Friday, March 14, 2008

The Return of the Hooverville

This morning, according to a recently filed BBC NEWS report, President George W. Bush tried to assure his audience at the Economic Club of New York that the economy is "basically sound" (quote from the BBC report, not necessarily the words of the President). Was it an editorial comment that the column of related links on the Web page featured a photograph of former Republican President Herbert Hoover? Bush seemed to know better than to echo Hoover's motto that "prosperity is just around the corner;" but I was less interested in his words than I was in a BBC video report, which I saw yesterday through my PBS feed, featuring a tent city in Ontario, California, built by those who had lost their homes as a result of the consequences of the mortgage crisis. I remembered that my father had told me about similar camps that had formed during Hoover's Great Depression. He said they were called "Hoovervilles;" so I was glad to see that there was a "Hooverville" entry in Wikipedia. Here is the basic description from that entry:

A Hooverville was the popular name for a shanty town, examples of which were found in many United States communities during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The word "Hooverville" derives from the name of the President of the United States at the beginning of the Depression, Herbert Hoover. They used Hoover's name because they were frustrated and disappointed with his involvement in the relief effort for the Depression.

These settlements were often formed in unpleasant neighborhoods or desolate areas and consisted of dozens or hundreds of shacks and tents that were temporary residences of those left unemployed and homeless by the Depression. People slept in anything from open piano crates to the ground. Authorities did not officially recognize these Hoovervilles and occasionally removed the occupants for technically trespassing on private lands, but they were frequently tolerated out of necessity.

Some of the men who were made to live in these conditions possessed building skills and were able to build their houses out of stone. Most people, however, resorted to building their residences out of box wood, cardboard, and any scraps of metal they could find. Some individuals even lived in sewer mains.

For the record the word also has an entry in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, where it is defined as "a shanty town."

Things are somewhat different this time, at least in Ontario. Andrea Bennett, Staff Writer for the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin created an article for the newspaper's Web site last night (only a few hours after I saw the BBC video) that has dignified the camp with a proper noun: Tent City. Furthermore, that "grammatical escalation" is being accompanied by some degree of institutionalization by the city of Ontario:

A plan to control and secure Tent City, a homeless encampment that began with two dozen locals last summer and has since grown to about 400 people, was made public Thursday by city officials.

Mayor Paul Leon told homeless providers and volunteers that those who have ties to Ontario may stay at the camp, but all others must leave by Monday.

That's also when the homeless staying in tents or trailers on the city-owned site by L.A./Ontario International Airport will be divided into three groups: those known to be from the city, those who claim to be and everyone else.

Wristbands will be issued accordingly, said City Manager Greg Devereaux.

The last group has one week to go and will be provided transportation, if needed, to their cities of origin.

What struck me the most about the BBC video, however, was their focus on camp dwellers who could still take the camera crew back to show them the suburban house they used to own but could no longer keep because of escalating mortgage payments. Not all of them were victims of foreclosure. Some effected their own sale, but it was the loss sustained by that sale that meant that they were now living in a tent. (There were also those fortunate enough to be living out of a mobile home, but one such woman still declared that she did not want other members of her family to see how she was now living.)

That suburban culture had not yet emerged in the days of the Great Depression. Indeed, we have basically deluded ourselves into believing that homelessness is strictly an urban phenomenon, whether it involves the down-and-out living in a cardboard box over a heating outlet near Grand Central Station or families victimized by Hurricane Katrina. This demographic shift has transformed the Hooverville into the "Bushburb," the American suburban dream now turned into a nightmare by the greed-centered financial mismanagement of the current Administration. (I found the epithet "Bushville" through a Google search; but that search directed me to the blog run by the Lyndon LaRouche Political Action Committee. In that context I would prefer to stick to my own terminology!)

Will our President take the time to visit Tent City and see what is happening there without the mediation of a television camera? Will his parents pay such a visit, as they did to the New Orleans Superdome after the Katrina disaster? If so, I suspect it will be harder for Barbara to come out with another callous remark like that one about conditions for the Katrina victims being better than those they had at home! After all, these are suburbanites who used to be counted as part of the "base" for the Republican Party. Let us hope that, for all of the flaws that Bennett reported about it, the institutionalization of Tent City will include provisions for its residents to vote in November. If our electoral process is supposed to be, at least in spirit, about every voice being heard, then the State of California is obliged to make sure that those voices are not neglected!

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