This is a true story of my own experiences. I was one of the first 20 to build a shack upon the property of the Seattle Port Commission located upon Seattle's waterfront -- bounded by Railroad Avenue on the east, Dearborn Street on the north, Connecticut Street on the south* and the waterfront to the west -- that was destined to pass through many difficulties, and grow to a little shanty city of 600 shacks and 1,000 inhabitants.
It was in October 1931 that I, a lumberjack, long out of employment, found myself out of funds, seeking relief from charitable institutions. The depression had just begun, and no rations or state relief system had been set up, so the task of handling the relief of the needy was being attempted in a feeble way by charitable organizations that were not prepared to handle such a gigantic and unexpected problem, and naturally the relief given, through no fault of theirs, was pretty bad.
I was registered at a Central Registry for single homeless men and given a ticket that called for one evening meal at a soup kitchen that resembled pig swill more than it did human food; no morning or noonday meal; and was allowed to sleep upon the hard floor of the institution at night with a few newspapers that I had picked up, under me for a bed. No beds or bedding had as yet been provided. These conditions caused me to rebel against the relief setup and start to find a way to get away from the whole thing. I was not alone; there were many others. One week of this relief abuse was enough. I walked down the waterfront to the vacant property of the Seattle Port Commission where a shipyard once was located. When the shipyard moved to another location, it left behind concrete machinery pits plenty big enough to make a room, and plenty of scrap lumber and tin that could be used to build crude shelters, any of which would be a big improvement over the hard floors of the charitable institution. The day I went down the street to this property, there were a dozen others who were of the same mind as I. We were among the first to face and taste the bitter realities of a system that would not provide employment for willing workers to enable them to care for themselves or provide a humane system to relieve their suffering in such a time as this.
We immediately set in, with the resources we found strewn over this vacant property, to construct and work out a relief system of our own. It was not many days before our numbers increased, and within 30 days the shanty town had grown to near 100 shacks, and then we faced our first difficulty.
The Seattle health officials decided our shacks were unfit for human habitation and posted official notices on our doors notifying us of the fact and giving us seven days in which to vacate. We had no other places to go and thought that the authorities were bluffing, so we paid no attention to the notices. The authorities were not bluffing: At the expiration of the seven days notice, at 5 a.m., just as daylight was breaking, in one of the heaviest downpours of rain that fell in Seattle that fall, a regiment of uniformed officers of law and order swooped down upon us with cans of kerosene and applied the torch. Amidst the confusion that followed, we salvaged our few belongings and, just as soon as the officers were out of sight, we returned and rebuilt our burned shanties.
A month later this performance was repeated. This time we did not rebuild, but dug in, indeed. With any kind of digging tool we could find, we shoveled the loose sand out of the concrete pits, over the top of which we placed tin for a roof. This time we knew that there would be no burn-out. The concrete and tin were fireproof and would not burn. This time we knew that the authorities would have to find another way to get rid of us.
By this time a heated city election was on and one of the issues was the burning of the shacks of Seattle's unemployed. The result was a new city administration. The residents of the shanty town did not take any part in the election. We did not hold any ill feelings toward the incumbent administration. We knew that they were not to blame for the destruction of our shanties, nor were they to blame for the very existence of shanty towns or the conditions that prevailed in them. Social economics were to blame.
I have given the reader some of the causes that led to the settlement being founded, and some of the obstacles we overcame in founding it. The remainder of my story will be about the settlement itself and some of the problems we have found in making a go of it.
In June 1932 the new city administration was inaugurated and a committee of different city departments visited us and called us together. The spokesman for the party told us that we were going to be tolerated until conditions improved, but that they were going to lay down a few simple rules for us to follow and appoint a committee to enforce them. The rules laid down were most reasonable. The Health Commissioner decreed that we must get some material and build shacks on the top of the ground and come out of the gopher holes. He laid down a few other simple rules covering sanitation. The Police and Fire Department heads were also reasonable.
The committee appointed was composed of two whites, two Negroes and two Filipinos.
After we were informed by the department heads, we went hurrying hither and yon in search of material with which to build more suitable houses. By this time the business houses had become more friendly to us and were very liberal with scrap lumber and tin, and the building of shanties got under way on a big scale. It seemed but a few short weeks until more than a hundred shacks were under construction. Our numbers increased rapidly. The grape-vine wireless carried the news that it was O.K. to build shacks here, and it was amazing at the number who wanted to squat here.
As several of us sat around an open camp fire one evening, one of the shanty dwellers remarked that "we must have a name for this place; we can't call it any old thing." One man spoke up with "This is the era of Hoover prosperity; let's call this place Hooverville." So the name given through sarcasm to the then President Hoover, has clung to this place ever since.
At the beginning, it was difficult to get a lot of fellows to consider regulations, and we discovered that some of our committeemen were unsatisfactory. A meeting was called and we displaced them with others. One of the new members is the writer, who perhaps is no different from others, but was soon being called "Hooverville's Mayor." The new committee set about a more rigid enforcement of regulations and was ably supported by the city authorities.
When Hooverville was started in 1931 the business houses in this part of town were pretty hostile to us. They looked down upon us as a bunch of shiftless fellows, and no doubt wanted to be rid of us; but when they saw us begin the determined uphill struggle of building ourselves houses to live in, their attitude toward us changed and they became more friendly to us. A great many of them went out of their way to do us friendly turns, such as giving us materials with which to build, and sending an occasional truck load of foodstuffs as well.
The shacks in Hooverville are built out of every sort of material, and all sorts of architecture are followed, as it suited the taste of the builder and the material he had to build it from. Some are no bigger than piano boxes, and some have five rooms. There is no gas or electricity or running water. Kerosene oil lamps are used for lights, and wood to cook and heat with.
There are no modern house furnishings in Hooverville. The furnishings are either cast-off or hand-made. Bunks are made of wood; boxes are used for tables and chairs. We discovered that gas tanks from automobiles made good stoves to cook and heat with, when set upon legs and a pipe fitted to take care of the smoke. The writer's stove is made from an ice tank once used by an ice concern to freeze a cake of ice in. An end with a door was fitted to the open end of the tank and a hole cut in the top for the stovepipe, which is made from a discarded gutter pipe.
Hooverville is a colony of industrious men, the most of whom are busy trying to hold their heads up and be self-supporting and respectable. A lot of work is required in order to stay here, consequently, the lazy man does not tarry long in this place.
A big percentage of the men have built pushcarts, using two discarded automobile wheels, no tires, and any sort of a rod for an axle. They push these carts about through the alleys of the business section of Seattle, collecting waste materials, mostly paper, which is sorted and baled and sold to the salvage concerns, thus realizing a little each day. Others have made row boats, and fish in the waters of Elliot Bay for a living. Some catch a few fish each day that are sold in Seattle's market, and others fish for driftwood, which is towed to the beach and sawed up into firewood and sold to fuel companies. There are a few of the men who ply their trades in a small way, such as boat building, shoe repairing, etc. None of the men realize very much money from such enterprises, but they can at least hold their heads up and say, "I am not on relief."
The "putting forth" of such schemes of self help as I have just mentioned is the reason the relief authorities are able to show such a low rate of relief recipients in this place. One thing we are proud of; there has never been more than one-third of us on relief at any one time.
If former president Hoover could walk through the little shanty addition to Seattle bearing his name, he would find that it is not inhabited by a bunch of "ne'er do wells" but by one thousand men who are bending every effort to beat back and regain the place in our social system that once was theirs.
I am mentioning our residents as men, because Hooverville is in the main sense the abode of "forgotten men." The city authorities have decreed that neither women nor children would be permitted to live here, so no more than a dozen elderly women, and no children, have ever lived here. The men are past middle age in life. Seldom is anyone living here who is under 30 years of age.
The population is a sliding population. It goes up and down with the seasons. In midwinter it is at its peak, somewhere near 1,250, and goes down in midsummer to one-half that figure. Every spring a lot of fellows decide to leave and go in search of work in the farming communities that lie "over the hill" in eastern Washington, or in far-away Montana or the Dakotas. They offer their shacks for sale, which they are permitted to do, and realize a few dollars for a road stake to tide them over until they are earning again. The prices received vary from $3.00 to $20.00, depending on the size and condition of the shack. The same men often return the next fall with their winter stake and buy back the shack at twice the price, and still have enough left to "hole up" for the winter.
The Federal authorities carefully checked over the population last winter and found every race of people in the world here, and two dozen nationalities. Twenty per cent are native born. It is natural that in a melting pot such as this many contrasts are found, all of which accounts for the many interesting stories newswriters tell about the place.
One of the most perplexing problems we found was the problem of numbering our houses so that it would be easy to locate anyone here. The houses were not built in line on streets or avenues, but just set up any old way, leaving barely enough room between some of them for pushcarts to pass through. After carefully studying the matter over, we plotted the town out in sections, using the pushcart lanes for dividing lines, and numbered each section alphabetically beginning with A, and starting 1-A, 2-A, and on until section A was filled, then on to B, C, and so on, putting not more than fifty shacks to a section. Everyone agreed that this system was simple and easy.
We do not have a great deal of trouble in enforcing regulations laid down here. The most of our people try to do the right thing. Of course we, like all other communities, have our share of undesirables. They are for the most part those unfortunates who drink denatured alcohol or canned heat, and are commonly referred to as "dehorners." There are others whose craze for legitimate drink is so strong that they also are troublesome. If it is humanly possible for us to handle our boozing element ourselves, we do so; if not, the City Police is called, and they must face the Police Court for punishment. The most unruly offenders must also suffer a punishment meted out by the residents of Hooverville. We collect a party of Hooverville residents and remove the offender's shack. We find that a great many fair-minded people disagree with us on this method of handling the matter, but it is the only effective way of controlling the worst. This system not only punishes the hard-boiled, but tends to keep others from getting out of control. Some hard characters do not mind a jail sentence; in fact, they come out and openly boast of the good time they had while there, and proceed to immediately make nuisances of themselves. One thing they hate, though, is to return and find their shack has been removed in the deal, and not be permitted to rebuild and resettle among us again.
I am often asked "where do the residents of Hooverville come from?" "Who are they?" and "How do they like to live in Hooverville?" Most of the residents of Hooverville are honorable, unemployed lumberjacks, fishermen, miners and seamen. There are of course other tradesmen here also. Most of them have service records with some Seattle business firm, and if given an opportunity would be out of town on the job, somewhere, doing useful work for that firm again. The men apparently like to live here; in fact, all that they have ever known have been camps and jungles, so the life is nothing new to them; they have long been accustomed to it.
"What manner of man is the Mayor of Hooverville?" "How did he get his job?" "What are his duties?" These are some of the questions that are asked. Sometimes I hear them asked by someone, when I am uptown, who does not know that I am listening. I often find it hard to hold onto myself while the "Mayor of Hooverville" is being talked about. He, to say the least, must be an interesting waterfront character.
Really, I am no different than anyone else. Just a donkey engineer who would feel much happier if he was out in the woods, standing upon the running board of a donkey engine listening to the signals and working the levers, yarding logs to the landing. I am called the Mayor because I am a little more aggressive than any other member of the Hooverville Committee. When there is something to be taken up with the City authorities, that usually falls upon my shoulders. When anyone is sick, I am the one who is called upon to get the doctor and send him to the hospital. When the city officials find anything wrong in Hooverville, I am the one who gets bawled out.
I am also the big brother of the boys here. They often bring their troubles to me, and air them and seek my advice. I advise them as best I can on many questions. By interceding at the right time, I am able to prevent many little rows that might develop into big ones.
I am very lenient with our drinking element. If it is necessary to call the police and run them in, they are usually warned by the Judge and released, and when they return to their shacks, I am one of the first to go and talk to them. I put my arm on their shoulders and say, "Joe, you have got better stuff in you than this. You are not all bad. Now I want you to straighten up and be your old self again." They will all reply by grabbing my hand and saying, "I will", and most of them keep their word.
The fame of Hooverville and its mayor has spread far and wide. Seldom a day passes that the mail does not bring a letter addressed to "The Hon. Mayor of Hooverville", written by some person in some places far away from Seattle, seeking information about the place, or asking my help on some question. It is sometimes a writer wanting material for his story; sometimes a social worker who wishes to know something about the place. The most pathetic of them all are those I receive from some despairing mother, asking me to help locate her runaway boy, or from a wife whose husband is missing. I sometimes am able to find the missing person in one of the shanties.
My duties are many and varied. Sometimes I sorely tire of them. It is a bigger job being "mayor of Hooverville" than a person would think.
My salary is nothing. I do not feel that I am serving the city or state in any capacity. I am serving a bunch of fellows who are on their uppers, the same as I, and who have nothing to pay, consequently I am not on any kind of payroll.
The only reward I have ever received since I have been on the job, was to have one of Seattle's large radio distributors put electric lights into my place and donate a large radio, so that the fellows can gather and listen to the outdoor broadcasts.
The Mayor's mansion is indeed a combination -- social hall, information bureau and employment office.
At this writing, July 1, 1935, Hooverville is nearly four years old.
Concluding, I do not believe that Hooverville differs much from any other shanty town. It has just gained more notoriety. Hooverville is just another shanty town, where on nine and one-half acres of ground many shacks are located, some good, some poor, but to us shanty dwellers, "Be they ever so humble, they are Home, Sweet Home."