Cultural Health, Public Health

In 1893, Lillian Wald founded the Henry Street Settlement and coined the term “public health nurse,” pioneering new ways to act on urgent matters of public health and encourage community care. In 1918, public health nurses, community leaders, and other neighbors formed battalions of care to help the public weather the Spanish Flu, an epidemic that would ravage New York City and the world.


While this story of care transcended race, class, and social status, those worst affected by the pandemic were still the poor and immigrant communities of the Lower East Side, New York City, and the world. Their experiences and health were determined by huge, systemic, and, in other words, cultural decisions of general wellness, from the actual experience of the urban environment to the amenities and information made available. 


The story seems all too familiar: in crisis, we simultaneously see the best of human care for others and the worst of the systems in place, and of what our social, healthcare, and governmental systems are capable of. In such dire situations, a renewed culture of care—and caring for culture—is more crucial than ever. 


To consider public health means to understand the overlap of public health and cultural health of the neighborhood.


We consider the founding of Henry Street Settlement alongside the first NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) meeting, which took place in 1909 at the Settlement and saw Wald and W.E.B. Dubois in attendance to act independently on the political, social, economic, and health needs of Black people in the United States.


We consider the forms of both collective action and care that sprang from the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 90s, in which hundreds of community members joined ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and Gran Fury—the collective’s art and design arm—to not only fight for the community, but also to unleash a new culture of radical acceptance, solidarity, and aid.


We look to the safe spaces of community gardens that in many ways define the Lower East Side, creating a culture of environmental and cooperative care that remains strong to this day.


Of course, there is the culture of housing justice in the neighborhood, from Cooper Square Committee to Good Ol’ Lower East Side (GOLES) to C-Squat and the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space; and the founding of Fourth Arts Block as a coalition of theaters and other arts organizations fighting to keep their cultural spaces. 


All these initiatives (and the many, many, many additional stories throughout LES history) have helped to envision public health as something that encompasses all levels of society to include our interactions with friends, the ways we organize, and the local businesses, institutions, and groups that have arisen out of need.


– Patrick Jaojoco


Image: Visiting Nurse in tenement backyard, Jessie Tarbox Beals, ca. 1912.