Exploring Milwaukee’s “Hooverville” History | WUWM 89.7 FM

The 1930s were a volatile time for the nation, and Milwaukee was no exception. After a prosperous period during the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression gripped the city as massive unemployment, hunger and homelessness plagued President Herbert Hoover.

talk about bubbler explores questioner Elizabeth Harrington’s curiosity about Milwaukee during the Great Depression. She wants to know: How did the Depression change Milwaukee? Specifically, were there any “Hoovervilles” that were established in city parks at the time?

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When the U.S. economy plunged between 1929 and 1933, Milwaukee foreclosure and eviction rates more than doubled, according to the Milwaukee Encyclopedia. This has led to an increase in homelessness, with some moving into a “Hooverville”, or slum, in Milwaukee.

According to Amanda Seligman, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a “Hooverville” was a place people would go to live if they had nowhere else to go. She explains that the name was coined after the contempt of President Hoover, whom some people considered responsible for the state of the economy.

“The homeless people went to live in these shacks, which were sort of the equivalent of what you might now think of as tent cities for the homeless. Except they weren’t plastic tents. plastic built for commercial use, they were built out of jerry with whatever plywood and tin people could find sitting around,” says Seligman.

Milwaukee County Historical Society


A row of log cabins at the edge of a lot in the 1930s. This photo was presumably taken in Milwaukee.

While many could not find housing in Milwaukee, African Americans faced some of the worst living conditions – that’s according to the documentary website Out of reach. Lack of housing and explicitly racist policies forced some blacks to reside in the “Hooverville” in Milwaukee near Lincoln Park.

The shacks that populated the “Hoovervilles” were small, cramped and unsanitary – often lacking electricity, running water and/or toilets.

To make matters worse, recurring flooding in Lincoln Park washed away most of “Hooverville.”

Along with the list of problems the city faced at the time, Milwaukee was also one of the most densely populated cities in the United States in the 20th century, Seligman says.

In trying to solve these problems, Milwaukee received the same support as the rest of the country, John Miller, the director of Out of reach, Explain. This documentary follows the people of Milwaukee and how they view the American dream.

“I think what our film shows, and where it’s very analogous to the 1930s, is that the next generation can no longer depend on unionized work that sustains you from when you’re in your twenties until retirement. There’s a lot of commotion now,” Miller says.

For many Americans in the 1930s, Miller adds, substantial relief did not come until President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program. The New Deal provided cash assistance to more than 2,000 Milwaukee families and put more than 24,000 people to work through the Works Progress Administration, or WPA.

LILY: How WPA Projects Expanded Milwaukee County’s Parks System

In Lincoln Park in Milwaukee, the WPA moved the river and created a large lagoon with islands, according to The Living New Deal website. This in turn stopped the recurring flooding.

Lincoln Park in Milwaukee
A map of what Milwaukee County Parks Lincoln Park looks like today, located at 1301 West Hampton Avenue.

Miller says what this period shows is something all Americans have in common — trying to cope with a country that doesn’t always treat people right.

“It’s a country that doesn’t always give people a safety net, which means you have to jostle and work hard to survive. … But the American dream, in that sense, might be to stick together, like it was shown in the 1930s and in Roosevelt’s New Deal, and it could be the individual who hustles and survives until the next paycheck comes,” he says.

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