Shantytown, USA: Forgotten Landscapes of the Working Poorby Lisa Goff
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. Lisa Goff restores shantytowns to the central place they once occupied in America’s urban landscape, showing how the basic but
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. Lisa Goff restores 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, introduced 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.
Shantytowns, the author argues, have been "a decentralized, self-built, market-based solution to the affordable housing shortage." In her broadly researched debut book, Goff (American Studies/Univ. of Virginia) traces the history of shanties in America, beginning with Thoreau's famous cabin on Walden Pond, constructed from a dismantled shanty built by Irish railroad worker James Collins. Thoreau, however, "exiled the shantytowns built by railroad workers" when he transformed the shanty into a house that promoted "a certain kind of American narrative" of simplicity and communion with nature. Goff identifies other such transformations by writers, social reformers, urban planners, and artists. In newspaper dispatches, Edgar Allan Poe, for example, "wrings poetry out of the shantytown and saddles it with sublimity." However, in the 19th century, social reformers condemned shanties as "hovels" or "huts," marginalizing residents as "foreign." Despite the evidence of "domesticity and industry," they created "anxiety…about the spread of crime and disease." In reality, writes the author, inhabitants of the many shantytowns in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Washington D.C., were hard workers invested in their communities. "The shanty," she asserts, "was a migratory house form come to rest in growing cities, where it inspired a working-poor aesthetic of dwelling that reflected values of reinvention and adaptation." And privacy: the communities' narrow, winding paths afforded some protection against "supervision and surveillance" by intrusive public officials. Goff reveals how shantytowns were evoked with humor, affection, and nostalgia in art, literature, plays, and song. Residents were romanticized, praised for their individuality, unconventionality, and ingenuity. But in Depression-era America, shantytowns, identified as "permanent slums," became vulnerable to urban renewal. The author's suggestion that contemporary shantytowns could be a "promising" housing solution is undermined by her naïve assertion that single room occupancy hotels "were popular with poor people" though failing to meet housing standards "imposed by the liberal establishment." An interesting history lacking a prescription for the future.
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Meet the Author
Lisa Goff is a member of the Department of English and of the American Studies Program at the University of Virginia.
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