Talking Up Downtown: David Garza

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Founded in 1893, Henry Street Settlement, 265 Henry St., has offered a broad range of social services to residents of the Lower East Side-and Downtown Manhattan-for over a century. We spoke to Executive Director David Garza about the Settlement's responsibility to its neighbors and what's in store for the historic organization in an uncertain economic climate.

How long have you been with Henry Street Settlement?

Eleven years and counting. My introduction to the Settlement was in a much more entry-level role. At the time, they were starting to evolve the services they provided for welfare work participants and it was a chance for me to get involved in the social services sector, which is something I had aspired to but had always eluded me because I was caught up in a different career progression in the private sector.

Certainly there have been a lot of changes on the Lower East Side in the last 11 years.

That really attracted me to the organization. One of the things that defines New York City neighborhoods is you can go from one block to the next and encounter a totally different reality, and nowhere is that more true than here. I think [recently] it's been more characterized by gentrification, but I don't see that as an entirely dirty word. I think it provides an opportunity to build community, just in a different way. But with gentrification there comes a certain responsibility to build bridges between residents who normally wouldn't meet or interact.

I think organizations like Henry Street Settlement have a responsibility to build bridges, and we relish that role. Our other role is to protect and serve the people who desperately need our services. The Lower East Side is number two in respect to income disparity, and that can create a real vulnerable situation for people who need services. As trendy as the neighborhood is becoming, just walk down Avenue D from Houston to 14th Street and tell me there's no need.

In your 11 years with the organization, what are you most proud of?

Since becoming executive director, I have a profoundly deep appreciation of the scope of services we provide; from daycare to senior services, we do it all. We're a community-based organization in the most basic sense of the word. I think my job is to make sure we're as effective and efficient as we can be because of the nature of the funding landscape and the economic climate.

I've done some things that I'm proud of in that vein. One of those is we've added two positions. [One is] Coordinator of Advocacy and Community Resources, because I think it's important to stay connected to the people we serve in the most meaningful ways and to stay connected to advocacy networks. Our organization has a long history of advocacy efforts; we were the first organization to put nurses and health care in New York public schools. We were at the forefront of workers' rights after the Triangle Factory Fire. So we want to stay in that position where we are the voice that is accurate and informed because we're doing the work in that landscape.

The other position [Volunteer Program Coordinator] was one of the most effective ways to create bridges; to create volunteer opportunities for both corporations and neighbors. If people only knew the conditions that existed, they would surely do something about it. And volunteerism is one of the ways to increase awareness of conditions some people face. We literally doubled our volunteer capacity in my first year, and it's really affected our results.

What does the future hold for Henry Street Settlement?

In some ways we're surviving and some ways we're thriving. It just speaks to the volatility of the climate and it requires organizations like ours, as large as we are and as historically relevant as we are, to be agile. There are areas in which we're becoming innovative and partnering with other organizations instead of competing. Agility requires a certain amount of focus that is challenging for any organization. As much as we do, whether trying to have an impact on our culture or to make a marked difference on a program area, we like to go narrow and deep because that's what's required to make a difference. But agility is the watchword of the day.

Last year, we raised 26 percent more than the previous year in corporate funding and we're encouraged by that. The tougher the times get, the stronger our resolve gets.

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