… As the community comes together this week – JUNE 26! – to honor the man at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel center (on Shrewsbury Street) FOR HIS 50 YRS OF SERVICE TO THE FRIENDLY HOUSE and Worcester, I wanted to re-post the piece. Go, Gordon, go!!! - R. T.
THE FRIENDLY HOUSE AND GORDON HARGROVE: A LOVE STORY
By Rosalie Tirella
When my sisters and I were kids, I was known as the smart one (OK, sometimes the “too smart” one as in smarty pants) and my younger sisters, great kids – both of them much kinder than I ever was/will be – were known as … . And that was the trouble. They were identical twins and lumped together by my harried mom (sometimes) and the kids in our neighborhood (always). To many folks, they were an amalgam of (identical) haircuts, school uniforms (they attended St. Mary’s on Richland Street – same class, same nuns, even same grades (B’s). They were quiet. They were, as my mom liked to say, “obedient.” They shared the same bedroom in our three-decker apartment. It was painted pink and pink and white plastic drapes – the kind of drapes you hung in your home if you were poor, the kind my mom bought at White’s Five and Ten on Millbury Street. But we loved Mrs. and Mr. White, the store’s owners because they were always so nice and polite to my mom and her “three girls,” and the drapes were festive – like party decorations! – so I loved the twins’ room. The twins were called “the twins” by everyone – except my Uncle Joe, an elementary school principal, who called them – and me – “Peanuts” – because we were much smaller than my cousins, Uncle Joe’s strapping, Polish off-spring, and Charles Schultz “Peanuts” comic strip was all the rage back then.
The twins began to differentiate when my sister – I’ll call her by her nickname “Trina” – started going to the Friendly House after school. Every day Trina made her way to the Wall Street human service agency, that didn’t seem like a human service agency to her and hundreds of other inner-city kids because they were having so much fun, to play hoop. Besides getting after-school snacks and homework help at the Friendly House, kids could join one of the many sports teams that were always looking to recruit new neighborhood kids. None of the children – most poor, including my sis – ever thought of the teams as society’s clever way of keeping them “off the streets.” It was just cool to go to the Friendly House.
Trina fell in love with basketball in Friendly House’s most excellent gym. The gym was (and still is) great. Court foul lines neatly painted, basketball hoop net white and strong. Balls new and if not new – solid and the kind the pros used (I forget the name). The young men and women who “ran” the gym (because kids were/are always supervised by Friendly House staff) were knowledgeable and encouraging. Trina played learned how to do lay-up shots, hook shots and shoot balls from the black line almost at the middle of the gym. She practiced at the Friendly House, she practiced at school. Whoosh went the Friendly House basketball as it left Trina’s hands and made its way down through the basketball hoop’s net. Whoosh went Trina’s personality. She became happier. She became more self-confident. She became a jock.
Trina could do anything faster and higher than anyone in our family. She could run faster, walk faster; she could play baseball in the sandlot next door with the neighborhood boys – including then-young Richy Gedman, who lived down the street from us and who could always hit the baseball on to or over the roof of the big, gray six-family three decker-six – two big lots away. “Get back!” the kids would scream when Richy (now the Worcester Tornadoes coach) got up to bat! Rich Gedman respected my sister Trina 1. because she was a good kid and 2. she could really play ball!
Trina also ran the Friendly House races during the famous Friendly House Block Parties. The neighborhood race began in front of the Friendly House and was the apex of Friendly House celebration, with ribbons and trophies galore. The winners felt like heroes. Black, brown and white kids competed together and celebrated together. The block parties were big Grafton Hill/East Side hooplas where poor kids and adults felt like big shots and had a blast.
And when Trina went to college she worked a few summers at the Friendly House as a staffer in the Summer Program, where sports, arts and crafts and even day trips to local state parks, made the summer go buy in a snap for hundreds of Worcester kids.
Here it is, three decades later, and I can still remember some of the best times of my sister’s youth. Here it is, three decades later, and the executive director of the Friendly House in the late 1970s – the man behind the miracles – Gordon Hargrove – is still the executive director of the Friendly House. The Friendly House Summer Program continues, the Friendly House sports teams still reign, the Friendly House gym is still home to kids like my sister, kids whose hoop dreams give them a reason to be happier, healthier people. The Friendly House gym is older but still sports a great floor and crisply painted basketball court boundary lines. The youth workers are still cool and jocky.
Many more programs – the Friendly House chorus, St.Patrick’s Day float, computer room to name just a few – have been added to the social service agency, which has also served adults for decades. And Hargrove has expanded the Friendly House’s role in the community to include these Worcetser gems: the Friendly House Shelter, The Frances Perkins Homeless shelter, 28-30 Aetna Street Transitional Program, the Interfaith Hospitality Network, the Quinsigamond Villlage Community Center, Elder Outreach Program Albanian Outreach Program, Food Services/Chidren’s Meals and even this past summer’s Wheels to Water program.
This means even more Worcester families – not just the ones who live close by the Friendly House – are supported by Hargrove and his dedicated staff of case workers, kitchen workers, secretaries, janitors, translators, youth workers and volunteers. Hargrove has always been there to help Worcester. Whenever the city found itself at the brink of a societal ill – our city manager or mayor knew he or she could always call Hargrove, and the human service agency powerhouse that is the Friendly House would step up to the plate and do the right thing. And Worcester would keep feeling like a big small town instead of the second-largest city in New England. The blow of yet another social ill would be softened for Worcester, keeping it from becoming the next Hartford or Springfield.
THE ROOTS OF FRIENDLY HOUSE
Yet the Friendly House had the humblest of beginnings – a kind of settlement house for Syrian and Lebanese immigrants. In fact, they named it “ “ in Arabic, meaning “friendly place.” A place that welcomed them and helped them start new lives in America. “It started on 27 Norfolk Street, two-story, barracks building,” Hargrove says. “What happened was people got off [the trains] at Union Station and they walked to Shrewsbury Street. Shrewsbury Street became crowded, so they walked to” Wall Street/Norfolk Street.
And from the get-go, says Hargrove, The Friendly House strived to be of the neighborhood – not for it. “The Friendy House was and is a part of the neighborhood – not something that is superimposed,” Hargrove says. “For example, [the Friendly House] building was designed by the neighborhood people.”
And it provided them with the services they said they needed. “We had the first pre-school dental clinic that opened in the United States,” Hargrove says. It was staffed by volunteers from the Worcester Dental Society. It was, since it began as a settlement house that was primarily run by women, a place where women and their concerns (family) mattered. Besides the dental clinic for the children, a public health nurse stopped by the Friendly House to give booster shots. Arts and crafts classes were offered, as well as cooking, sewing and other “home economic” classes.
“In those days,” Hargrove says, “neighborhoods were defined by ethnicity. Friendly House was another neighborhood asset. … In 1934, there was a neighborhood newsletter, ‘The Blue Triangle.’ ” But since it was part of the “Settlement House” movement of the early 20th century, the Friendly House was, in a way, political – empowering immigrants, combating the ill effects of industrialization/factory life, such as horrible accidents and grinding poverty. The first Friendly House was run by Worcester’s Civic League, the Worcester Department of Public Health, volunteers and later Worcester’s women’s league, then the Community Chest (forerunner to the United Way). The United Way took over and then finally, The Friendly House became a separate non-profit, receiving much funding from the now firmly established United Way and the federal and state governments. Money, grants and support also came from the City of Worcester.
EVOLVING TO MEET THE CHANGING NEIGHBORHOODS
Time marched on and Worcester’s neighborhoods changed. One of the biggest changes Hargrove sees: poor families are much more mobile these days. Back in the 1920s or 1930s, up to the 1950s, people could be poor, but they stayed in the same apartments. Kids got to know their neighborhoods well and a sense of community sprang up. Contrast that to today. Hargrove tells of how he lead classes where he asked little kids to draw their neighborhoods. He said in old days many of the children would draw their homes, school, Friendly House and then corner stores or their friends’ houses or places where their parents or their friends’ parents worked. Today, Hargrove says, its “school, Friendly House and the railroad tracks. … We’ve seen the negative effects of mobility on school children.”
Then Hargrove draws his breath and his eyes widen: “There was on family who moved seven times in one year.”
Hargrove says what most Worcester teachers and principals know: that most of the children in a Worcester Public Elementary School – say Chandler Street near downtown – don’t “graduate” from the school they entered as kindergartners. Often it’s only one or two kids who spend the entire seven years (grades K through 6) at the same elementary school. Contrast that to when I was a kid at Lamartine Street School – one of Worcester’s earliest (labeled) inner-city kids. Yeah, we were all poor but we were a community. I went through Lamartine Street School with pretty much the same group of kids that populated my kindergarten and first-grade classrooms. Lots of us lived in the same three-decker apartments on Lodi, Seigel, Ellsworth, Meade and Scott streets. For years. It was nice.
Now it’s not so nice. Monthly rents can be as high as $850, and it’s downhill as families scramble to pay for utilities, food, clothing, transportation and other necessities. Says Hargrove: “Families move into a place thinking they can afford the rent, but if utilities are separate and [other bills mount], that can be a major problem.” Safety is also a reason why families move. “They feel unsafe in their neighborhoods,” Hargrove says. “Sometimes there are drug dealers living in the apartment complex. Sometimes there’s bullying. Other times it’s the condition of the apartment. Some places are not good.” Hargrove recalls kids telling him that they heard someone knocking late at night at their neighbor’s door and that’s because they are buying drugs from their neighbor. Hargrove recalled an apartment being divided up into multi-minny units – some of the spaces without a toilet or bathroom. He called Worcester’s Code Enforcement Department. He moved the families out of the literal shit-holes.
Hargrove says today, Friendly House is in the shelter biz. He wants to move into the hous8ing biz, with Friendly House buying and rehabbing homes for low-income first-time home buyers or Friendly Housing owning three deckers or apartment complexes and renting them at reasonable rates to low-income families.
Hargrove also sees new immigrants coming to Friendly House for food, clothing and social services. “We have people from Africa, Brazil, Central America, South America,” Hargrove says. “One of the things I felt was extremely important was to spend some time in the countries of origin of our families – Puerto Rico, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.”
In the first half of the 20th century, right up to the 1960s, Friendly House didn’t have to make finding Grafton Hill/East Side residents jobs a high priority. Worcester was an industrial powerhouse – world famous because of all its factories. Wyman-Gordan, Norton, H. H. Brown Shoes, Morgan’s, Washburn-Garfield, Crompton and Knowles, American Steele. These factories and mills were hungry for immigrant man – and during World War II – woman-power. And you didn’t need to have special training. Often it was basic on-the-job learning. You got your foot in the door, worked hard and steadily, and maybe someday you could be a factory foreman, with your own little home and car to show for your industriousness.
“Washburn and Garfield had the biggest wire-drawing mill!” Hargrove says. “Not in the country – but in the world!”
Hargrove continues: “The other day I was crossing the street and some kids came up to me and said, ‘We don’t have jobs.’ This is my concern.”
Hargrove not only wants to help train the workers of tomorrow, he wants something more concrete: he wants to be able to plug in specific people into specific jobs. One person = to his or her own job. “We partnered with Jamesbury,” Hargrove says. “ We partnered with a factory that made tools. The idea being that we would sit and work with individuals.”
The nation’s 10 percent unemployment rate is one reason why so many inner-city youths find work in the “underground economy” Hargrove says. Drugs, drug selling – it’s a job. A job that may lead to your (violent) death but also to money – and status, in some groups.
Unemployment or under-employment, paying high rents, and other challenges, lead to, among other things, hunger. Hargrove says: “Twenty years ago, 30 people a month would come in [to the Friendly House] for food. Now it’s 700. This Thanksgiving, 1,200 families received turkeys and food assistance [from the Friendly House].”
This winter, Hargrove had a coat drive. “This winter 927 people were given winter coats,” he says. “This was unheard of in the past. … In some cases, in the past, many families would be there and help their own. But if you’re detached from your family, the agency has become the extended family.”
No matter what’s in store for Worcester’s inner-city families, The Friendly House will always be there for them. Hargrove says the 90′th anniversary of his beloved Friendly House is the perfect time to plan for a Friendly House for the 21′st century. “This building [on Wall Street] was built in 1972. … We’d like to rze this building and build a bigger one on the site. Make it a green [technology] one, too.” One special use for a new Friendly House – a building to be used by Worcetser in any kind of emergency flooding, ice storms, national and local disasters. “People will be able top come here and be fed, sleep … .” Hargrove says. He also wants more room for food for the poor and clothing and baby clothing and items. “We want adequate meeting space for the neighborhood. There have been weddings here. There have been Christening, funeral services, church services … .”
A day care with larger play areas would be wonderful, as well as separate rooms for the teens. A bigger and better kitchen would be great, too. “We served 140,000 meals this summer!”
Look for special monthly Friendly House events. Hargrove wants to do something really special for the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. He has just donated hundreds of historic Friendly House photos and memorabilia to the Worcester Historical Museum and hopes to have a special Friendly House exhibit at the museum so that Worcesterites can see its grow from a teeny house on Norfolk Street to the City of Worcester’s super-human service agency, a neighborhood settlement house that became the city’s settlement house.
This anniversary, there will be much singing by The Friendly House Chorus and much dancing – by all! But most important, in the words of Hargrove: “By the end of 2010, we want to have in place a date when we can say officially we will start our activities for a new building.”
Amen to that, Gordon.