Saturday, January 09, 2010

Hooverville

Hoovervilles can best be described as a collection of huts and shacks, as at the edge of a city, housing the unemployed during The Great Depression of the 1930s. Many families lost their homes during the era in US history, because they could not pay their mortgages. These people had no choice but to seek alternative forms of shelter. Hoovervilles, named after President Hoover, who was blamed for the problems that led to the depression, sprung up throughout the United States.

S. Lee Kann writes about his visit to a Hooverville in Pennsylvania in Show Places, Know Places, Go Places in Pittsburgh (1932).

    "One of the most unusual sights we've ever seen in any city. Here you will find men living in homemade 'houses' constructed of box wood and lumber, begging description. Many curious folks come out to 'Shantytown' and a guide eagerly shows one around with explanations as to who is who and what is what in 'Shantytown.' Any donation you may give is part of the community chest and shared by all the dwellers. Just out Liberty Avenue about five minutes from downtown. There are no numbers but we'd say about the 1800 block will bring you pretty close."

In 1934 a sociologist student from the University of Washington moved into a Hooverville in King County of Washington state. He paid fifteen dollars for a squatter shack and wrote his master thesis "Hooverville, a Study of a Community of Homeless Men in Seattle." which gives a somewhat prosaic yet sarcastic snapshot of the Pacific Northwest during the Great Depression.

    "From the sandy waste of an abandoned shipyard site, ... was swiftly hammered and wired to flower a conglomerate of grotesque dwellings, a Christmas-mix assortment of American junk that stuck together in congested disarray like sea-soaked jetsam spewed on the beach. To honor a distinguished engineer and designer, this unblueprinted , tincanesque, archtecturaloid was named Hooverville." (Herbert Hoover, U. S. president from 1929-1933, was an engineer by profession.)

Roy interviewed 650 residents and from that developed a demographic profile of what he called, "Mr. Hooverville, Seattle's candidate for all-American oblivion."

Early in the winter of 1932 a lumberjack by the name of Jesse Jackson along with a couple of dozen other homeless men had built shacks on nine acres of empty land owned by the Port of Seattle located a few blocks south of what is called today Pioneer Square. The Seattle Health Department was quick to condemn the 50 shanties and posted notices to vacate within seven days. At the end of the week Seattle police arrived and burned the shacks to the ground. The squatters rebuilt and the city burned them down again a month later. The third time the men dug into the ground and constructed roofs made of tin or steel. The city finally agreed to let them live there on the condition that they adhere to safety and sanitary rules.

From a census taken of the Hoovervile built at the Skinner and Eddy Shipyard Plant 2 (abandoned in 1920) in Washington in March 1934:

    .....counted 632 men and seven women living in 479 shanties. Their ages ranged from 15 to 73. Included were 292 Caucasians foreign born, 186 Caucasians born in the United States, 120 Filipinos, 29 Negroes (African Americans), three Costa Ricans, two Mexicans, two Indians, two Eskimos, and one Chilean.

The Seattle settlement was born of poverty and the failure of society to respond to massive unemployment. Hooverville residents made something out of nothing and survived for a decade as a successful self-managed community.

Sources:

Hooverville: Shantytown of Seattle's Great Depression

Picture Source

The Strip District: Shantytown: Looking Southwest

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