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The Hill District: Irene Kaufmann Settlement

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Our Wonder of The Hill District

From Greater Pittsburgh, February 1932. By Edward M. Power.

Our hill district is called The Hill District because that is with curious literalness what it is. It runs from the edge of the height overlooking the Monongahela River straight across to the edge of the height overlooking the Allegheny River, which is a fascinating layout. This leaves what Pittsburgh calls her "strips" isolated topographically below. Running west and east The Hill District may be said to begin at Fifth and Wylie and extend to Herron Avenue.

The district has always been crammed with romance. Bedford Avenue was named for Doctor Bedford, once the surgeon at Fort Pitt, whose home there it is said might have been the counterpart of a fine bit of England. One may read of his fine dogs. Then and later the district was one of fine homes and gracious living. Some of the most loved homes in Pittsburgh have been in The Hill District, and some of them still remain. But as the general movement of change took the Pittsburgh families further from the city, the immigrants, and particularly the Jewish immigrants from Russia, Germany and Central Europe moved in. And none of the periods of The Hill District was more picturesque than that, though much of the picturesqueness was hidden from the outside world.

Always there have been many sects and denominations in Pittsburgh, as there were then and are now in this region. But in that immediate part through which Centre Avenue runs, which was distinctly Jewish in character, there was in spite of all the poverty that passionate respect for learning which was always an urge upward. There was in spite of all the poverty that age-old creative spark, ready at the least privilege, to make something interesting or beautiful.

In basements under the synagogues--and these synagogues were Orthodox--were schools where young boys came after public school hours to learn their religion through Hebrew, in preparation for their confirmation, the Bar Mitzvah. In summer when the windows were open, in passing one could hear their rhythmic recitation in chorus of the Talmud; and peeping in, see the young students swaying backward and forward in unison as they recited, according to the ancient way. In the services of the synagogues on Sabbath and the holy days, where the Orthodox rite carried the continuity of the worshippers unbroken from Old Testament times, magnificent voices of the cantors could be heard in the Hebrew melodies of remote antiquity.

The district was honeycombed with sweatshops and unsanitary tobacco factories and some got their living from the pushcarts. In the struggle for existence women often tried to sell their heirlooms, brought from the far country in the great burdens they carried on their backs. Perhaps it was a brass samovar or candlesticks from Russia.

Thirty-seven years ago the Council of Jewish Women established a little social settlement in the midst of this district in Townsend Street. One could learn English here, and life-changing, life-transforming things. Soon the Council took larger quarters. To carry on and enlarge this work, in 1908 Mr. and Mrs. Henry Kaufmann, in memory of their daughter, gave the Irene Kaufmann Settlement. During these years there is no type of human need that has not been brought to it, and that has not received some kind of help. For the breadth and extent of its activity, the settlement is known as one of the foremost in this or any country. Two years ago the new and very wonderful addition was made to the settlement giving it vastly increased facilities. In 1906, on his first visit to Pittsburgh, Sidney A. Teller, the present director, made his first contact with the settlement as a volunteer worker. From that time Mr. Teller was associated with the settlement at intervals as volunteer worker until 1916, since when he has been director. From the beginning the settlement has been non-sectarian.

You pass the Irene Kaufmann Settlement at 1835 Centre Avenue in the evening and watch people entering between the massive pillars of the entrance of the new building, light flooded from a hidden source. Follow the people; in the foyer see the exquisite etchings of neighborhood scenes--work of an artist who as a boy has his chance and his training at the settlement. Notice that brilliant mural above the inner doors--work of students in the art classes of the settlement. See the play that is being acted in the completely equipped theater--acted by the neighborhood players. All of it inevitable in this neighborhood--pillars, etchings, sculpture, drama--all of it inevitable; inherent in what was begun in Townsend Street.

Now that we are in this new addition, let us see all of the new part: where that age-old creative spark we spoke of has its privilege and created something beautiful and interesting: this reading room with its oaken walls cut by hand by one master workman whose pride it was to keep this fine wood unembellished, and its cut line perfection from the floor to the ceiling; this game room lined with illustrated maps, framed in the settlement classes, mounted on walls of handsome brick; this swimming pool whose marvelous tiles it was the pride of Joseph Urban to design as a gift to the settlement; the splendid gymnasium; this musical conservatory with its many practice rooms to which any child or adult may come to skilled musicians, the first tuition price an eagerness to learn. To this conservatory comes also fine music from the outside world. See too these assembly rooms; these sculpted panels, the work and gift of Frank Vittor, eminent Pittsburgh sculptor, showing the activities of the settlement, and the settlement as the Mother to the neighborhood.

Now these things are exteriors. And they make it very clear that Irene Kaufmann Settlement is a paradox! The people in this immediate neighborhood, with life immeasurably broadened by contact with the settlement, do not stay in the neighborhood for many years. As they leave, others move in. And Irene Kaufmann Settlement has become city wide in influence. Those who have left, come back to this neighborhood mother, for things of the body, mind and spirit. New ones ever keep on coming for the most elemental of human needs.

Health traditions are interesting at the settlement. Here was the first "better baby clinic" in Pittsburgh. When the flu epidemic of 1918 broke out, the settlement staff of women, working eighteen hours a day, cared for 1,047 cases of flu and pneumonia in forty-two days. About one-third of these cases were in Jewish families. Since the Public Health Nursing Association was established at the settlement in 1920, a group of public health nurses of the organization have been housed in the settlement, and now every day twelve visiting nurses go from the settlement into the neighborhood. There are maternity and pre-school clinics, milk stations, and the summer camp, Emma Farm, whose work is coordinated with the settlement's activities.

There is also the help that goes into the Court with legal aid, and the help that being asked for often adjusts the domestic or religious difficulty. No sketch such as this could ennumerate the number of agencies with which the settlement cooperates, or the number of activities that the settlement and the Emma Farm Camp provide. These things can be seen in staggering figures and listings in the annual report.

It is more the province of this sketch to ask you to see the children, from ten years up, model or draw in the sculpture and painting studios. To see the portrait modeled in clay that a little girl did from memory of an old Rabbi, the shoulders bent, lines of care upon his face; or in the painting studios to see the study of Pittsburgh bridges by one of the boys. To know that the women no longer sell their beautiful brass or textile or other heirlooms, and that the settlement interests itself in scholarships for ambitious pupils. That it will help with whatever is one's hobby, and gives to everyone who comes a chance to develop any kind of talent or interest he or she possesses.

Still, it is interesting to know that the Pittsburgh Board of Public Education holds day and night classes here for adults who are learning English, and that the settlement is the meeting place of over 100 neighborhood organizations and house clubs. It is now headquarters of the Hill District Community Council made up of 200 organizations and individuals, representing more than twenty nationalities and groups in this cosmopolitan district of all races, colors, creeds and nationalities.

Pittsburgh has other splendid settlements. But this story is of Pittsburgh's Hill District and the beauty and the wonder of it. There are detailed maps in the office of the settlement which can show you the economic and social picture in totality. One who knows the district cannot think of it without the gallant and wonderful service of the settlement's close neighbor, Passavant Hospital; and those larger and not so near that one scarcely thinks of as on The Hill, Mercy and Montefiore; without the neighboring churches, without these views of hills and rivers. The word hill-district means many things to many people. To many thousands it means the gateway to life more abundant.

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