Hull House, a hallowed Chicago institution for 123 years, recently closed due to lack of funds. For generations, it was the crown jewel of American settlement houses, important enough to be mentioned in history textbooks, and also an ongoing source of local civic pride. Today, every Chicagoan, from Mayor Emanuel and the city’s corporate fathers, to those in the Occupy Chicago movement should be ashamed at how the public has virtually ignored the death of Hull House.
Civic leaders gnashed their teeth publicly when AON recently relocated its headquarters from Chicago to London. When former Mayor Daley disappeared Meigs Field, a veritable Greek chorus of wailing arose throughout the city. Some years ago, the White Sox threatened to move and amidst public outcry, Governor Thompson granted them a sweetheart deal to remain. Yet Hull House, an older and more venerable institution than any of those, closes and receives less notice than the news Jay Cutler and Kristin Cavilieri are expecting.
Future Nobel Prize winner Jane Addams and her associate Ellen Starr founded Hull House in 1889. They visited London’s Toynbee Hall, the oldest settlement house in the world founded in 1884, where the philosophy was to bring the wealthy and poor together – “to learn as much as to teach, to receive as much as to give”. Working off that model, Hull House began providing social and educational support to the immigrant poor and dispossessed of Chicago. By the turn of the century, the Hull House mansion had expanded to a city block complex that included a gymnasium, theater, nursery, kindergarten, library, summer camp, and meeting hall. Artistic and music programs flourished there; Hull House is where a young musician named Benny Goodman honed his clarinet skills in the 1920’s.
Besides the services provided, Hull House, like Toynbee Hall, introduced many wealthy volunteers and prominent Chicagoans to the social workers and poor of the city. People of widely different backgrounds and outlooks learned about each other and worked together for the early 20th Century Progressive movement that included child labor laws, unemployment compensation, women’s suffrage and protection of immigrants and minorities. Hull House became the prototype for nearly 500 settlement houses nationally by the end of World War I.
The decline of Hull House began in the 1960’s when the new University of Illinois at Chicago campus displaced it on the Near West Side. Many of its functions were assumed by various social service agencies across the city and it was gradually forced to rely on Government funding over the private donation model. In the current environment with Government funding strained, it was only a question of time before Hull House died an ignominious death.
Ironically, Toynbee Hall, unlike Hull House, is thriving today. With over 400 volunteers, it offers programs and services to thousands of Londoners and is home to a center documenting the history of settlement houses with an extensive archive of books and papers available to the public.
One of the key figures in the history of Toynbee Hall was John Profumo, the British Minister of Defense in the 1960’s. Profumo, the Prime Minister’s most trusted aide, was involved in a notorious sex scandal and resigned from Parliament in disgrace. Afterward, he opted to work at Toynbee Hall performing various chores including washing dishes and cleaning toilets. Profumo ultimately spent 40 years at Toynbee Hall, modestly using his influence and wealth to raise funds for the settlement house. The British politician and journalist W. F. Deedes called Profumo’s act of redemption unprecedented in public life.
Before he died, Profumo discussed his settlement house work. He was referring to the City of London, but he may just as well have been talking about Chicago when he said, “If you define poverty as about money, you’re on the highway to nowhere. Poverty isn’t about money. It’s a whole way of life….If you define wealth in monetary terms, there’s no hope for the future. It’s only when you realize what you have to give that you become a real person… There’s so much unrequited loneliness. Society has become so compartmentalised, so that although people occupy the same physical space, they never interact. The poor know nobody in the City and nobody in the City knows the poor.”
Unfortunately, there was no John Profumo to work for Hull House (imagine a disgraced American Secretary of Defense cleaning toilets). The last remaining vestige of America’s most influential settlement house is the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, underpublicized and not easily accessible. In comparison with the city’s other museums it is sparsely attended, often providing little more than a morning’s diversion for bored schoolchildren imbued with little sense of the immigrant experience and the vital role of Hull House in Chicago history.
The cavalier attitude toward the closing of Hull House is one more instance of the profound disservice we do our children by depriving them of vital historical knowledge. This ignorance of their roots will not serve them well, especially as the gap between rich and poor continues to widen. Hull House embodied how Chicago, and the nation, became a community. Its demise, along with our casual dismissal of it, bode ill for the challenges on the horizon. The heritage of our past makes us who we are today - and what we will become in the future.
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