The ripples of joblessness kept widening, engulfing the laboring and middle classes alike. In New Concord, Ohio, eleven-year-old John Glenn, who would later become the first American to orbit the earth in the Cold War space race, overheard his parents in whispered conversation one day in 1932; his father, a plumber whose new business had dried up in the general construction falloff and whose repair clients couldn’t afford to pay their bills, told his mother he was afraid they would lose their house. “The conversation struck terror in my heart,” Glenn wrote. He experienced fears shared by many depression children: Where would they move? Did they have relatives or friends who would take them in? Would the family break up, with John and his sister parceled out to relatives or, worse, to foster homes?
The Glenns managed to hold on to their house, but many didn’t. As family budgets went from black to red and rents and mortgages fell into arrears, foreclosure and eviction followed. Homeowners, renters, and farmers and their families were turned out with the clothes on their backs, and bank auctioneers sold property, furniture, machinery, and implements for pennies on the dollar. Philadelphia saw 1,300 evictions a month in 1931. New York had some 200,000 for the year. The secret humiliation of the jobless became a public shame when their household goods were stacked on city sidewalks, on small-town lawns, and in farm lots.
Comedians treated evictions with the same defiant humor that tinged most depression jokes. “Who was that lady I saw you with last night at the sidewalk café?” asked the straight man. “That was no lady, that was my wife,” came the expected retort, and then the new punch line: “And that was no sidewalk café, that was my furniture.”
In cities, tenant organizers devised rent strikes to try to ward off evictions. In the country, farmers petitioned for moratoriums on mortgage foreclosures, and when that failed, they tried direct confrontations. Buyers attending a foreclosure auction might think twice about bidding for farm land or equipment when surrounded by a band of twenty or more glowering farmers, who appeared even more threatening because their long beards made them look like avenging Old Testament prophets. When they could, farmers took up collections to keep the property of their fellows out of the hands of banks.
But efforts such as these had no wide effect, and shantytowns filled with the homeless became the most visible signs of the nation’s distress. Areas of cities and pockets of countryside resembled war zones where civilians took shelter in the rubble. Depression humor had given these places a name, “Hoovervilles,” just as the president’s name was attached to other signs of destitution for which, as people saw it, Hoover bore the blame. Empty pockets pulled inside out were Hoover flags. Jackrabbits or other small game that could add substance to a meager stewpot were Hoover hogs. Hoovervilles sprang up almost overnight, at railroad junctions, alongside city dumps, on riverfronts, and in parks and other vacant lands. When empty and abandoned buildings were available, the homeless occupied them, too.
The Hooverville in Seattle, Washington, sprawled over nine acres of a defunct shipyard near the docks south of downtown. City officials burned it down twice when it sprang up in the fall of 1931, but relented after the squatters rebuilt it a third time. It eventually grew to 479 acres with 639 residents; an unemployed lumberjack named Jesse Jackson kept the peace and was the colony’s liaison with the city and nearby businesses. More than a thousand people lived in a Hooverville alongside the Mississippi River in St. Louis, where they built a church from orange crates. Two hundred men lived in the Youngstown, Ohio, dump, some in huts burrowed into the refuse. The incinerator provided winter warmth, and they got some of their food from the dump’s garbage house, where they competed for the rotting scraps with local women foraging for their families. Connie Eisler Smith, whose father had invented a way to mass-produce radio tubes and incandescent lamps and thus was spared the ravages of the depression, remembered at age five riding in the family’s chauffeur-driven car past the city dump in Newark, New Jersey, and seeing shacks of tin and cardboard built in the garbage piles. Pittsburgh’s shantytown, by the railroad yards five minutes from downtown, spread over a city block and housed 300 residents who proclaimed Father Cox, of the January march on Washington, their “mayor.”
In New York, where the legally elected mayor, “Gentleman Jimmy” Walker, was a corruption-tainted playboy unsuited to governing the city in hard times, these impromptu communities popped up in every corner. The New Yorker magazine suggested that anyone “wanting to see civilization creaking” should visit a shantytown near the Hudson River piers. Some of the city’s homeless took up residence in Central Park. An unemployed carpenter named Hollinan made a home out of a cave and lived there with his wife for almost a year. Another man converted a baby buggy into a makeshift shelter. A group of out-of-work tradesmen set up near the obelisk behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art, building shanties out of bricks and egg crates that were made to withstand the ravages of winter. They called it Hoover Valley. The place grew from a handful of shacks in December 1931 to seventeen the following summer. Its residents could look west above the tree line and see the towers of Central Park West’s luxurious apartment houses, or east to the elegant buildings on Fifth Avenue, many now half empty as even the rich downsized to save money. City police and parks department workers tolerated the inhabitants of Hoover Valley and generally treated them with respect, bantering with them on their patrols through the park but otherwise leaving them alone. Eventually the health department ordered the colony shut down for lack of sanitation, but new arrivals were building foundations for their own shacks even as the department was preparing its written notice of eviction.
Efforts to solve homelessness were the same haphazard, uncoordinated mess as those meant to create jobs. In Connecticut, the Unemployed Citizens League petitioned the U.S. Shipping Board to use a condemned ocean liner, the George Washington, as housing. The Los Angeles Street Railway Company donated fifty of its old streetcars to be used as living quarters. Some of the unemployed of New Orleans lived in houseboats on Lake Pontchartrain. The Detroit Department of Public Works borrowed 300 tents from the Michigan National Guard and planned a tent city to house homeless families. The city was a step behind the twenty families who had already formed a tent colony in the city’s Clark Park in August 1931. In New York, proposals for emegency housing included piers on Staten Island; the Bronx Terminal Market on the Harlem River, where fruits and vegetables were received into the city; and vacant warehouses and lofts.
Except for miserable and scattered schemes such as these, the homeless were largely on their own. In the cities, police regularly rousted them from vacant lots, fire escapes, abandoned buildings, and subway platforms. Invariably, these sweeps picked up someone with a hard-luck tale that caught the attention of sharp-eyed police reporters, and readers opened their newspapers to learn of British heirs and formerly well-paid professionals among the indifferent depression’s victims. But romanticizing the homeless did nothing to ease their squalor, malnutrition, disease, and brutal exposure to the weather.
“Nobody is actually starving,” said Hoover, for whom seven-course meals and black tie were customary whether he was hosting an official dinner or dining alone in the White House with his wife, Lou. “The hoboes, for example, are better fed than they have ever been. One hobo in New York got ten meals in one day.”
The evidence contradicted him. New York City health authorities recorded twenty deaths by starvation in 1931, ninety-five in 1932. Numerous others were barely averted. Police in Danbury, Connecticut, found a mother and her sixteen-year-old daughter huddled in a makeshift shelter in the woods, where they had been eating apples and wild berries to survive. The same week, constables in North Babylon, Long Island, came upon a forty-four-year-old woman starving in a maple grove, where she had been sleeping in a pile of old clothes and eating scraps she had begged from local restaurants. Interviewing her, the police learned she was a registered nurse who had served in France during the world war but had been unable to find work for several months.
But even hunger was subject to spin. The nation’s health was better than ever in 1931, said the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, because less money and less food meant people were no longer overeating.
Food was not scarce. If anything, it was too plentiful. Farmers continued to utilize the productive capacity they had developed when Europe needed their food, but crops rotted in the fields now because there was no one to buy them and the farmers could not afford to harvest them. Wheat and corn could not be sold for what they cost to produce. Breadlines in the Midwest snaked past stuffed grain silos. Ranchers shot livestock rather than ship them to market; it cost $1.10 a head to transport a sheep that would sell for $1, while at the consumer end of the food chain, the many without jobs went hungry because at 16 cents a pound for bacon, 15 cents for a dozen eggs, 23 cents a pound for butter, and 13 cents a pound for beef chuck roast, food cost too much to buy. The same was true of wool and cotton. Bales of fabric for coats and dungarees and dresses piled up in warehouses, but at $7.50 for a child’s coat, $1.50 for a pair of overalls, and $1 for a woman’s dress, families all across the country could not afford to put even basic new clothes upon their backs.
The extent of hunger, if not actual starvation, was highlighted when New York State’s Temporary Emergency Relief Administration, the first state agency set up to aid the unemployed, arranged for jobless men on relief to get free fishing licenses. The rush of applicants overwhelmed town clerks and state conservation officers, who turned the free license trade over to local welfare offices.
And the health authorities had more to deal with than malnutrition and exposure. For many, medical and dental care were unattainable luxuries. Tuberculosis was the biggest preventable killer of adults. Infant deaths were commonplace because pregnant women could not afford prenatal care. For youngsters already weakened by lack of food, childhood diseases such as measles, mumps, whooping cough, and chicken pox could be lethal. Nor were any of these conditions equal-opportunity afflictions. In cities from Denver to New York, the death rate for white adults was 55 per 100,000 population, while among blacks it was almost six times higher. Even outside the South, where the term “Jim Crow” described a system of overt brutality against them, blacks faced not only abysmal health conditions but also job discrimination, official neglect, and police abuse.