Chicago's Hull House continues to raise hopes, challenge youth. Nearly 100 years later, Jane Addams's life-work lives on

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Some 60 years ago a young Benny Goodman was put on a sled by his Russian immigrant father and pulled along the snowy streets of Chicago's tough West Side to band practice at the city's first settlement house. ``Hull House had a hand in teaching me music and it became my way of life,'' recalled the clarinetist and orchestra leader on returning to his hometown recently to accept the Hull House Association (HHA)'s first National Distinguished Service Award.

And as a reminder to the award-dinner audience of the value of that early training, Mr. Goodman took part with other musicians in a brief jazz concert afterward.

Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House who devoted her life to serving America's poor and trying to improve their working and living conditions, would undoubtedly have been pleased.

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When she and her Rockford Seminary classmate Ellen Gates Starr moved into the Charles J. Hull homestead in one of the city's worst industrial slums in 1889, one of their hopes was to share with their new neighbors the best that existed in art, music, literature, and theater.

But Miss Addams, the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize and the person Teddy Roosevelt once called ``America's most useful citizen,'' was also a determined reformer with an almost unlimited range of interests.

In evolving what rapidly became a national model for the delivery of social services, she launched everything from the country's first citizenship preparation classes and Chicago's first kindergarten to an investigation into sanitation (serving at one point as her ward's garbage inspector). She also pushed strongly for laws to improve housing and limit child labor.

``It was a very holistic view -- she was interested in reform on all levels,'' says Mary Ann Johnson, director of the University of Illinois's Jane Addams Hull House Museum.

In the close to 100 years since its founding, Hull House has survived a number of major twists and turns from Miss Addams's vision for it. In the 1960s all 12 of the buildings around it that served as part of its network, were razed to make way for the University of Illinois's downtown campus. Only the original mansion, now a museum, remains.

In what HHA officials often refer to as a ``shotgun wedding,'' a number of struggling community agencies around the city were merged with the Association at the urging of the Community Fund, then a major source of Hull House dollars.

It was also the decade of Washington's ``war on poverty,'' however. Soon HHA and its affiliates took on numerous federal contracts to deliver services. Though no longer as big a proportion of its spending, federal money still accounts for about 60 percent of the agency's $5.3 million annual budget. Much of that is disbursed largely in Headstart and day care programs.

The association currently has a staff of more than 300 paid workers and operates 24 centers and branches. ``The organizational structure is a monster to try to run,'' concedes HHA executive director Patricia Sharpe.

Programs have ranged from counseling teen parents to training welfare recipients to become licensed day-care operators. Other programs have operated legal aid clinics and neighborhood credit unions.

But most HHA programs are not staples. Many come and go every few years and member agencies try hard to bend to the needs of their neighborhoods. Each agency is encouraged to work with other public-interest groups in coalition efforts, sharing credit where it's due, and spinning off programs once a degree of independence is reached.

``We don't develop projects to keep them,'' explains Brooks Miller, executive director of HHA's Uptown Center, which has nurtured and nudged out such groups as the Chicago chapter of the Gray Panthers and the Organization of the North East. ``We develop them for the community and at some point, if they're workable, the community ought to support them.''

Jane Addams, who generally favored such flexibility, would probably also have been pleased by the association's decision five years ago to couple services with research and stands on public policy issues through a new Research and Advocacy Department.

The department has pushed for everything from improved Illinois child-support laws to more help for displaced steelworkers following a major study on that subject.

Department director Ann Seng, a longtime community organizer, views taking public policy positions as a vital part of really helping people. But she admits such stands can be controversial

``If this department continues to grow and expand and become more effective,'' she says with a smile, ``then I should be getting into a lot of trouble soon.''

The Uptown Center's Brooks Miller agrees that for a social service agency and public interest group such as HHA and its agencies, controversy is often a positive sign that some kind of difference is being made. ``If you're effective, you're going to have enemies as well as friends,'' he says.''

In Mary Ann Johnson's view the very survival of the Hull House network after all these years is in itself a major feat.

``So many institutions die out because they're only appropriate to a certain time or they can't adapt to new circumstances.

``Hull House has remained a vital institution because it has been able to change with the times.''

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