Unsettled at the Settlement House | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

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Unsettled at the Settlement House

Hull House tends to see its Lakeview building. Will its programs find a new home?

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On a typical weekday afternoon at the Jane Addams Center Hull House in Lakeview, dancers, actors, and photographers move through the hallways to their studios and darkrooms. Kids scamper to swimming classes and day-care and after-school programs. This sort of high-volume creative activity--involving people of all ages, races, and ethnicities--has been the signature of the center since it opened in the early 1960s.

But the activity will stop sometime next year, because Hull House's board of directors plans to sell the building to whoever offers the most money, most likely a developer who will replace it with upscale housing. The pending sale has plenty of the center's staff and volunteers in a panic, because they're afraid many of its programs will be gutted, even though Hull House officials say there's no reason to worry. "It is my intention as CEO to make sure we protect officers and organizations," says Hull House CEO and president Clarence Wood. "It is not my intention to cut programs."

Hull House moved to the building, an old American Legion hall at 3212 N. Broadway, when most of the original Hull House complex was demolished to make way for the University of Illinois at Chicago. Both centers were dedicated to the philosophy of Jane Addams, who believed that crime, illiteracy, and poverty could be erased by social service institutions that were deeply rooted in their communities. She staffed the first Hull House building, located at Polk and Halsted, with idealistic college students and recent graduates who offered a broad array of programs--everything from art to theater to adult literacy to child care--to the poor and working-class residents who lived nearby.

The center on Broadway, which was bought with money raised by the sale of the near-west-side property, has become a north-side landmark. Over the years it has offered classes in swimming, ceramics, theater, and adult literacy. In the 1960s it was an influential producer of avant-garde plays; later it became home to several theater companies, including Steppenwolf Theatre. In 1969 it hired a young hippie named Richard Stromberg to teach a few photography classes. Stromberg stayed on, building one of the city's best and most affordable photography programs and enlisting former students as volunteer teachers. More than 100 students are currently enrolled. "The great thing about Hull House is that it's so convenient--it's right here in the community, it's a part of the community," says Michelle Bunch, a Lakeview resident who takes photography classes there. "There's such a great spirit at Hull House. The programs are affordable. Everybody wants to get involved."

For years local community groups have used the center for meetings. The Lakeview Pantry, a free food pantry, has rented space there since 1970; its former director, Bruce Young, was elected alderman in the late 1980s. "It's rooted in the neighborhood," says Ralph Saunders, a 38-year-old professor who was born and raised in Lakeview. "I took swimming lessons there as a kid. I took ceramics lessons there when I was in high school. I saw Steppenwolf perform Sam Shepard plays there as a young man."

But the building itself has been deteriorating, while Lakeview has been gentrifying around it. Wood says that at the start of this year the Hull House board of directors faced a difficult decision. Should they sink money into upgrading the building, even though Lakeview is no longer the sort of working-class community Hull House typically serves? They decided to sell the building and move on. "The building is not the kind of building we would design from scratch to meet our needs," says Wood. "It's not compliant with the ADA [Americans With Disabilities Act]. We'd have to install elevators. We'd have to fix the roof and electrical. There are major repairs and improvements that must be made if we are to remain there. Nobody gives me a break on tuck-pointing or repairs because we provide social services--we have to pay market rates."

On July 18, Wood called a meeting of the center's senior staff to break the news. "It was my decision as president of Hull House to sit down with the staff and share the position of the board," he says. "I wanted them to know in advance of our decision so that they didn't learn about it secondhand by seeing real estate people coming around." His purpose, he says, was to reassure the staffers that any proceeds from the sale of the building would be used to continue their programs at another location.

He didn't reassure many of them. "I don't think he was ready to answer all the questions," says one staffer who was there.

Wood began by explaining that the board had no choice but to sell, because the building was in bad shape, say several people who were at the meeting. "He said there would be no jobs lost and no programs cut," says the staffer. "Someone asked about the swimming pool. He couldn't really answer that--and for good reason. How can you afford to build a new swimming pool? That's a lot of money. So if you don't build a new swimming pool then you can't say that staffers won't be cut, because what happens to the lifeguards? The point is either no one gets cut or there are cuts. And if there are cuts you should tell us. If you fudge on that point, how do we know you're not fudging on others?"

So the meeting went, with staff members trying to extract the sort of specifics Wood wanted to avoid giving. "Clarence is a politician, so he contradicted himself a few times, or he was misleading," says another staffer. "Someone asked him how much the building was worth, and he said he didn't know. What do you mean you don't know? You must at least have a range. How can you plan around using the proceeds of a sale if you don't roughly know how much you're going to get? At another point he said the community's changed--it's gentrified--so maybe there's no need to do the Hull House mission here. Then he said they want to stay in the neighborhood and they're going to meet with the alderman to look for sites. Well, why would you stay if the neighborhood's changed?"

For the most part, the meeting was civil--no voices were raised, no heated accusations were made. But as it continued, the unanswered questions piled up. "Someone suggested that we have a capital campaign to raise money to make repairs, and he said it would take more time than it was worth," says one staffer. "He had an assistant there, and she said the building was in such bad shape the roof could fall in and some kid in the gym could be hit and all of Hull House would go out of business because of a lawsuit. So someone said, 'What, you're not insured?' And they said, 'No, we have insurance.' So why are they raising that as an issue? And have they done a building exam to see if it's really in bad shape? I don't think the roof is in danger of caving in. I'm in the building all the time. It's pretty sturdy. Clarence kept telling us not to have emotional ties to the building, as though there were something irrational about our concerns. But I think we were raising legitimate issues."

Some staff members say any move will kill at least some of the important programs the center now offers. For example, the darkrooms alone would cost an estimated $100,000 to replace. Where would that money come from? "The official line is that no programs or jobs will be lost," says Irene Adriano, a volunteer photography teacher. "But there's so much confusion, so many unanswered questions. They have not given us anything substantial. It's like parents telling their kids, 'Hey, we're moving, but we don't know where.' And the more questions you ask, the more confusing it gets."

The proposed move also concerns the Jane Addams Center's two tenants, the About Face Theatre and the Lakeview Pantry. "We don't know all the details, but we've heard about the proposal through the grapevine," says Gary Garland, executive director of the pantry. "It would affect us to find a new space. We hope to stay here. We're certainly anxious about this. We have great support from the community. We service between 1,000 and 1,100 people a month. Rents may have gone up, but without a doubt there is a need. The neighborhood hasn't changed that much."

The confusion has led to speculation among the staff and volunteers, who wonder whether the board wants to sell the building to cover a budget shortfall. Or whether the directors want to end the Jane Addams settlement-house concept altogether and shift their resources to smaller day-care and after-school programs scattered throughout the city. Hull House does operate a few other sites, but they're all smaller and none offers the range of programs that the center does.

Wood says the fears are unwarranted. "The budget of Hull House is in good shape," he says. "We do have a lot of options to explore. We came to Lakeview to access the population. We're simply exploring what are the alternatives to what we have and how we can best serve the community. This is a new vision of Chicago. We want to look at what we have and where we want to go. I think this will be a process. It's a challenge not just for us but for all not-for-profits and service providers."

Wood says he doesn't mean to be evasive. It's just that the board faces a series of complicated choices. "I think the settlement house has to be accessible to people in communities like Lakeview," he says. "That's one of the strengths. Our photography program is for people who can afford to pay for its services. Our strength is not to be a settlement house accessible only to the wealthy. That's why we have the East Bank Club."

Wood says he will work with 44th Ward alderman Bernard Hansen, Congressman Jan Schakowsky, and state senator John Cullerton to find a suitable location somewhere in the area. Until then he asks that the staff keep the faith. "I've told the staff that they should not have an emotional tie to the building," he says. "It's fine to have emotional ties to the programs. But we're not replacing the programs."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.

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