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Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

"Nobody Paid any Attention":
The Economic Marginalization of Seattle's Hooverville

by Dustin Neighly

Click here to see more photographs of Hoovervilles and homeless encampments in Seattle and Tacoma.

During the Great Depression the Federal Government’s tepid response to the economic collapse combined with the inability of aid organizations to properly address the severity of the situation, with tremendous social consequences. During this crucial stage of the Depression, thousands of homeless and impoverished citizens began to remove themselves from the existing charitable aid infrastructure and establish shantytowns. These shantytowns became known as Hoovervilles, in reference to the policies of President Herbert Hoover, which were seen to exacerbate the problems of the Depression. One of the most prosperous and enduring of these shantytowns was situated on Seattle’s Elliot Bay waterfront, adjacent to where QWEST field now stands. This Hooverville was established on lands owned by the Seattle Port Commission and lasted ten years from its establishment in 1931 until its final destruction in 1941. This destruction, despite the growing population of Hooverville and its increased political legitimacy and community development, relied on an ultimately successful discourse of “otherness” that positioned Hooverville as expendable and alien to the rest of the city.
As the Great Depression continued through the 1930s and the incomes of millions of Americans were reduced or eliminated, Seattle’s Hooverville drew an ever-increasing number of homeless men. In 1935, University of Washington graduate student Donald Francis Roy conducted an unofficial census of the original and largest Hooverville, located on the tidal flats south of downtown. Roy’s census gave an estimate of 639 individuals living within Hooverville.[1] As of 1941, a census conducted by the City of Seattle prior to the shantytown’s eventual destruction, the Seattle Hooverville population had increased to as many as 2,065 individuals.[2] These two census numbers show a population growth of approximately 323% over a six-year period and give an indication of the increased reliance of Seattle residents upon Hooverville’s housing resources. While the exact circumstances of this increased population would constitute an entirely separate body of research, it is known that as of 1941, upwards of 1.3% of all homes in Seattle could be characterized as shacks.[3]

Regardless of this increased reliance upon Hooverville for shelter, the Seattle City Council made the decision to eliminate the shantytown for a final time in May of 1941. The lead up to this decision was marked by a vigorous debate about the status and rights of Hooverville’s residents. This debate, visible in petitions submitted throughout the late 1930s, came to a head in 1938. In examining this petition record, the newspaper articles written about Hooverville, and documents released by the City’s various committees, I aim to demonstrate that there was a concerted effort to categorize the Hooverville residents as an “other” class. This “otherness,” used as a counterargument against those advocating for Hooverville, joined together with mounting economic and global-political factors to tip the scales in favor of Hooverville’s ultimate removal.

The decision to eliminate Hooverville was precipitated in 1941 by a report from the Housing Authority of Seattle in which it submitted a special recommendation concerning the city’s various shantytowns. The Housing Authority stated in this letter, dated March 4, that they were “interested in the ‘shack’ problem even though our own statutory powers are not broad enough to deal with it directly.”[4] This recommendation, it appears, was the impetus for the City Council’s establishment of its Shack Elimination Committee. This Committee, headed by the Commissioner of Health, the Superintendent of Buildings, the Chief of Police, and the Chief of the Fire Department, was tasked with drafting a plan on how to proceed with the elimination of Hooverville. In its April 14 letter to the Public Safety Committee, the Shack Elimination Committee stated that they had posted notice for all shacks in the Port of Seattle Hooverville be vacated by May 1, 1941.

Seattle’s Hooverville was unlike its counterparts in other cities in many respects, even beyond its unusual longevity. Following two attempts by the city to raze the encampment and the subsequent rebuilding by its inhabitants, the city of Seattle appointed a committee of six Hooverville residents to enforce “a few simple rules for [them] to follow.”[5] These guidelines also included stipulations from the Health Commissioner which “laid down a few other simple rules covering sanitation.”[6] These rules, and by extension the committee which enforced them, gave a sense of political legitimacy to Seattle’s burgeoning Hooverville population. As this legitimacy grew, so too did the extent of the Hooverville committee’s reach.  The committee, unofficially headed by an unemployed logger named Jesse Jackson, “set about a more rigid enforcement of regulations and was ably supported by the city authorities.”[7] By 1935 the committee had instated an address system for the shanties,[8] provided basic self-policing services, a rudimentary postal service,[9] and even began establishing its own college.[10] Using the guidelines provided by the Seattle City government, Hooverville became an established part of the urban landscape. As Donald Francis Roy stated in his 1935 thesis study, Hooverville had become “an integral part of a highly differentiated urban design... it functions as a segregated residential area of distinct physical structure.”[11]

A Hooverville in Seattle's Interbay neighborhood, 1938. (Courtesy of the University of Washington Library Digital Collections)

As Hooverville’s population and legitimacy increased throughout the 1930s, so too did efforts to eliminate it. These efforts reached a peak of activity in 1938 when a total of nine petitions were submitted to the City Council in favor of demolishing the shantytown.[12] In requesting the removal of Hooverville, the petitioners began constructing a picture of the residents of Hooverville which set them apart from Seattle’s civic society. One such petition, submitted by the Jefferson Park Ladies Improvement Club in November of 1938, claimed that the shantytowns were “very unsightly to the people who are civic minded” and that they in “no way add to the beauty of our lovely city.”[13] This petition demonstrated the image of Hooverville being created throughout 1938. In claiming that  Hooverville was unsightly to the “civic minded” and in stating that they did not add to “our” city, the petitioner was removing Hooverville from both civic society and geography. Hooverville was being designated as an alien “other,” which could then justify its destruction.

This separation of Hooverville’s residents from the civic dialogue and mainstream society was carried through a number of other petitions, all of which used the same language. In these petitions, the charges against the shanty communities include the claim that they were a “growing evil” “inimical to [civic] peace.”[14] In framing their arguments against Hooverville’s residents as questions of morality and evil, the petitioners claimed that shantytown residents were not a class deserving protection.

The vehemence with which the Hooverville population was defined as an “other” owed to the defense of Hooverville residents and supporters of their shantytown. In addition to the nine petitions submitted in 1938 favoring removal, six were submitted in favor of allowing the residents to remain.[15] One such petition from the Worker’s Alliance made the claim that eviction would “greatly affect the health and welfare of all the people of this city…”[16] These petitions, submitted primarily by labor organizations such as the Worker’s Alliance and the Labor Union Relief Council, attempted to reintegrate the Hooverville community into the larger Seattle community, and maintained Hooverville’s position as part of—not separate from—Seattle’s civic life and physical geography.

The conceptual understanding of Hooverville as an “other,” alien population proposed by the shantytown opponents was factually questionable. According to Roy’s dissertation, city officials “insisted that Hooverville do its own policing”[17] and that this role was fulfilled by its residents. As an example, the Hooverville committee and “town council” worked with the Seattle Police Department in November of 1938 to obtain a warrant for the arrest of one of its residents for noisy and disorderly conduct. This warrant, in addition to the Hooverville council’s commitment to meet once weekly, was an effort “to make Hooverville a decent place in which to live.”[18] Roy also claimed that the Hooverville council involved “not only the preserving of peace and order, but also the maintenance of health and safety from fire.”[19] The members of Hooverville, it appears, were actively engaged in protecting their own safety and attempted to work closely with Seattle municipal departments to ensure that safety and orderly conduct was adhered to.

The complexities of the situation was best expressed in a petition drafted by the Hooverville council in 1935. This petition was sent to the Seattle City Council requesting “a hearing concerning the unsanitary conditions existing in Hooverville, and to bring forward the proposal for a community bath house where the inhabitants can take shower baths and wash their clothes.”[20] This petition made clear the efforts of Hooverville’s members to improve their standard of living and to define themselves as a viable and dynamic part of Seattle’s community.

The complaints against Hooverville and the calls for its removal were not, then, based on the actual unsanitary or unsafe conditions of Hooverville itself, something the shantytown residents were seeking to address. Instead, proponents of removal had other motives. Of the nine petitions favoring removal in 1938, six were from clubs representing consolidated commercial interests, like the North End Federated Clubs and the Consolidated South District Commercial Club. Among the charges included in these clubs’ petitions was the point that the Hoovervilles “will produce a permanent condition requiring much litigation and large expenditures of money to eradicate.”[21] The make up of the petitioners and their financial concerns gives further insight into the factors at play in the creation of this sense of the “otherness” of Hooverville.

Jesse Jackson, Hooverville's self-appointed "mayor," was part of a committee of Hooverville residents who oversaw the shantytown and sought to work with Seattle's civic and legal system to incorporate their town into Seattle's civic life. Click the image above to read Jackson's memoir of his time as mayor.

The economic implications of the Hooverville settlement was not only of concern to the city’s commercial clubs but also to the municipal government. In a petition dated July 27, 1938, Police Sergeant E.C. Griffin stated that the “entire situation [in Hooverville] is very grave as there is a possibility of the owners of these said shacks filing squatters rights upon this valuable property.”[22] The two primary concerns in Sergeant Griffin’s statements—that the Hooverville residents may have a legitimate legal claim to the land and that the land is of economic importance—brings to light the underlying tensions between shack dwellers and their opponents. In the minds of opponents, the economic value of the land and not its social usage was of paramount importance. Sergeant Griffin’s report reveals the motivation for the discourse of “otherness” more frequently used by proponents.

The socioeconomic factors which marked Hooverville residents as marginal “others” in spite of their attempts at integration are further demonstrated in the Seattle Times editorial page. An editorial dated March 27, 1941 claimed that the shack removal was necessary “in order that this city again may enjoy its enviable reputation of lacking bad slums.”[23] This article, written after the petitions of 1938, gives a sense of how the Hooverville community was viewed by city officials and opinion-makers. The reputation of the city as being clean and “lacking bad slums” is, in the eyes of the editorial, worth the destruction of Hooverville and the displacement of its residents. This line of reasoning is excused on the basis that Hoovervilles are merely slums and not an “an integral part of... urban design.”[24]

When the destruction of Hooverville began on April 10, 1941, the Seattle Times reported that Hooverville had been “conquered by prosperity” by “an overalled conqueror on a caterpillar tractor.”[25] In framing the event as a battle between slum poverty and “prosperity,” this article directly linked the economic health of Seattle with the destruction of the Hoovervilles. Health and safety concerns, here, are overtaken by questions of economic growth and wartime mobilization: the article reported that the shacktowns were being “razed to make way for improvements necessary to the defense program.”[26]

Though there is no reference to any such defense program or industry within the Shack Elimination Committee’s documentation, the idea that shacktown elimination was necessary for industrial and economic growth was reaffirmed in an article from May 6, 1941. In this article from the final day of the Hooverville destruction, the author claimed that “The shacktown is being demolished to make way for new port improvements.”[27] It appears that after the Hooverville community had been successfully marginalized and ostracized that it was no longer required to couch any destruction of their homes in the language of health and safety: once elimination was underway, the underlying economic motivations for removal became plain.

As the defense build up for World War II began to affect Seattle, the Times reported on June 30, 1941 that the Port of Seattle was planning to “construct two immense piers, costing approximately $2,000,000 in Elliot Bay”[28] at the shantytown’s former location. The destruction of Hooverville was about social, economic, and health concerns as well as the mounting concerns of national security. The discourse of “otherness” had succeeded in painting Hooverville and its civic accomplishments as alien to the Seattle community and a fetter to economic growth and national security.

This homeless man, shown in a Seattle Hooverville in 1931, was by 1941, seen as a threat to a city mobilizing for World War II and trying to forget the economic crisis of the 1930s. Hooverville was burned to the ground by city authorities in Spring of 1941. (Courtesy of University of Washington Library, Digital Collections)

The City Council’s decision to annihilate Hooverville was complex. For many years, the argument over what to do about the Hoovervilles was couched in language eliciting a sense of “otherness” of the town’s residents. This “otherness” was created by the perception of unsanitary and unruly behavior. As the Hooverville community grew and matured throughout the 1930s, its occupants attempted to mitigate these charges and begin to redefine their role within society and develop strategies to politically and socially integrate themselves into Seattle civic life. In spite of these efforts, the economic demands of the city and security demands of the nation were paramount. In its April 14 letter, the Shack Elimination Committee stated that “Many owners and occupants... have made an attempt to make their buildings conform with city regulations,” and that some of the shack dwellers were “of the cleaner class and attempt[ed] to keep the premises in a sanitary condition,” yet called for their elimination as well.[29]

As the Great Depression era turned towards the World War II era, there appears to have been a palpable shift in social and economic priorities by city officials, media, and economic interests that overran attempts by Hooverville residents to make their shantytowns livable, respectable, and a part of Seattle. The shacks which had previously been allowed to flourish were seen as impeding the march of progress, as relics of the Great Depression and markers of the “otherness” of the unemployed that the city was now trying to forget. As the Seattle Times stated, “nobody paid any attention [to the destruction]. Everybody was too busy.”[30]

 Copyright (c) 2010, Dustin Neighly
HSTAA 105 Winter 2010

[1] Donald Francis Roy, Hooverville A Study of A Community Of Homeless Men In Seattle (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1935), 56.
[2] Housing Authority of the City of Seattle, Basic Data Concerning Physical Conditions and Occupancy of Shacks, March 5, 1941, CF169237.
[3] Housing Authority, CF169237.
[4] Housing Authority, CF169237.
[5] Jesse Jackson, The Story of Hooverville in Seattle (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1944), 2.
[6] Jesse Jackson, Hooverville, 2.
[7] Jesse Jackson, Hooverville, 2.
[8] Jesse Jackson, Hooverville, 3.
[9] Joe Mabel, Seattle Hooverville Sign, JPG,
[10] Seattle Times, “Hooverville College Head Fears Political Control,” June 15, 1934, 30.
[11] Roy, Hooverville, 20.
[12] Seattle City Clerk's Office, CF158734, CF159340, CF160735, CF160963, CF158542, CF160804, CF158682, CF160914.
[13] Seattle City Clerk's Office, CF160914.
[14] Seattle City Clerk's Office, CF158734, CF159340, CF160804.
[15] Seattle City Clerk's Office, CF161048, CF160628, CF161077, 160740, 161169.
[16] Seattle City Clerk's Office, CF160628.
[17] Roy, Hooverville, 79.
[18] Seattle Times, “Hooverville Council Cites Noisy Dweller,” November 29, 1938, 2.
[19] Roy, Hooverville, 80.
[20] Seattle City Clerk's Office, CF147091.
[21] Seattle City Clerk's Office, CF158734, CF159340, CF160804.
[22] Seattle City Clerk's Office, CF 159779.
[23] Seattle Times, “What Will Seattle Do With Shack Dwellers?” March 27, 1941, Editorial.
[24] Roy, Hooverville, 20.
[25] Seattle Times, “Ragtime Requiem Rings Out As Tractor Levels Shacks,” April 10, 1941, 8.
[26] Seattle Times, Ragtime, 8.
[27] Seattle Times, “Bulldozer, Flames Make Hooverville Just a Memory,” May 6, 1941, 5.
[28] Seattle Times, 30 June, 1941.
[29] Housing Authority, CF169237.
[30] Seattle Times, “Ragtime”, 8.