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Life in a Hooverville
No two Hoovervilles were quite alike, and the camps varied in population and size. Some were as small as a few hundred people while others, in bigger metropolitan areas such as Washington, D.C., and New York City, boasted thousands of inhabitants. St. Louis, Missouri, was home to one of the country's largest and longest-standing Hoovervilles.
Whenever possible, Hoovervilles were built near rivers for the convenience of a water source. For example, in New York City, encampments sprang up along the Hudson and East rivers. Some Hoovervilles were dotted with vegetable gardens, and some individual shacks contained furniture a family had managed to carry away upon eviction from their former home. However, Hoovervilles were typically grim and unsanitary. They posed health risks to their inhabitants as well as to those living nearby, but there was little that local governments or health agencies could do. Hooverville residents had nowhere else to go, and public sympathy, for the most part, was with them. Even when Hoovervilles were raided by order of parks departments or other authorities, the men who carried out the raids often expressed regret and guilt for their actions. More often than not, Hoovervilles were tolerated.
Most Hoovervilles operated in an informal, unorganized way, but the bigger ones would sometimes put forward spokespersons to serve as a liaison between the camp and the larger community. St. Louis' Hooverville, built in 1930, had its own unofficial mayor, churches and social institutions. This Hooverville thrived because it was funded by private donations. It maintained itself as a free-standing community until 1936, when it was razed.
Although a common factor among Hooverville residents was unemployment, inhabitants took any work that became available, often laboring at such backbreaking, sporadic jobs as fruit picking or packing. Writer John Steinbeck (1902-68) featured a family who lived in a California Hooverville and sought farm work in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel "The Grapes of Wrath," which was first published in 1939.
Hoover Out, Roosevelt In
In addition to the term "Hooverville," President Hoover's name was used derisively in other ways during the Great Depression. For example, newspapers used to shield the homeless from the cold were called "Hoover blankets," while empty pants pockets pulled inside out--demonstrating no coins in one's pockets--were "Hoover flags." When soles wore out of shoes, the cardboard used to replace them was dubbed "Hoover leather," and cars pulled by horses because gas was an unaffordable luxury were called "Hoover wagons."
Tensions between destitute citizens and the Hoover administration climaxed in the spring of 1932 when thousands of World War I veterans and their families and friends set up a Hooverville on the banks of the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C. In June, many of them marched to the Capitol to request early payment of the government bonuses they had been promised--money that would have alleviated the financial problems of many families. The government refused to pay, citing Depression-era budgetary restrictions. When most of the veterans refused to leave their shacks, Hoover sent in U.S. Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964) to evict the so-called Bonus Army. MacArthur's troops set fire to the Hooverville and drove the group from the city with bayonets and tear gas. Hoover later claimed that MacArthur had used excessive force, but his words meant little to most of those affected.
Hoover also received criticism for signing, in June 1930, the controversial Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act, which imposed a high tariff on foreign goods in an effort to prevent them from competing with U.S.-made products on the domestic market. However, some countries retaliated by raising their tariffs, and international trade was hampered. Between 1929 and 1932, the value of world trade declined by more than half.
By 1932, Hoover was so unpopular that he had no realistic hope of being re-elected, and Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) of New York won that year's presidential election in November by a landslide. Roosevelt's recovery program known as the New Deal eventually reduced unemployment, regulated banking and helped turn the ailing economy around with public works projects and other economic programs. By the early 1940s, many Hoovervilles had been torn down.
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