When the United States entered into a deep recession in 2008, things were pretty grim economically. In my 39 years of spinning around this blue marble, it was the worst that I could remember, even worse than the early ’90’s malaise. But by and large, Pittsburgh was left relatively unscathed. As then-County Executive Dan Onorato said at an event at the time, “When you’re not invited to the party, you don’t get a hangover.”
As bad as things were in the U.S., especially in places like Florida, Nevada, and Michigan, the 2008 Great Recession paled in comparison to the Great Depression brought on by the 1929 stock market crash. That affected everyone across the board, as the nation was not as insulated from other regions as we are now. For better or worse, the United States rose and fell together back then.
In Pittsburgh, an area developed in what is now the Strip District called Shantytown. These makeshift homes, mostly populated by out of work single men, were made of discard boards, roofing materials, and whatever other building materials could be scavenged and cobbled together. Unemployment figures at the time in the early 1930’s of Pittsburgh ranged from 18 to 25%, a stark contrast to the 6.5% of today. These are the types of figures associated with present-day Spain and Greece.
It was estimated that nearly 500 people lived in these squalid conditions, with no sewage or fresh water, causing diseases and rats to run rampant. Father James Renshaw Cox of St. Patrick’s Church in the Strip District made it his mission to improve their lives with soup kitchens and a form of activism for that day. Father Cox organized rallies and marches to bring attention to their plight. Amazingly, he was also a candidate for President of the United States under the Jobless Party ticket, but bowed out in September 1932 to led his support to Franklin Roosevelt. Once the “March of the Jobless” left Pittsburgh for Washington, D.C., city officials razed Shantytown to the ground to prevent disease and filth from spreading.
The few photos that remain of Shantytown are now housed on the North Side in Pittsburgh’s Photo Antiquities Museum of Photographic History. Work by Ed Salamony of the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph is on display there documenting the rise and fall of Shantytown.
Pittsburgh, like every other metropolitan area, has a homeless problem. But by and large, the homeless men and women are on the periphery of the average person’s mind today. We don’t have to confront the issue head in such a concentrated area as Pittsburgh’s Shantytown. Out of the Depression and FDR’s New Deal came the Public Works Administration, a federal government-sponsored public works initiative that built many retaining walls and small bridges that remain in good condition even today. This effort provided jobs and money to people that had neither. Maybe what we need to stem homeless now is another PWA to help repair our nation’s crumbing infrastructure.