Pittsburgh Strip District Shantytown

Pittsburgh's Strip District Shantytown - 1932

During the Great Depression, starting in 1930, Shantytowns began popping up around Pittsburgh. With the local unemployment rate ranging from 18 to 25%, displaced workers and homeless men began building makeshift homes on vacant property, mostly out of discarded boards, roofing materials, construction debris and whatever other items that could be scavenged and cobbled together into a shack. Soon small villages emerged.

One such Shantytown, the largest in the City of Pittsburgh, existed along Liberty Avenue, in the Strip District. It covered over half a city block near Seventeenth Avenue. Situated on vacant Pennsylvania Railroad property and centered around the St. Patrick's Church, this shantytown, or "Hooverville," grew quickly in size and soon had a population of nearly 300 men, with some women and children. The problem was exacerbated by President Herbert Hoover's refusal to provide unemployed, homeless, poverty stricken families with shelter.

Strip District Shantytown - 1931    Strip District Shantytown - 1931
Brady Stewart photos showing the Strip District Shantytown between Liberty and Penn Avenues in 1931.
Note the lower section of the
Penn Incline in the photo to the right.

One person who did whatever he could to help these people was Father James Renshaw Cox, the former pastor of St. Patrick's Church. He provided daily soup kitchens and worked tirelessly to help alleviate the plight of living in a confined area without fresh water or sewage.

Born in 1886 in Lawrenceville, Father Cox worked his way through Duquesne University driving cabs and as millhand. He attended St. Vincent Senimary in Latrobe and was ordained in 1911. He served from 1917 through 1919 as an Army chaplain during World War I. After returning from France, Father Cox earned a master's degree in economics from the University of Pittsburgh and was appointed pastor of Old St. Patrick's church in 1923.

Father Cox arranged for medical care in the form of an onsite infirmary, the "Shantytown Clinic," maintained by the Allegheny County Medical Society. He also raised funds for improvements and found temporary factory or dock work on a daily basis for some workers to help bring some measure of order to a chaotic environment. There was only one main rule in Shantytown - if you felt sick it was mandatory that you visit the medical shack.

Strip District Shantytown - 1932.    Strip District Shantytown - 1932.
Two pictures that give a glimpse into how life was living in the Strip District Shantytown in 1932.

In time, inhabitants themselves organized their environment in order to get along as best they could. There was a barber, cobbler, seamstresses and even a security force, led by unofficial police chief Mike Morsky, that provided protection for the inhabitants and their spartan belongings. They organized mail delivery, a clothing shop and even laid out a small road network, with St. Patrick's Square in the center. Many inhabitants called the town St. Patricksville.

In September, 1931, the inhabitants unanimously appointed Father Cox as the unofficial "Mayor of Shantyville." Later that year, Father Cox organized the Pennsylvania "March For The Jobless," a peaceful protest demonstration in Washington D.C. to demand action by President Hoover on behalf of the many thousands of unemployed across the country.

Father Cox, the Mayor of Shantytown - September 1931
Father Cox was voted in as the unofficial "Mayor of Shantytown" by the village residents on September 27, 1931.

Strip District Shantytown - 1932.
A shack selling Washing Fluid for 25 cents a bottle, with the proceeds going to Father Cox.

A column of over 1000 vehicles carrying 10,000 or more demonstrators made the drive to the nation's capital in January 1932. Many thousands more arrived by train or by foot. Overall, 25,000 unemployed Pennsylvanians, including the entire population of the Strip District Shantytown, dubbed "Cox's Army," descended upon the capital. Cox hoped that the action would stir Congress to start a public works program to put the men back to work. To date, it was the largest demonstration ever in Washington DC.

Interestingly, President Hoover was so embarrassed by the march that a full-scale investigation was launched against Father Cox. The Republican National Committee wanted to know how Cox managed to acquire enough gasoline to bring so many vehicles such a distance, believing that it had to be a Vatican-funded conspiracy. As it turned out, Father Cox had arranged with Pittsburgh financier Andrew Mellon to have his Gulf Oil stations dispense free gas to the marchers. Incensed, Hoover removed Mellon as his Secretary of the Treasury.

Unemployed during the March For The Jobless - January 1932
Some of Pittsburgh's unemployed workers enroute to Washington DC camping for the evening in Huntingdon PA
fairgrounds during Father Cox's March For The Jobless in January 1932.

Later that year, Father Cox actually ran a brief campaign for President of the United States as a member of the Jobless Party. He traveled around the country spreading his message of hope for the homeless. Eventually, he abandoned the campaign and put his support behind candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who pledged to take action to help the homeless. After the election, President Roosevelt appointed Father Cox to the state recovery board of the National Recovery Administration and he became known nationally as the "Pastor of the Poor."

Back in Pittsburgh, life in the shantytown continued. In April 1932, after a mild winter, work was done to reinforce, repair and paint the home-made houses. Relief activities at St. Patrick also reached new heights, not just in regards to the shantytown, but for residents of the entire Strip District area. Over 3500 needy received food daily (1000 were given baskets of food and 2500 were served hot meals. More than 100,000 meals were served that month alone.

Life in the Strip District Shantytown - April 1932
Father Cox, left, having his hair cut by Shantytown barber Paul Martin. In the center is Peter Monsa, native of Chili,
hanging out his washing, and to the right is cobbler Alec Piecy, a former steel worker, and his cat "Shanty."

The Strip District Shantytown continued as its own form of independent village until 1934, when the city's newly elected Mayor William N. McNair began a crackdown on the local shantytowns. The Mayor offered to pay for relocation of the unemployed to the suburbs to live in a farming commune. The men refused, citing their desire to stay within the city limits.

After much negotiation, the city decided to purchase and renovate the abandoned Ralston Elementary School to be used as a barracks for Father Cox's unemployed workers. Over half of the colonists moved into single room apartments in the former schoolhouse, which contained a common kitchen and dining hall, along with modern plumbing and a few other basic amenities.

The sale of repaired and restored furniture, and clothing, brought in enough funding to make the "Hotel" partially self-supporting. Father Cox worked tirelessly to raise the rest of the funding to make his dream a reality. Other Shantytown residents were relocated to small homes built by the city on vacant lots where they lived rent and tax free until finding a job. It was a step up in the lives of many, but not a solution to the job crisis that still plaqued the region.

Father Cox watches as the Strip District
Shantytown goes up in flames - June 1934.
Father Cox points out landmarks to Reverend John Killgallen as the Strip District Shantytown goes up in flames.

On June 15, 1934, with all inhabitants having removed their belongings from the Strip District Shantytown, the buildings were burned to the ground in a huge bonfire. The shacks were torn down methodically and the wood stacked in neat piles around the area. They were to be torched one by one in a controlled burn. However, once the first pile was lit, the flames spread rapidly from pile to pile. Within a few minutes the entire lot was ablaze.

Fire engines were called to keep the blaze under control when flames shot up over fifty feet in the air. As the unofficial "Mayor" of the village, Father Cox watched the flames consume the remains of the Shantytown, commenting that the only thing amiss was the fact that he wasn't playing a fiddle.

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The Strip District Shantytown was not the only homeless community in Pittsburgh. One of the first was located along the Mount Washington hillside near the Point Bridge. Some of the others were set up on the Northside, along Monument Hill, and at a dump site along Little Saw Mill Run Creek in Banksville, dubbed Tobacco Road (see photos below). Both of these homeless villages were burned to the ground by Police and Firemen in 1937. One of the last shantytowns left standing, located along Nine Mile Run in the Glenwood area, was removed in 1941.

Shantytown along Banksville Road.

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