Shantytown, USA: Forgotten Landscapes of the Working Poor

The word “shantytown” conjures images of crowded slums in developing nations. Though their history is largely forgotten, shantytowns were a prominent feature of one developing nation in particular: the United States. In Shantytown, USA: Forgotten Landscapes of the Working Poor, I restore shantytowns to the central place they once occupied in America’s urban landscape, showing how the basic but resourcefully constructed dwellings of America’s working poor were not merely the byproducts of economic hardship but potent assertions of self-reliance.

In the nineteenth century, poor workers built shantytowns across America’s frontiers and its booming industrial cities. Settlements covered large swaths of urban property, including a twenty-block stretch of Manhattan, much of Brooklyn’s waterfront, and present-day Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C. Names like Tinkersville and Hayti evoked the occupations and ethnicities of shantytown residents, who were most often European immigrants and African Americans. These inhabitants defended their civil rights and went to court to protect their property and resist eviction, claiming the benefits of middle class citizenship without its bourgeois trappings.

Over time, middle-class contempt for shantytowns increased. When veterans erected an encampment near the U.S. Capitol in the 1930s President Hoover ordered the army to destroy it, thus inspiring the Depression-era slang “Hoovervilles.” Twentieth-century reforms in urban zoning and public housing, presented as progressive efforts to provide better dwellings, curtailed the growth of shantytowns. Yet their legacy is still felt in sites of political activism, from shanties on college campuses protesting South African apartheid to the tent cities of Occupy Wall Street demonstrations.

Preserved in the songs, plays, pictures, and movies about shantytowns is a working-poor discourse that resonates with values of hospitality, autonomy, adaptation, and reinvention, but which also reflects bitter inter-ethnic and intra-class conflicts among poor urban laborers. Shantytown residents of all races and ethnicities were keenly aware of economic opportunities, and of their civil and property rights, and they acted in ways designed to protect and enhance them—routinely going to court, for example, and often prevailing in their efforts to resist eviction and preserve their occupation of property. This was true of shantytowns built by free blacks, Irish and German immigrants, and their hyphenated-American descendants. But while they claimed the rights and benefits associated with middle-class status—property, privacy, access to the legal system—they rejected the cultural trappings of bourgeois refinement. In the end, they lost the battle over their rights to the city. The history of shantytowns illuminates a direct relationship between the expulsion of the working poor from center cities and developing ideas about public space. Public policy and public works were used to validate and camouflage middle-class fears about the working poor while engraving those fears on the urban landscape. The urban public and urban public space has long been “classed,” in other words, by the exclusion of certain types of people. Shantytowns unite the material and cultural history of working people. An unstudied cultural landscape, they open a new site for scholarly conversations about labor, race, urban history, and class formation.

-Lisa Goff
Department of English
American Studies Program
Director, Institute for Public History
University of Virginia