The North Beach of the late 19th century differed in many ways from today's neighborhood. Tel-Hi's founders, Elizabeth Ashe, 21, and Alice Griffith, 25, began their dedicated service to this very poor neighborhood in 1890 after getting to know some of the children of the neighborhood while working as Sunday school teachers at Grace Cathedral. Back then the neighborhood was already known for its great views from Telegraph Hill and also as a colorful enclave of San Francisco's Irish, Italian, German and Latin American immigrant communities.
What Ashe and Griffith saw, however, was a community with very many health and educational needs and no one to advocate for them. Ashe, who later trained as a nurse, and Griffith, a pioneer in the emerging social work field, were deeply concerned about the young children in the neighborhood who played unsupervised in the street and their brothers and sisters who were pulled out of school to help support their families by selling flowers or gathering scrap wood and coal. Immigrants living in huts on the eastern cliffs were helpless to prevent their homes from tumbling down as developers chipped away at the hills below to build the Embarcadero. On the western slope of Telegraph Hill large, extended families lived in tiny flats without plumbing or heat. Epidemics of whooping cough, typhoid fever, tuberculosis, and diphtheria took a greater toll here than almost anywhere in San Francisco.
To remedy these ills, in 1890 Ashe and Griffith formed what was to become the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center, San Francisco’s first settlement house. Like Jane Addams, who had just opened Hull House in Chicago, these two well-off and independent young women wanted to work directly with the poor. To this end they offered a club for boys and classes in sewing and “domestic science” for girls, and later expanded to include a kitchen, garden, gymnasium and library. Resident social workers staffed a day care program for children of the wharf cannery workers and a health clinic with an operating room, and taught classes in dancing, singing and dramatics. Nurses were sent out to neighborhood homes to educate immigrant mothers in health and hygiene, and the center helped launch the first school nurse program on the West Coast.
In 1905, with the support of Henry E. Bothin, Ashe and Griffith opened Hill Farm Convalescent Home for women and children recovering from tuberculosis. To provide children of the “menacingly ugly, dark tenements” of North Beach with air and light, they were ferried away to a country cottage in Ross and a summer camp in Fairfax. When unemployment and domestic violence plagued the neighborhood during the Depression, the center built a bocce ball court to provide relief for their fathers.
Over the years Ashe and Griffith instituted a growing number of programs to help the needy in the community, and acted as advocates to ensure that these marginalized residents had a voice in their own futures. Outside the center’s walls, Ashe and Griffith were formidable community organizers who enlisted the support of county supervisors, merchants, health officers and others to take up their many causes and concerns. When the 1906 earthquake left the center in ruins, Ashe solicited the services of Bernard Maybeck in designing a new one on Stockton Street near Washington Square. The two women led a successful campaign to stop the dynamiting of the hill, but were less successful at saving it from developers. Griffith’s campaign for more open space in the post-quake reconstruction plan failed and the neighborhood became more crowed than ever.
In the 1950’s the center had outgrown their Stockton Street location, so Ashe and Griffith led a successful campaign to build our current site at 660 Lombard Street. The new site provided more space to serve children and develop a program for seniors. The building's proximity to North Beach’s new public housing project and changing economic forces helped shift the center’s clientele. At the time the Cannery and Ghirardelli Chocolate Factory were being converted to shopping malls and the fishing industry was dwindling. In addition to the Italian and other immigrant groups, Tel-Hi began serving more African American families who were moving into North Beach Housing Project in great numbers and the immigrant Asian families who were living in crowded residential hotels.
The center’s focus shifted from sewing and cooking courses to youth job development and childcare. Today our center continues to support the integration of the entire community through our off-site and on-site programs and our collaboration with North Beach Place, the mixed-use, affordable income housing complex that was re-built and opened in 2004 where the old “projects” stood. Tel-Hi and its neighborhood have changed extensively in the years since Griffith and Ashe, but the convictions and dedication of its founders remain. For the children, youth, families and seniors participating in Tel-Hi programs every day, the center maintains its original mission—to sustain and enrich the lives of those in the community through direct services and advocacy.
Tel-Hi's courtyard at the Maybeck Building (circa 1915).