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What’s got you scratching your head about Milwaukee and the region? Bubbler Talk is a series that puts your curiosity front and center.

Exploring the history of Milwaukee's 'Hooverville'

Milwaukee's 'Hooverville' near Lincoln Park
Milwaukee County Historical Society
Milwaukee County Historical Society
Milwaukee's 'Hooverville' was located along the Milwaukee River near Lincoln Park in the 1930s. Various shanties are visible in the foreground with various buildings in the background. Note on back of photograph mentions it was swept away by spring floods. 

The 1930s were a volatile time for the nation, and Milwaukee was no exception. After a prosperous period during the Roaring '20s, the Great Depression gripped the city as massive unemployment, hunger and homelessness ran rampant under President Herbert Hoover.

Bubbler Talk explores question asker Elizabeth Harrington's curiosity about Milwaukee during the Great Depression. She wants to know: How did the depression change Milwaukee? Specifically, were there 'Hoovervilles' that were established in the city’s parks at the time?

Bubbler Talk: What have you always wanted to know about the Milwaukee area that you'd like WUWM to explore?

When America’s economy plunged between 1929 and 1933, Milwaukee’s foreclosure and eviction rates more than doubled, according to the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee. This resulted in a rise in homelessness, with some moving into a 'Hooverville,' or shantytown, in Milwaukee.

According to University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee history professor Amanda Seligman, a 'Hooverville' was a place that people went to live if they had no place to go. She explains the name was coined after the contempt for President Hoover, who some people saw as responsible for the state of the economy.

"The homeless went to live in these shacks, which were sort of equivalent to what you might think of now as tent cities of homeless people. Except for they weren't plastic commercial built tents, they were jerry-rigged out of whatever plywood and tin that people could find sitting around," Seligman explains.

Milwaukee shantytown in the 1930s
Milwaukee County Historical Society
A row of wooden shanties at the edge of a lot in the 1930s. This photo was presumably taken in Milwaukee.

While many couldn't find housing in Milwaukee, African Americans faced some of the worst living conditions — this is according the website for the documentaryOut of Reach. Lack of housing and explicitly racist policies forced some Black people to reside in the 'Hooverville' in Milwaukee near Lincoln Park.

The shacks that populated 'Hoovervilles' were small, cramped and unhealthy — often lacking electricity, running water and/or toilets.

To make matters worse, recurring flooding in Lincoln Park swept away most of 'Hooverville' there.

Adding to the list of issues 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 explains.

Trying to address these issues, Milwaukee received some of the same support as the rest of the country, John Miller, the director of Out Of Reach, explains. This documentary follows Milwaukeeans and how they perceive the American Dream.

"I think what our film shows, and where it is very analogous to the '30s, is that the new generation now can't depend on unionized work that sustains you from the time you're in your 20s to retirement. There's a lot of hustle now," says Miller.

For many Americans in the 1930s, Miller adds, substantial relief didn’t arrive until President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal program. The New Deal gave cash assistance to over 2,000 Milwaukee families, and put over 24,000 people to work through the Works Progress Administration, or WPA.

READ: How WPA projects expanded the Milwaukee County Parks System

In Milwaukee’s Lincoln Park, the WPA relocated 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
Milwaukee County Parks
A map of what the Milwaukee County Parks' Lincoln Park looks like today, which is located at 1301 West Hampton Avenue.

Miller says what this time 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, and so that means that you have to hustle and you have to work hard to survive. ... But the American dream, in that sense, might be sticking together, as was shown in the '30s and in Roosevelt's New Deal, and it might be the individual hustling and and and surviving to when the next paycheck does come," he says.

Have a question you'd like WUWM to answer? Submit your query below.


Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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