Neighborhood Improvement, June 22, 1904

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Neighborhood Improvement.



In opening the session on Neighborhood Improvements, Miss Addams spoke as follows:

As this is the first meeting of the Committee on Neighborhood Improvement connected with the National Conference of Charities and Correction, perhaps a word is in order to explain why such a committee is given a place in such a conference. The old fashioned charities, as we know, concerned themselves almost altogether with the individual. A great effort was made to find out promising boys or girls and to help them so that eventually, as my neighbors would say, they could move over onto the boulevards. After that, great effort was directed to the families, still trying to do as much as possible for the individual, to give him new ideas and new impulses, to change the set of ideas from which he acted, but Charity Organization Associations at last consented that the individual should be treated as a member of his family.  Miss Richmond told this conference once of a certain family which had been visited by various churches and benevolent individuals for years and no one had ever interviewed the head of the family because he happened to be a man. The good people thought charity ought to confine itself to women and children, the old notion of considering only the individual, or the family, has now extended itself to treating neighborhoods, certain districts, which seem to be below the level of citizenship which other districts have attained. It has been discovered that promising boys go to pieces because their neighborhood influence is bad.  It has been discovered that families [page 2] break down and go the wrong way because they have not the moral energy in themselves to overcome influences from the outside. So those people who are concerned in social betterment, have come to believe that to these agencies which devote themselves to the individual and the family should be added agencies which study conditions of neighborhoods as a whole or districts as such, in order to show what things can be done for given districts in order that certain stigmas, certain temptations, certain reputations may be removed.

Curiously enough the first agencies that undertook these district activities felt as if they were going into a strange country, as if they were going to encounter people more or less unlike themselves, and some of them took a name which is more or less obnoxious to Americans; they called themselves "settlements," as if they were pioneers in a new and strange country. But after living in them for ten or fifteen years, they discovered that the people living there are very useful people, that they include all kinds of people and that they have in themselves reservoirs of moral power, and of civic ability, if these powers are but found out and properly aroused; that with those agencies for neighborhood improvements which must be brought from the outside one can count upon tremendous aids from within the neighborhoods, even though they be called depressed neighborhoods, in the poorer quarters which every city has.

It is impossible this evening to give anything of a historic survey of what has been done in the line of neighborhood improvements. My first introduction to such a thing was in London years ago when Octavia Hill took me to see the first playgrounds in London made out of the old grave-yards. Those old grave-yards turned into play-grounds had almost upset the British Empire. One would suppose that it had centered its efforts upon preserving from the footsteps of little children those special spots of ground. I remember very well seeing the children play there in a curious dodging way, skipping from one plot to another with great strides. I was much younger than I am now, and more given to theories, and I propounded the theory to Miss Hill that the children had played on the streets so much and had been interrupted by passing teams and wagons and they got [page 3] in this way of dodging. She smiled and said: "No; they are afraid of stepping on the graves lest a ghost come and pull them down." From that old beginning of taking the children as neighborhood children and giving them something that belonged to them of their own neighborhood, to go through all the development of neighborhood improvements, through community life and community interest-–this history it would take a long time to repeat, and so I shall not try. But we might cite instances of successful community spirit--that little Tyrolese village at Oberammergau and see what has been accomplished there because these people have preserved the drama and have worked out their power in relation to it. Or take some neighborhood in which the young people have given themselves year after year to debating and discussing great social questions and reform. Take one or a dozen instances which might be mentioned and we should find in any group of simple, uncultivated people that if they are given some line of interest, given something which connects itself with their daily life and their hope for the future, we are amazed at the power and the artistic ability which such a group can develop. And one may imagine then what we may expect from our city and country neighborhoods when the public school becomes a center in which every member of that community having hunger of mind or interested in the vocation which he wishes to follow, may have the needed opportunity outside his working hours, when something shall be done for the genuine cultivation of life;-–one can imagine that we shall look back upon the feeble reports we gave [tonight] as something which occurred back in a far away time before we had enough faith in humanity to develop it adequately, but went bungling along slowly during many years without dreaming of what the future might bring forth.