Homelessness: Portland’s Great Depression Hoovervilles vs. ‘Hales-villes’

Joseph Rose | The Oregonian/OregonLiveBy Joseph Rose | The Oregonian/OregonLive
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on April 23, 2016 at 8:08 AM, updated April 23, 2016 at 8:21am

Portland Mayor Charlie Hales’experiment with homeless camping along the waterfront, in public parks and on busy downtown sidewalks hasn’t won him any popularity contests.

In fact, this week, a new coalition of business and neighborhood groups sued the city and Hales, calling his pro-camping policy an illegal abuse of power because the City Council never signed off.

But the debate over what to do with unwelcome and unpermitted homeless habitats in Portland has been kicking up political dust storms since the Great Depression.

Eight decades before the Hales-villes, the city put up with shantytowns known as Hoovervilles.

Named after unpopular Republican President Herbert Hoover, the rag-tag neighborhoods of shacks made from scrap wood, car parts, corrugated tin and cardboard boxes became a ubiquitous symbol of 1930s desperation.

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A range of possible reactions ran through my mind. Should I say something? Should I lean the seat back and hide? Should I make eye contact?

The itinerant, unemployed population of Ross Island City, also known as the Happy Hooligan Camp, made up Portland’s largest Hooverville. During the most severe years of the Depression, some 300 people called it home.Located under the west end of the Ross Island Bridge, the village had its own elected mayor, commissary and post office. Its streets were called Hollywood Avenue and Main Streets. Residents paid “taxes” by going on garbage-collection patrols.

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The fire sent smoke wafting over the Hawthorne Bridge and Willamette River Thursday afternoon.

Its suburb of Hooeyville stretched into what is now the high-end neighborhood of South Waterfront. Hooeyville actually had a community Finnish steam bath and a flushing toilet, which, of course, drained into the Willamette River.

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In 1933, the Hooverville’s mayor, Otto Olsen, objected when heheard the new Sullivan’s Gulch shantytown on the east side of the river boasted “the modernity of a telephone,” The Oregonian reported.

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Using the Yale-developed interactive browsing tool called Programmer, the collection features hundreds of images of Portland’s “Hooverville” settlement and Oregon migrant families snapped by legendary photojournalist Dorothea Lange.

“We feel that if some good citizen will help us get a phone we will be in a better position to get jobs,” Olsen told the newspaper.In 1936, the FDR-created Works Progress Administration sent photographer Arthur Rothstein to document Portland’s Hoovervilles. Looking at Rothstein’s photos, the problem of the city’s modern Hales-villes, while alarming and in increasingly dire need of a solution, appears negligible by comparison.

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Over the past few days, the site’s apparently homeless denizens have mostly pulled up stakes, leaving behind piles of clothes, bike parts, needles and other debris.

— Joseph Rose