of lanes and we have a certain amount of lanes," she said. "In the summertime you have to reserve two weeks in advance. There are so many people who want to swim."

     But the gym and pool constitute only a fraction of the Houston Street Center's offerings. They include family yoga, English conversation, housing assistance, job training, drama courses, child care, knitting, and zumba. There's also free afterschool and summer programs for middle schoolers.

     Judy Sarmento, 78 years old, comes from Jackson Heights three days a week. "I have a lot of friends here," she explained. "You have to go to a place where you're welcome."
And did I mention the Excel programs? They provide children and adults with special needs with everything from art and cooking to computer-skills classes.

     Deborah Lee, 29, is among them.
Indeed, Ms. Lee who takes hip hop dancing classes—in addition to drama, sewing, and the ancient Chinese breathing technique of Qi Gong—recently testified before the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation in an effort to help secure funding for University Settlement.

     "Before I wrote down some notes," she recalled of her appearance. "It was a very nice experience. I went with my mom and other parents and friends. I spoke in a microphone."
The effort paid off. The LMDC awarded the organization $1.1 million.

     "Nowhere else would we feel like family," said Wai Lan Lee, Deborah's mother, who goes by Michelle. She was speaking in Chinese as Eva Wong, the Houston Street Center's director of programs and engagement, translated.

     The family lives in the neighborhood and Deborah and her mother can walk to the building. While Deborah was taking those hip hop classes her mother was learning how to swim. Though she said she can't float. So I don't know how that works.

     "We really need this place," she said.

     Ms. Aase grew passionate while discussing the symbolic importance of losing that conference-room view. "This is the kind of space that brings people together and creates a sense of belonging," she said of University Settlement. "When people are pushed out of their neighborhood and feel displaced you're pushing back against all those things."
She nodded in the direction of the swimming pool. "And having fun."


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