SDFP exclusive series The History of Neighborhood House: From 1914 to the occupation in 1970
By Maria E. Garcia
From its inception in 1914, Neighborhood House became the heart of the Latino, Mexican-American and Mexican community. The building was known throughout the barrio as Neighborhood House, the Neighbor or Big Neighbor. It was modeled after Hull House, a settlement house established in Chicago.
The local history of Neighborhood House is in many ways the history of prominent San Diegans. People in the community who had a sincere interest in helping others would donate time and money to assure that the settlement house located at 1809 National Avenue was serving the community.
One family that gave of their time as well as their money was the George Marston family. Both Helen and Mary Marston, daughters of George Marston, served on the Neighborhood House board of directors. I am more familiar with the roles Mary Marston played in the development of Neighborhood House, however there is little doubt that both women worked to establish and maintain it.
Chairman of the Board of Directors was Mary Marston’s official title—the title you read in news articles or history books—but it fails to reflect the many things “Miss Mary” did for Neighborhood House. Miss Helen Marston taught the cooking class as well as taking charge of the Open Air School.
Garden parties were held in the Marston garden year after year with the proceeds going to fund Neighborhood House. The Marston garden was phenomenal in its beauty and for the many species of plants, many of which came from the Canary Islands. When you review news articles of those parties you see pictures of women dressed in their finest clothes, and men in their walking suits dancing and walking in the beautiful gardens. In the days before HWY 395/163, music could be heard throughout the canyon signaling another event at the Marston home.
The focus of the many activities at Neighborhood House was “the Americanization of the foreign population.”
In 1918 funds were raised by the College Women’s Club to support Neighborhood House. At that time two thousand dollars were needed to maintain the Neighborhood House for a year. In those days there was an effort to keep Neighborhood House open day and night and this goal was rather successful. The border was much more open then and many who crossed would come to Neighborhood House looking for information on employment or to help locate family members that lived in San Diego.
That fact is that most of the Mexican families lived around or near Neighborhood House and thus locating a family member was made easier by stopping at Neighborhood House. Records from 1920 indicate that on average 124 people took advantages of the services provided to both adults and children at Neighborhood House on a daily basis.
In 1918 the San Diego Sun reported the start of a cooking class as follows: “The eager faces of the children as they stand with their little white cooking apron reading to participate in the miracle of cooking.” That same year, books were added to make a library as well as playground improvements. Many of the families rented rooms or lived in small houses with little play areas for the kids.
The playground not only gave the kids a place to play but also provided a socialization area for their mothers. Women in the community would visit with each other as they watched their children play. Thus the women had a place to discuss various topics with each other. The focus of the many activities at Neighborhood House was “the Americanization of the foreign population.”
Classes were added in dancing, sewing and English instruction. There is no doubt that Neighborhood House provided the first ESL classes for adults found in San Diego. The Free Industrial School housed in Neighborhood House was headed by the College Women’s Club. Neighborhood House is seen as the only settlement house on the border where the work “is done among the Mexicans”. There was also a class in citizenship that seemed to be very popular with the men in the community.
Civic issues were often the topic of discussions among the men in the class. On January 21, 1921, the Sun carried an article about efforts being made to unite the various ethnic/racial groups in the community.
Men of four races meet at church dinner. A human brotherhood dinner was given by the Men’s club of the First Congregation church last evening. Negroes, Japanese, Chinese and Mexican the four racial groups most largely represented in San Diego sat down at the same table with club members and white men waited upon them all.
“The flour sacks given to this class have been a valuable donation being used in making aprons and underwear.” Latinos probably remember the jokes about having Pina written on your underwear.
William Hugh Strong presided over what he called “the first session of the league of nations.” Brief addresses were given by George W. Marston, M.T. Gilmore, Thomas O’Hallaran, and Rev. Thorp. In the same article there is statement saying that “a Mexican musician, an American citizen and José Galindo made an earnest plea for peaceful relations between the United States and Mexico.” Ninety-three years later the same plea is still being heard.
The sewing class was extremely popular for two reasons– not only for the skill being taught, but because young girls would use it to replicate a dress they had seen at one of the department stores. The Sun reports that “A class from the Unitarian Sunday School furnishes a teacher for Miss Snyder’s sewing class. The flour sacks given to this class have been a valuable donation being used in making aprons and underwear.” Latinos probably remember the jokes about having Pina written on your underwear.
In an interview with the late Leonard Fierro, he remembered the Plunge being off limits to Mexican children except the day before the pool was to be drained.
One of the big advantages of sewing a dress in this class was that you could pay five cents a week until you paid for the dress you had made. The charge was for the fabric used to make the dress. Parties or special outings, such as a trip to the Mission Beach Plunge, were planned for those children who participated in the class. In an interview with the late Leonard Fierro, he remembered the Plunge being off limits to Mexican children except the day before the pool was to be drained.
In 1919 tuberculosis was an issue in the San Diego community and the staff at Neighborhood House stepped in again, this time to educate the families about TB. It was an accepted belief that resting would help keep the children healthy. In 1919 students were given “two weeks in the country.” One child was selected because she had to help her crippled father and it was felt that the “rest” would do her good.
A milk station was opened to “teach those Mexican kids to drink milk.” The focus was on food and rest to change the course of TB. The opportunity to attend camp would go on for many years and many of the people I interviewed have very fond memories of being loaded in a bus or a truck and going to camp.
San Diego City Schools opened a kindergarten class at Neighborhood House under the direction of Miss Hathaway. The classes consisted of “40 Mexican kids and a few Japanese.” In this class children were given milk on a daily basis, again seeing diet as a factor in treating TB.
These activities continued throughout the 1920’s. Classes in cooking, sewing and music, as well as folk dancing were in full force. There was a prenatal clinic that provided information on nourishment in addition to medical support. Miss Mary Taylor arranged for doctors to serve the clinic on a weekly basis. The clinic concept would remain in the heart and the memory of the community for years to come. In 1972 when the Neighborhood House was occupied, the need for a clinic appeared in every demand list.
The community was using the Neighborhood House services on a regular basis. Neighborhood House was not only the heart of the community but the heartbeat of the community. Many of the activities, however simple, were used to unite the community and to build a sense of community.
In 1921 there was a request for books in Spanish. This tells us that they recognized the importance of reading in any language. These books enabled parents to read to their children. Neighborhood House was used by the children as any community library would be used. This library was still there in the summer of 1968 when as a college student I worked in the preschool class.
There were also community cleanups that involved not only cleaning the neighborhood but painting where needed. An article in the San Diego Sun from December 3, 1922 describes one of these cleanups:
Prizes in the recent “clean-up-and-paint-up” week contest have been awarded by the women’s public welfare commision, the following report being made public yesterday: First prize, boys 14 to 18 years of age, $10 cash: Vincente Canes 1747 Julian Avenue; student at Neighborhood House. … Much praise was given Vincente Canes, winner of the first prize, who enlisted the help of his associates and cleaned five lots in their neighborhood. The excavations brought to light pavement that had been covered with dirt for three years. The boys spent three days on the task. [Vincente was secretary of the Daily Dozen Club, a baseball group under Mr. Bill Breitenstein.]
By 1922 Neighborhood House had become the center for social activities in the community. There were conversations about daily life, job opportunities and probably neighborhood gossip. Friday evening was always “neighborhood evening” and every other Friday there was a dance. Musical evenings always drew a full house and a strong appeal was made for entertainers.
Much of the entertainment was initially arranged by clubs and church societies for their own members. There was a recognition that these events would give wider pleasure if repeated at Neighborhood House. Many of the articles refer to the Mexican church on Kearny (Our Lady of Guadalupe). The church and the community along with Neighborhood House all worked to benefit the community. It was not unusual for a group to perform at the church, at Neighborhood House and at one of the Marston garden parties.
On December 22, 1922 the Christmas play Los Pastores was presented in Spanish at Neighborhood House. This play was so well received that the following year it was preformed outside in order to accommodate the large crowd. A stage was placed on the playground with many of the community members coming together to prepare for this performance. The newspaper reported that 500 people attended the outdoor performance.
According to the San Diego Sun the cost to view the play was 35 cents. This was an excellent example of how Neighborhood House reached out to provide an activity that was of great interest to the community. Today the play is presented at the Lyceum or Southwestern Theater during the holiday season, but the original performance was at Neighborhood House.
In the mid 1920’s Laura Rodriguez—the same Laura Rodriguez who in October of 1972 would chain herself to the door of Neighborhood House—went to live in the Marston House.
In the mid 1920’s Laura Rodriguez—the same Laura Rodriguez who in October of 1972 would chain herself to the door of Neighborhood House—went to live in the Marston House. Laura has earned the right to have her own by- line, however it is significant that she lived in the Marston House for several years until she married at the age of sixteen. After her marriage she lived within a few feet of Neighborhood House. The memory of the many services available through Neighborhood House would stay with Laura for the rest of her life. Her belief that a clinic was needed for the community was embedded not only in her mind but in her heart.
Looking back at the Neighborhood House of the 1920’s provokes many emotions as well as questions. My biggest question would be how did those families view Neighborhood House? This question will remain unanswered. It is safe to say, however, that the families were dependent on the social services provided by Neighborhood House. It was part of the process of assimilation while maintaining specific cultural roots. The unity found in that community was clearly nourished by Neighborhood House.
Editor Note: Neighborhood House was founded in 1914. The post has been corrected from the original statement of 1918. The author’s time frame for the series has also been clarified.
The complete History of Neighborhood House in Logan Heights series is available here.