Our History

Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement has a rich history, spanning over 130 years.

A rich history, spanning over 130 years

Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement, with its history spanning over 130 years, has played a pivotal role in its community. Founded on the principles of social reformer Jacob A. Riis, the settlement’s commitment to empowering underserved populations has made it a cornerstone of local support. Throughout its long history, it has adapted to meet the changing needs of its community, providing a range of essential services and programs such as education, workforce development, and community support. Today, it continues to uphold its commitment to improving the quality of life for everyone it serves, fostering resilience and self-sufficiency among individuals and families.


Between 1948-1957, a total of six different Riis Settlement sites were in operation at various times throughout the city: 48 Henry Street, Marcy Houses (Bedford-Stuyvesant), First A.M.E. Zion Church (Bedford-Stuyvesant), the Stephen Foster Houses (Harlem), the Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn, and the Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City. Queensbridge was the only site whose future was not in doubt at the time.
In 1951, Riis Settlement Queensbridge hosted its first-anniversary celebration, as well as the 50th anniversary of United Neighborhood Houses of New York, the umbrella organization for all of New York City’s settlement houses. The event featured ballet performances from Snow White and Aladdin and His Lamp. Admission was $1 for adults and 50 cents for kids. In 1952, the original Henry Street site was sold to Trinity Church, and Riis Settlement Queensbridge became the organization’s official headquarters. By 1957, all Riis Settlement activities were officially consolidated at the Queensbridge site.


In the following decade, Riis Settlement established various new programs including drug rehabilitation programs, African-American cultural projects, and an ongoing partnership with the Fresh Air Fund. In addition, two service programs, satellites of Steinway Child & Family Services and a branch of Big Brothers of New York City, opened during the decade in space provided by Riis Settlement. In 1974, New York State Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz opened the first Consumer Protection and Complaint Center in New York City at Riis Settlement. And in 1989, a NY Newsday column on nonprofits featured Riis Settlement’s Robert Miner, who was on staff for 45 years. Miner retired as executive director the following year, and Riis welcomed William T. Newlin to the position.


The 1990s and 2000s saw many more exciting developments. Riis Settlement opened the Queensbridge – Riis Senior Center, and held its first Spring Arts Festival, now an annual tradition, showcasing the talents of participants, particularly children, and youth. In 2001, in response to the changing needs and demographics of western Queens, Riis Settlement established a formal Immigrant Services Program.
The agency also strengthened ties to its Danish heritage during this time. HRH Princess Benedikte of Denmark became patron of Riis Settlement in 1998 and made the first of several visits to the organization. In 2006, six Riis Settlement teen participants headed to Ribe and Copenhagen, Denmark, in the first year of the organization’s Danish Cultural Exchange Program. The following year, the Danish youth who hosted Riis participants came to New York. And in 2008, Executive Director William T. Newlin was proclaimed a Knight of the Order of the Dannebrog by Her Majesty, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark.
Riis continued to expand its reach in western Queens in the following decades, opening two new after-school program sites: Riis Academy-PS166 in 2008, and Riis Academy-Information Technology High School in 2010. Riis Settlement also took over operations of the Ravenswood Community Center in the nearby Ravenswood Houses and opened Riis Academy- Ravenswood. During this time, the agency received three consecutive Family Strengthening Awards from the United Neighborhood Centers of America. In 2011, HRH Crown Princess Mary of Denmark visited Riis Settlement. The visit was covered by the local and international press, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. And in 2019, with the participation of our patron Princess Benedikte and our Executive Director Christopher Hanway, the Jacob A. Riis Museum was opened in Ribe, Denmark. The museum highlights Jacob Riis’ achievements, explores themes of immigration, national identity, and social conditions, and builds upon the connection between Denmark and the United States.


Today, Riis Settlement continues to serve the youth, families, immigrants, and seniors of western Queens, offering comprehensive programs and services that help community members achieve social and economic success. 
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