By Joseph Salas
This month, 113 years ago, an enthusiastic woman moved in to a high stooped row house on Jones Street determined to uplift the neighborhood from within. The neighborhood she moved into was an urban corner of ramshackle tenements, scarce trees, insanitary institutions and myriad other nuisances including the occasional cow; its chaotic street grid passed over for more prosperous opportunities uptown. The woman recruited her friends and her new neighbors and over Thanksgiving dinner founded one of the nation’s first settlement houses. It was dedicated to helping all segments of the community lead more fulfilling lives. The woman was Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch.
The neighborhood was Greenwich Village. And the organization was Greenwich House.
Much has changed since that time. The Village has developed into one of the city’s most desirable neighborhoods. The ramshackle tenements Simkhovitch found are now all but extinct thanks to her pioneering work, if not also heavily sought after for their mythical cheap rent. Shaded tree lined streets are now quintessentially Village and the occasional cow has ceded to the youthful drum of university life.
Greenwich House has changed as well. It moved from the high stooped row house on Jones Street (the site that would become Greenwich House Pottery), to larger quarters on Barrow Street. As the Village became a center of New York arts, Greenwich House opened the Pottery and Music Schools. As residents aged, it started senior community centers and mental health services to provide seniors with a second, social home, while helping them to stay in their longtime homes including through meal programs and counseling services to help navigate life’s trauma, such as the loss of spouses, partners and friends.
After-School and Summer Arts Camp programs were added as new young families moved in. Behavioral Health Services were created to treat those suffering from addiction. Some of the earliest programs of their kind, the programs focused on treating the mental health of addiction in a familiar location where patients could maintain community ties and more easily regain productive roles in the neighborhood. The Children’s Safety Project was the response to a particularly traumatic instance of child abuse in the neighborhood came to light in 1987.
That same year Greenwich House opened the city’s first HIV Treatment and Prevention Center to address the AIDS epidemic. At a time when many officials turned a blind eye to the growing crisis, Greenwich House opened its doors to even these most stigmatized individuals because, true to its settlement mission, at Greenwich House everyone has the right to a meaningful life and be treated with dignity.
In over a century of time Greenwich House has no doubt changed and so has the Village. However, on the eve of the organization’s 113th anniversary this year, Simkhovitch’s vision and mission hold true. Greenwich House is still a center dedicated to helping the entire community, and those beyond, lead more fulfilling lives however possible. It is hard to predict what the Village will be 113 years from now, but if the past century is any indication, Greenwich House will be there, its doors open to whoever its neighbors may be.