Friends Neighborhood Guild: A Quaker Presence in Philadelphia

The Beginnings

In 1879, as an expression of concern for their new immigrant neighbors, Friends in the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia established Friends Mission No. 1. Located in donated space near the Delaware River, the mission offered a midweek night school, a weekly temperance meeting, a sewing school, a religious meeting on First Days, and First-day school. The goal was to promote the highest morality and truest spiritual growth of its members. Friends Mission No. 1 spent $183.73 in the first year, and attendance was "moderate only." As the first program of its kind along the waterfront, however, interest among neighbors grew quickly, and there were ongoing pleas for more volunteers.

In 1898 the care of the mission was transferred to the Philanthropic Committee of Philadelphia Quarterly Meeting, and a building was secured for the newly named Friends Neighborhood Guild. Several new departments were added to the ongoing program, including a kindergarten, manual training class, savings fund, and flower mission (farmer Friends, mostly from New Jersey, brought in freshly cut flowers to brighten the homes and spirits of poor people).

More and more monthly meetings became involved in Friends Neighborhood Guild, contributing volunteers, money, flowers, produce, books, and clothing; and in 1903 the first paid superintendent was hired. Soon thereafter a probation officer was established at the Guild under the new Juvenile Court law. In 1913 the Guild moved into the former Green Street Meetinghouse at 4th and Green, where one of the first events was the inauguration of the city’s first Well Baby Clinic.

To the German and Russian Jews, Lithuanians, Bohemians, Hungarians, Germans, Irish, and Slavs of the neighborhood, Poles and African Americans from the South were being added. "Americanization" became a theme of the war years as the Guild struggled to bring together these diverse groups, organized with other community groups for public playgrounds and health services, and pondered the mission of the new settlement house movement. In 1919 the entire staff worked tirelessly through the flu epidemic as they visited homes trying to stem suffering and panic.

Recreation Takes Center Stage, 1919-1943

Out of a belief that the neighborhood would soon become entirely industrial, the Guild shifted its focus after World War I to boys, reasoning that they would travel further than any other group, and wanting to take advantage of the fine gym of the new building. As one of the first organizations to join the Welfare Federation (now United Way) in the early 1920s, it also shifted its financial base away from exclusive Quaker support.

The focus on boys’ clubs and recreation still left space for girls’ programs, and the Well Baby Clinic and the Savings Bank continued. Many enjoyed the growing library and new wading pool, and many other groups in the neighborhood used the facilities. In 1927 a dental clinic opened, serving over 1,000 patients in its first year. The Depression brought an increased demand for recreation, and also Work Projects Administration (WPA) workers. The rapid influx of African Americans also brought ongoing challenges of program integration.

In the late 1930s the Guild housed German refugees and cooperated with AFSC in urban workcamps. In 1936 it got its own board, separate from the quarterly meeting’s Philanthropic Committee. During World War II, the Guild opened a daycare center for children of working mothers, and staff played a key role in ensuring that the new Richard Allen Homes public housing project would not house defense workers but low-income families as originally planned. Quaker support continued with gifts of goods, money, time, Friends school visits, Christmas stocking projects, and the hosting of summer picnics by many monthly meetings.

Through the 1940s, Friends Neighborhood Guild’s only charter was the Seventh Query of the Book of Discipline of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting: "What are you doing as individuals and as a meeting to aid those in need of material help; to assure equal opportunities in social and economic life for those who suffer discrimination because of race, creed, or social class; to create a social and economic system which will so function as to sustain and enrich life for all?"

Neighborhood Building and Rebuilding: the Francis Bosworth Years, 1943-1967

After the war, the largest racial and ethnic groups in the neighborhood were Polish, African American, Russian, Romanian, and newly arriving Filipinos and Puerto Ricans. As the only community center in this divided neighborhood that welcomed people of color, the challenge to include them fully in both program and staff was soon traded for the challenge to maintain white participation. An influx in the early 1950s of Soviet displaced persons, especially Kalmuks from eastern Russia, increased ethnic diversity for a while.

Along with the group work program that had become the backbone of the Guild—clubs, councils, English classes, art, shop, ceramics, homemaking, teams, social clubs, and house councils—increased emphasis was put on neighborhood development. With the urban renewal movement of the mid-to-later 20th century, the Guild’s neighborhood was the first target for slum clearance and rehabilitation, and the Guild worked actively with city agencies for the total planning and redevelopment of the East Poplar neighborhood. With AFSC, the Guild also developed a self-help housing project that became Friends Housing Coop, and the board was active on legislative housing issues.

With the acquisition of a new building at 8th and Fairmount Streets in 1956, space was made available for a local arts gallery and programs of other Quaker settlements that had folded into the Guild—an expanded wood shop (Bedford Street) and library (Child Welfare Committee). With the new public health clinics and recreation facilities that the Guild had worked so hard to establish in the neighborhood, attention could be turned from providing healthcare and supervising inner-city children at their gym and the Quaker playgrounds at 4th and Arch Streets and at Friends Select School. The Fourth and Green building was sold in 1958, and services were expanded into Ludlow, an even poorer neighborhood to the north.

During these years the Guild helped organize several neighborhood civic associations and tenant councils, pioneered in housing clinics and a TB eradication program for Puerto Ricans and other new immigrants (with information in 11 languages), and ran a pilot program to address juvenile delinquency with concentrated social services. A major milestone was the completion in 1967 of Guild House, a 91-unit apartment building for the elderly, many of whom had been displaced by the activity of the Redevelopment Authority.

Community Control, 1967-1989

In the 1960s, with the War on Poverty and Model Cities programs requiring maximum participation of residents, followed by the Black Power movement, the issue of local control at the Guild came to the fore. In 1968 the board bylaws were changed to allow 50-percent resident participation, and community people were soon taking active leadership. In this turbulent time Quaker board members, staff, and volunteers struggled to define their roles.

The Guild became very active in community organizing issues, helping to lead the campaign against the commuter tunnel, and working with welfare rights. At the same time a multi-service center was opened in Ludlow to help Spanish families meet their basic needs while health programs, summer camps, youth programs, and activity around gangs, drugs, and crime continued.

Guild House West, completed in 1979 to serve older and handicapped people, helped bring other new construction to the West Poplar neighborhood. With the highest concentration of public housing in the city, the Guild worked closely with tenant groups. In 1989, the board made the difficult decision to spin off its housing work into what is now Friends Rehabilitation Program, to resolve the conflict of being both landlord and tenant organizer, and focus more fully on youth and social services.

The Guild of today, 1989-present

New programs in the early ’90s include an energy center, adult leadership development, and city-funded social services for at-risk youth. Family and community development programs include fuel, rent, and food assistance, energy and budget counseling and referrals, adult basic education, and holiday food and toy distribution. Youth work includes after-school and summer enrichment programs, a Freedom School summer program focused on literacy and cultural pride, and career exploration.

In order to stay afloat in recent decades, settlement houses throughout the country have turned more and more from traditional neighborhood programs to government contracts and narrowly focused foundation grants requiring service to particular subgroups of the population. Yet these restrictive contracts are becoming ever scarcer and more limiting, even as they pull settlements like the Guild further from their mission of attending to the well-being of the community as a whole.

The Guild has struggled to stay true to its roots in these hard times by building into every interaction an invitation to leadership, advocacy, and service; it has a reputation for responding to the whole person and has people coming back for more. In the last few years, the Guild has also put scarce resources into community programming in an attempt to again serve all of its neighbors, and to draw on their strengths to serve each other.

The board, a mix of Quakers and community people, works to both discharge its duties responsibly and be in fuller contact with each of these constituencies. As the Guild completes 125 years of service, it has much to be proud of, and it continues to wrestle with themes that have echoed down through the years:

  • How to find enough resources to stay afloat;
  • How to stay true to the mission when money might be more readily available to do other things;
  • How to maintain loving respect among board, staff and participants while expecting accountability;
  • How to combine helping those in need with inviting them to take power to change their situation;
  • How to involve more Quakers in this opportunity to live fuller lives by being more present to our less privileged urban neighbors.

Pamela Haines

Pamela Haines, a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting, has been on the board of Friends Neighborhood Guild since 1995. Also a writer, some of her essays appear at