Monday, August 23, 2010

Red Hook, Reflections on History: Article #1 (a)

John J. Burkard, Red Hook historian Brooklyn, New York

"Hooverville in Red Hook, Brooklyn, New York"

Most people find themselves unnerved by the visibility of a homeless person occupying a sidewalk, sleeping in a cardboard box or wrapped in rags to protect themselves from the elements. They are offended by the display of their poverty. They cringe in disgust assuming that these unkempt homeless wretches dressed in tattered garments are vagabonds asking for handouts. The homeless, the unfortunates, are looked upon as human debris, that should be banned from the rest of society. It has always been an unpleasant visible feature of urban life

In retrospect, I would like to direct your attention to the worst edonomic depression, with devastating consequences that America has ever experienced, which began shortly after the Wall Street Stock market crash in October of 1929. An atmosphere of fear, mass hysteria and panic reigned. Bankrupt businesses and many banks closed their doors. Depositors flocked to the banks in droves attempting to withdraw their precious savings, only to find that their life's savings was completely wiped out when the banks collapsed. Those that were able to sell whatever assets they had became miserly hoarders. But alas, it was too late. The great American dollar was soon worthless, and nothing could stop the catastrophic happenings which ensued.

As a result of the sluggish economy, massive lay-offs occurred, and company bankruptcies led to closures. Farm and mortgage foreclosures were at an all time high. Total chaos existed everywhere. As a consequence, millions were left unemployed thus pushing many over the brink into homelessness.. Here, there, everywhere, cries of lament and despair were frequently heard. "What will we do?", How will we survive? How will we make ends meet" How will we pay the rent? " This is the end of everything we worked for." Unable to cope with their losses, many committed suicide, husbands deserted their wives and children. The entire scenario seemed to bring out the very worse in humanity. It was a vicious world out there,where men and women alike seemed to have a dog-eat-dog attitude in their dealings with one another..

This horrible experience lasted from 1930 to about 1939 in Red Hook,. Nevertheless, it lasted longer in Seattle, Chicago and other parts of the United States. Shanty towns, or squatter communities known as Hoover cities during President Hoover's term in office were mushrooming all over the United States. These were people that were evicted from their homes and farms. President Hoover became the focus of blame for the economic conditions that was plaguing the nation, which some of it was beyond his control while others were created during his administration. The President had succeeded Calvin Coolidge who was another Republican who ran the country with an iron economical fist, reducing taxes , and as comments circulated, that he was leading the United States on the road to apparent prosperity.

These cities of the homeless, better yet the hopeless, were called Hooverville's, Hoover towns, or Hoover Cities etc. Shortly after Central park witnessed these people starting construction on their poverty town, Red Hook's became occupied. Park employees began destroying the shacks and no sooner they were torn down, the faster they were rebuilt. It got to the point where officialdom did not want to destroy these living quarters. One official remarked "these people are clean, they are not annoying others, they are respectable. They even have their own worshiping facilities. Clergymen from the local churches and synagogues would preside on Saturday if he was a Rabbi, and Sunday if they were a priest or Minister. Since these Hoover cities had no toilets or washing facilities they were in violation of the city ordinance laws and Board of Health regulations. They even had street signs to designate where they lived, with a post office facility, as well as their own security and fire crews. Their main thoroughfare was named Depression Avenue. Aptly named, wouldn't you agree?.

These varied individuals were not hoboes, tramps or lazy, just like their modern counterparts today, on the contrary they were gifted and talented people,who went about converting these tin-lots (that's what they were in Red Hook) into a livable space. They were poor souls who had reached the end of their rope, needing help, hope and definitely love. Some local churches felt the need to supply faith with hope, a unique blend of compassion that seems to work wonders always.

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