Hard Luck Town: A 1930s Shantytown in the East Village

This post is the last of a four-part series called Everyday Lives, Ordinary People: A History of East Village Immigrants, a collaboration between GVSHP and the students in NYU’s Fall 2013 Intro to Public History course. Each group of students was tasked with researching the cultural history of everyday people in the East Village between 1850 and 1950. In conjunction with the public program held on Wednesday, December 11th, each group was also tasked with sharing their discoveries with us on Off the Grid.

The following post was written by Stephanie Krom, Brigid Leavy, and Emily Kramer.

Hard Luck Town - East 9th Street and the East River

Keeping Clean in Hard Luck Town. Source: Museum of the City of New York.

Americans everywhere felt the terrible effects of the Great Depression, but in the cities, millions of people living in close quarters were thrown out of work and into even deeper poverty than they had known before the economy’s collapse. In New York City, the Great Depression particularly affected recent immigrants.

In the 1930s, shantytowns formed from coast to coast in American cities. These shantytowns, often called “Hoovervilles,” were named after President Herbert Hoover, the president during the beginning of the Great Depression and the man who was widely blamed for doing little or nothing to ameliorate its effects. These settlements were often formed on empty land and generally consisted of tents and small shacks. Authorities did not officially recognize these Hoovervilles and occasionally removed the occupants for trespassing on private lands.  However, out of necessity, they were frequently tolerated or ignored.

Bill Smith

Bill Smith, the “Mayor” of Hard Luck Town. Source: Museum of the City of New York.

New York City was home to several large Hoovervilles during the 1930s. Some of the most notable ones were:  “Hoover Valley” on what is now the Great Lawn in Central Park, “Packing Box City” on Houston Street, “Camp Thomas Paine” in Riverside Park at 72nd Street and the Hudson River, and a shantytown in Red Hook, Brooklyn off Columbia Street. Although it is often left out of the popular history, the largest Hooverville in New York was actually in the East Village on the East River between 8th and 10th Streets. This Hooverville was called “Hard Luck Town,” or sometimes “Hardlucksville” or “Hardluck-on-the-River.”

Hard Luck Town was “founded” by Bill Smith, who built the first shack there in May of 1932. By August, Hard Luck Town took up at least two blocks on East 9th and East 10th Streets at the East River. Made up of about 60 shacks, Hard Luck Town was laid out along two “streets” named Jimmy Walker Avenue and Roosevelt Lane after the New York Mayor and the US President. The population of the town was around 450. Hard Luck Town, like most other shantytowns in New York, was inhabited only by men.

Hard Luck Town was well organized. It had a street cleaning department, a commissary, and various other departments “that any real city should have,” according to the New York Times. Bill Smith, the first resident of the shantytown, became the unofficial “Mayor” of Hard Luck Town. “Mayor” Bill Smith appears in a New York Times article from August 3, 1932. Fittingly, the one-room shack that Bill Smith built in May 1932 became the town’s “City Hall”, and by August, Mayor Bill had added on two additional rooms. The shack was built out of scraps of metal from the old Sullivan shipyard, the doors were made of packing cases, and each room was separated by a length of carpet.

Aerial View of Hard Luck Town

Aerial View of Hard Luck Town. Source: Museum of the City of New York.

As organized as Hard Luck Town was physically, it was also organized socially. One part of the town was an Irish settlement and the other part was Polish. Importantly, Mayor Bill emphasized that “no Red talk” (meaning Communist talk) was permitted among the residents.  This strict dismissal of “Red talk” can be seen as a residual effect of the First Red Scare, fueled by immigrants hailing from Southern and Eastern Europe.  However, despite its aversion to Communism, Hard Luck Town functioned in a somewhat socialist capacity, likely stemming from the military practice of taking care of your comrades. Men who found temporary work would share their food with everyone in the town. According to Mayor Bill, the men would “buy stale bread because it’s cheaper, pick up a meaty bone here and there for next to nothing, to make the soup.”

Hard Luck Town was cleared by the city in 1933; they only gave the residents ten days notice.  One resident named “old John Cahill” reacted to the clearance by telling a reporter: “Nobody’s askin’ us where we’re goin’. There’s not a soul thinkin’ about us.”  The poor, immigrant housing in the East Village and the former location of Hard Luck Town would eventually be razed as per Robert Moses’ vision. Interestingly, the site of Hard Luck Town is now home to the Jacob Riis Houses, a public housing project built in 1949.

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Amanda was GVSHP's Director of Preservation & Research from January 2012 to July 2015.