THEN : Hooverville--Refuge for L.A.’s Homeless in Depression Years

Times Staff Writer

“For years we were so embarrassed we never talked about it outside the family,” Ellen Osterbauer recalled.

The childhood memories came back last week as she read stories about Mayor Tom Bradley’s plan to temporarily settle the area’s homeless in an “urban campground.”

During the Depression, Osterbauer--then 3 years old--and her destitute family lived for five months in a shantytown that lacked toilet facilities and electricity near Watts. The settlement, called Hooverville (or Hoover City) by the inhabitants because many blamed President Herbert Hoover for their woes, numbered about 700 at its peak, according to newspaper reports of the time.


Unlike the urban campground concept, Hooverville was founded by the homeless on a five-acre vacant lot near Firestone Boulevard and Alameda Street, one of several such Depression-era shantytowns that sprouted up around the country. (The most famous was the encampment of World War I veterans in Washington.)

Los Angeles’ Hooverville survived for more than a year until it was torn down by the county in 1932 for health reasons.

“I hear people say these days, ‘Why don’t they (the homeless) get a job?’ ” said Osterbauer, a volunteer drug and alcohol counselor. “Well, it’s important for people to know that the homeless don’t enjoy being homeless. You can’t always know someone else’s circumstances.”

Osterbauer, 58, sat in her house in Downey with her mother, Wilda McRae, 78, who spoke of the lessons that Hooverville taught her.

“One thing I learned was that you can get along with very little if you have love,” McRae said.

Jerry and Wilda McRae had begun the year 1931 picking tomatoes in Utah. But when the crop froze, they packed up their only child and came to Los Angeles with three other relatives.


Unable to find work, they moved into the shantytown, now part of an industrial area in unincorporated county territory. It was the day after Christmas, 1931.

‘Rained Hard That Winter’

“People lived in cardboard houses, tar paper houses, old trucks, buses and tents,” McRae said. “And it rained hard that winter so they got pretty wet. We had a wooden house because my husband found some wood at a house that was being torn down somewhere else in the city. We had the only wooden floor, too.”

Their dwelling was known as the Hospital, not because they treated the ill but because one of the boards that Jerry McRae had found bore that word. Hospital served as a handy address in the absence of house numbers.

They possessed a stove of sorts, fashioned by Jerry out of an old automobile gasoline tank that he found in a dump.

“Mom would bake pancakes all day for others,” Osterbauer said. “Everyone shared with everyone else. I read where some of the homeless talk today about the camaraderie they’ve developed in their camps. It was that way in ours too.”

Some experiences were so frustrating that the campers could not help but laugh--like the time someone shot an old duck that, no matter how many times it was boiled, remained too tough to eat.


Oral History

Most of the friends that the McRae family made at Hooverville have died. However, some of their memories survive in the tapes of interviews that Osterbauer made in 1973 when she compiled an oral history of the settlement as a college project.

Sylvia Bramsletter, a Hooverville neighbor, recalled in one interview how she dreaded the gawkers who were drawn to the settlement.

“I would always take my children in the house and hide,” Bramsletter said. She also spoke of her Christmas at Hooverville when she was unable to afford gifts for her three children. Neighbors left some toys anonymously.

Another friend, Bill Steppic, recalled the kindness of nearby Japanese farmers who took “groups of (Hooverville) boys out in the fields to work and hoe the gardens” and gave them vegetables in exchange.

Others provided meals, including the Salvation Army and evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. A local gas station permitted use of a faucet.

McRae and her husband, Jerry, who died in 1973, eventually found jobs--she as a welder, he as a maintenance man. They bought a house and achieved economic respectability. Fifty-five years after leaving the wooden shack, time has dulled the pain for Wilda McRae. She would prefer to talk about her 23 great-grandchildren.


“My husband used to say Hooverville was no picnic, but we had to make the best of it,” McRae said, “and we did.”