“We must eat. We need clothes and shelter,” stated a 1931 flyer urging Seattle’s unemployed to march on city hall. Suffering was acute among the jobless and their families in the Depression years before the New Deal, but Seattle’s unemployed responded with collaboration and resourcefulness.
When former lumberjack Jesse Jackson and other unemployed men began building shelters on empty land in Seattle’s port, they laid the social foundations for Hooverville, a nine-acre shantytown that would house 1,200 at a time and many thousands more who passed through. With Jackson as their unofficial mayor, the self-reliant Hoovervillians recycled and reused, governed themselves, and elected a multiethnic board of residents to negotiate with the city.
Neighbors met in a West Seattle community clubhouse in 1931 to start the Unemployed Citizens League, a mutual aid cooperative that spread to branches from North Ballard to Georgetown. UCL members harvested and preserved great quantities of food, borrowed land and planted gardens, hauled wood for fuel, and opened commissaries. Part of the national movement pushing for relief and employment programs, the UCL set an example for other cities and a high bar for Seattle’s municipal aid distribution that followed.