Tacoma's Hooverville: Hollywood on the Tideflats

  • By Michael Sullivan
  • Posted 11/17/2022
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22604
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Shack towns and homeless encampments – "Hoovervilles" – multiplied in Washington before and during the Great Depression. In Tacoma, an encampment near the city garbage dump covered a six-block area with makeshift residences primarily built from scrap materials. Several months after Seattle dismantled its Hooverville in 1941, the Tacoma Fire Department burned Tacoma's Hooverville to the ground over three days in May 1942. In this original essay for his Tacoma History website, Michael Sullivan sheds light on the ill-fated encampment, popularly known as "Hollywood on the Tideflats."

A Plunge into Darkness

The winter and spring of 1942 were difficult, costly times for Tacoma. Just when the city seemed to be recovering from the Great Depression, the onset of World War II came like a nearby thunderclap. Fear became the enemy of reason as Tacoma plunged into a period of inexplicable coldness.

As early as the mid-1920s there was a hardscrabble shanty town on the east bank of the Puyallup River on swampy ground between the city dump and the massive Carsten meatpacking plant. The hobo camp was routinely rousted by the Tacoma Police during prohibition, when it was notorious for characters like N. A. Junco, who brewed moonshine from scavenged industrial chemicals like ethyl acetate, wood alcohol, and even doctored gasoline. The cops dubbed it Hollywood on the Tideflats for the colorful cast of characters and theatrical stories that emanated from the place. The name was also a wry nod to the Weaver silent film studio that was built at Titlow Beach in 1925 and the real-estate promotions that labeled the crosstown waterfront colony Hollywood by the Sea. 

By the mid-1930s, during the grimmest days of the Great Depression, Hollywood on the Tideflats spread over several acres with a population of 1,200 people including whole families. It compared in size and population with Seattle’s sprawling "Hooverville" near King Street Station. The days of campfires and canvas hobo encampments were over. Hollywood had grown into a wood frame neighborhood of scrap lumber, sheet-metal roofs, and tar-paper insulation. The most skillfully built shanties were on stilts over a tidal ditch that ran into the Puyallup River and provided an open sewer system. On warm days the adjacent livestock yards and slaughterhouse competed with the nearby city dump to completely overwhelm the olfactory qualities of the Hollywood ditch.

Satko's Ark, Cain's Commitment

Hollywood was one step up from homelessness for unemployed dock workers, mill hands, and landed seamen. Their families mixed with World War I veterans, trade pensioners, and junk pickers who lived off the dump and industrial yards. While not typical, the story of the Satko family – Paul, Mollie, and eight kids – who lived at the edge of Hollywood for more than a year is an example how the closeknit neighborhood operated. Paul Satko had a wild notion of welding together a highway drivable boat frame behind his failing Virginia auto shop and then bringing his family across country to Puget Sound in the amphibious contraption. Once on the Tacoma waterfront, the Satkos' dream was embraced by the residents of Hollywood and together with the community Satko’s ark was planked and made marginally seaworthy. In the spring of 1940 the family set sail for Alaska with most of Hollywood's residents, 20,000 other Tacomans, and the new Mayor, Harry P. Cain wishing them bon voyage. 

Cain was the spark that began drawing attention to Hollywood on the Tideflats in 1940. At only 34 years old, he was eager to dive into Tacoma’s thorniest issues and poverty, homelessness, and desperate living conditions were an obvious place to begin. The city's commissioner form of government compartmentalized municipal functions and jurisdictions, leaving the mayor as mostly a figurehead and spokesperson. The commissioners of public works, public safety, and finance controlled the day-to-day operations and cash flow of the city, and they did not take lightly to the new upstart mayor.

The one department overseen by the mayor was sanitation, including the city dump, and that was where Cain began. He visited Hollywood on the Tideflats, shook hands and gave speeches about the need for better housing, improved public health facilities, and food for poor families. When the public safety commissioner proposed using the police and fire departments to drive out the residents of Hollywood on the Tideflats and then burn down the shanty village, Cain claimed jurisdiction because of the dump. He argued that until better housing could be provided for the residents, taking a scorched-earth approach to eliminating Hollywood was immoral, callous, and cold hearted. During most of 1941, the young mayor was in continual debate with his city council over how to deal with the indigent community and broader issues related to police treatment and roughneck raids at Hollywood and other homeless camps. Cain infuriated the commissioner of public safety with disclosure of police department payoffs from organized crime bosses and downtown underworld figures. He initiated a weekly radio program, and like FDR, Mayor Cain spoke in compassionate fireside tones directly to Tacomans about Tacoma and its issues including public housing. He was winning the effort to protect the people at Hollywood on the Tideflats.

'A Blinding Event'

Then came news over the radio on December 7, 1941, that America was plunging into war and the fighting had started in the Pacific. The Japanese air attack on the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor was a blinding event for people living on the West Coast, and civil defense became a powerful influence on state and local governments. Like the mayors in other West Coast cities, Cain found himself dealing with a presidential order to cooperate with the military removal of all residents of Japanese descent. Unlike all the rest, he spoke openly against the order and met with Eleanor Roosevelt in Tacoma to oppose the internment of more than 110,000 men, women and children, most of them U.S. citizens.

During the first months of 1942, Tacoma was transformed by wartime. Thousands of soldiers passed through Union Station headed for Fort Lewis and thousand more poured into the city to work in the shipyards and wartime industries. Blackouts at night became routine, and Hollywood elected its own Civil Defense wardens to be sure lanterns and shades were used to keep the community lightless. But at City Hall a plan was developing to deal with Hollywood on the Tideflats and its growing population. In April, police squads began notifying residents that they should be prepared to leave for strategic wartime reasons. No date was given.

On Sunday, May 17, civilians were told to stay away from Union Station as the military operation of taking Tacoma’s entire Japantown population into Federal custody was beginning. Over a two-day period more than a thousand Tacoma and Fife residents were loaded on special trains for relocation to Tule Lake in Northern California. The newspapers and Civil Defense authorities portrayed the removal as almost festive, showing armed soldiers acting like porters for the press photographers as they loaded an entire Tacoma neighborhood onto outbound passenger cars. In support of the military action, Tacoma police patrolled the surrounding warehouse district and suddenly empty Japantown.

Just days before the evacuation of Japantown, the Tacoma Waterfront Defense Committee had begun targeting empty buildings and scattered shanties in the greater port area for removal. The Tacoma Fire Department worked with the U.S. Coast Guard to selectively burn or dismantle vacant shacks and abandoned residences with the permission of the owners. While Cain was kept informed, Commissioner of Public Safety Holmes Eastwood was working directly with civil defense committees and military planners assigned to the city from Fort Lewis. The strategic importance of Tacoma’s rapidly expanding wartime industries, shipbuilding facilities, and railroad yards pushed the city toward a state of martial law and a major action to clear the tideflats.

Hollywood Burns

On May 20, two days after the removal of Tacoma’s Japanese community, the Tacoma Fire Department moved on Hollywood on the Tideflats under the direction of the Coast Guard. Commissioner Eastwood had overcome Cain’s concerns about where Hollywood’s residents would go if the shantytown was forcibly destroyed and a dramatic plan moved ahead. The residents were given several warnings about removing any property they wanted and then given a final order to leave on Monday, May 18. Police officers cleared the six-block core of all residents before Coast Guardsmen and Civil Defense volunteers made a last sweep to salvage metal and materials that could be reused for the war effort. Then the firesetters began.

It took three days to burn Hollywood on the Tideflats. More than 50 "substantial" buildings and perhaps 100 shacks and shelters were consumed in the flames as clouds of smoke rose over an area the size of Wright Park. The living conditions in the shabby ghetto were indeed deplorable, and the urgency of preparing the city and industrial area for the dark days of World War II to come were indisputable at the time. But the events of May 1942 will never be seen as a noble time for Tacoma. No record was kept of where the 1,200 to 1,500 residents of Hollywood went.

Following the burning of Hollywood on the Tideflats, Cain and others were quick to push the city toward building decent housing for the flood of new families moving into Tacoma because of the war and for the floating population of people who had no address or roof over their head. After the war, public housing and fair treatment for the homeless became a matter of civic responsibility, and the Tacoma Housing Authority, established in 1940 with Cain’s support, carried on his best hopes for a basic human right to shelter. The work goes on.

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