Tuesday 10 January 2023

An Interview with Joyce Milambiling

Joyce Milambiling is the author of the forthcoming book, The Skyscraper Settlement: The Many Lives of Christodora House (New Village Press), which tells the story of the Christodora Settlement House in New York City’s East Village. She is a Professor Emeritus of TESOL at the University of Northern Iowa and was in residence this past summer at The Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. 

Milambiling will be the featured reader at the Final Thursday Reading Series on January 26 at the Hearst Center for the Arts in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The in-person open mic takes place at 7:00 p.m. and Joyce Milambiling takes the stage at 7:30. Milambiling’s reading will also be simulcast on Zoom. Click HERE to register for a Zoom link. 

Interview conducted by Jim O’Loughlin 

JIM O’LOUGHLIN: Can you explain what the Christodora House is and how you first came across it?
JOYCE MILAMBILING: About seven years ago I found a collection of letters that were housed at the New York Historical Society and which were written in 1918 by Helen Schechter, an immigrant from Eastern Europe, to her English teacher. The lessons, what would now be called English as a Second Language classes, took place at Christodora House, one of several settlement houses on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Settlement houses were privately funded organizations where children and adults could take classes, join clubs, visit health clinics, and form bonds not only with local residents but also with the “settlers” who lived in the building. Many of the settlers were middle-class women who had recently graduated from college and were intent on volunteering their time and talents in crowded urban neighborhoods during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Christodora House has not received as much attention in the historical literature and in textbooks compared with such settlement houses as Henry Street Settlement in New York and Hull-House in Chicago, but Christodora was nonetheless a vital organization that changed lives and was an integral part of its neighborhood. 

JO: Settlement houses have both been celebrated for improving peoples’ lives and criticized for trying to convert immigrants to Christianity and/or enforce cultural assimilation. Where does your work come down on this ongoing debate?
JM: The settlement houses did help with helping immigrants acculturate to U.S. society, but the newcomers were also encouraged by many of the settlement houses to retain and cherish their own customs and religions. The settlement house provided a valuable stepping stone for many immigrant children and adults in their education and careers and resulted in lasting friendships that bridged the fault lines of class and ethnicity. 

JO: How did you decide that this was a subject you wanted to write a book about?
JM: I was fascinated by the relationship between teacher and student that was revealed in the letters as well as the time period in which they lived. This led me to conduct research on the settlement house movement, the history of immigration on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and how an organization like Christodora, which lives on as a non-profit foundation, has stood the test of time. The 16-story building at 143 Avenue B, still called Christodora House, has had a tumultuous history and was in recent years named a national and state historical landmark. My research brought me in contact with individuals in the non-profit sector, one of whom, the East Village Community Coalition, has an office on the first floor of that building. Today, Christodora House consists mostly of privately owned condominiums and was a controversial symbol of neighborhood gentrification in the 1980s. This connection between the past and present convinced me that this was a subject in which I could immerse myself and that would potentially be of interest to a wide audience. 

JO: How has this kind of writing both built on and departed from the kind of research you did during your career in TESOL at UNI?
JM: During my time at UNI my research centered on sociolinguistics, language teaching, and bilingualism. One of the areas in which I presented at conferences and published was language policy, and this often involved doing research on the history of national and international policies, including the Universal Declaration of Language Rights. Even though I am not a historian by training, I have had years of experience reading and analyzing texts written by others from the perspective of a linguist and educator and this helped tremendously during the research, writing, and editing phases of the book on Christodora House. Conducting archival research was new to me seven years ago, but I was comfortable with navigating electronic library databases both at UNI and elsewhere and applied those skills to working with original documents and other artifacts as well as other institutions’ library databases. 

JO: Can you talk about your experience at the Writers’ Colony in Eureka Springs, Arkansas?
JM: While teaching at UNI, I applied and was accepted as a resident writer at the Writers' Colony at Dairy Hollow (WCDH) in Eureka Springs and then returned twice as an alumna, most recently in 2022, the year after I retired. The colony is housed in two buildings and each resident is supplied with comfortable and quiet accommodations, including a dedicated writing room. The Eureka Springs Carnegie Library is within walking distance of the residence and all WCDH resident writers have borrowing privileges during their stay. On my last visit I was able to finish the final chapters of the book on Christodora House and interview several contacts by phone. The peacefulness of the location and the opportunity to meet and have dinner nightly with the other writers in residence both enriched the experience for me.