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David Patrick Columbia's New York Social Diary

7 April 2010

History of the nabes

Coincidentally, the name Lenox is attached to last night’s dinner dance here in New York -- the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House held it’s annual gala benefit at Sotheby’s on York Avenue and 72nd Street.

Lenox Hill Neighborhood House was founded in 1894, fourteen years after the death of James Lenox, in the spirit of the great philanthropists’ objectives which was namely to help the less fortunate make decent lives for themselves in the New World.
In the last quarter of the 19th century with the mass migrations to the United States, many of the poor and indigent from foreign lands arrived at the Port of New York, and remained here. Feeding and sheltering “the tired, the hungry” was an enormous task, and one which the men of their day like James Lenox and Jacob Schiff approached with deliberate commitment.

Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, now a multi-service community-based organization that serves people in need on the East Side of Manhattan and on Roosevelt Island, was founded as a free kindergarten for the children of immigrants. It was one of the first settlement houses in the nation and remains the oldest and largest provider of social, legal and educational services on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Each year, more than 20,000 individuals and families ranging in age from 3 to 103, representing dozens of races, ethnicities and countries of origin who "live, work, go to school or access services" on the East Side from 14th Street to 143rd Street and on Roosevelt Island, benefit from its programs.

Their clients include indigent families and the working-poor who live in the East Side's housing projects and tenements or who travel to the Upper East Side to work in low-wage jobs such as cashiers, housekeepers, nannies and laborers. There are 10,000 seniors; and hundreds of mentally ill, homeless and formerly homeless adults who receive the Neighborhood House’s services. They have five locations between 54th and 102nd Streets, offer programs at dozens of East Side locations and their headquarters is located on East 70th Street.

The Neighborhood House has seven departments (Adult Education, Children and Family Services, Homeless and Housing Services, Legal Advocacy and Organizing, Older Adult Services, Visual and Performing Arts and Fitness and Aquatics). There are more than 20 different programs, nearly 200 staff and over 600 regular volunteers. The mission is to help those in need and to improve the quality of life for all individuals and families in their community. “Need” is defined to include economic, social, emotional, and physical need, with economics the priority.

The annual benefit is quite a glamorous affair. Diana Quasha was Gala Chair – this being her 12th year on the job. Honorary Chair was Sydney Roberts Shuman. Dinner Chairs were Ingrid and Thomas Edelman and Dinner Patrons were Audrey and Martin Gruss.

The Interior design community got involved with Lenox Hill Neighborhood House through the interest of Albert Hadley, now the dean of American Interior Designers who volunteered to help more than 35 years ago. As a result of the design community’s participation, fostered by Mr. Hadley, the décor of the gala is fresh and elegant (and colorful) and everyone is encouraged in this black tie affair to put their best (fashion) foot forward.

Last night they had between 500 and 600 for cocktails and then 300 remaining for dinner with Alex Donner and his orchestra providing the music. The theme was “Shall We Dance” and the dance floor was made up of shiny black squares that looked very much like the Bakelite floors that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced on in the films.

I sat between Louise Grunwald and Sydney Shuman. Louise had Sean Driscoll on the other side of her. Sean’s Glorious Foods provided a delicious menu.

Louise told me that she and Sean volunteered for the second benefit, staged back in the early 70s, which was held in the Neighborhood House’s gym. It was a much smaller affair with a cocktail reception, a silent auction and a buffet. For the silent auction they sold quiches which were whipped up by Babe Paley’s chef (and sold like hotcakes) and handcrafted quilts and art pieces made by locals up in Northeast (also a big hit).

That early time they gathered a group of more than 200. In anticipation they projected how many of the crowd would actually partake of the buffet, figuring that most people would be gnoshing on the hors d’oeuvres and drinking instead of eating. The number came up with for the buffet was 85. After that night was over, Sean said to Louise: guess how many had the buffet?

Ten!

Thanks to all of these people and the supporters who came before them, and thanks to the administration of the Neighborhood House by Virginia Pittman and Warren Scharf, today the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House thrives, serving more than 20,000 people and is vigilant about being prepared for oncoming, developing needs of others who come within its purview. For many, both young and old, it is the saving grace, as well as a cushion for those who live in the neighborhood.


Alison Minton and Kathleen Giordano.