Life

How the Great Depression changed Detroit

Hundreds of job seekers line up outside the post office on Fort Street in November 1934, hoping for temporary jobs over the Christmas season.

On March 4, 1929, Herbert Hoover was inaugurated¬† to the presidency after defeating Al Smith. Seven men were murdered in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago as rival prohibition gangs fought for turf. Hoagy Carmichael was singing “Stardust”; Noel Coward was in his heyday. The dirigible Graf Zeppelin circumnavigated the globe and began regular passenger service.

Detroit produced more than 5,337,000 vehicles in 1929. The city had had a decade of prosperity highlighted by the building of the Penobscot Building and the General Motors and Fisher buildings. The Detroit Zoo opened. The Detroit-Windsor Tunnel opened to autos under the Detroit River and the Ambassador Bridge above. Covered Wagon Co. of Detroit began manufacturing Covered Wagon trailer coaches (mobile homes). Mayor Charles Bowles was recalled by voters and Frank Murphy was elected.

On Tuesday, Oct. 29, the stock market crashed.

ImageAn unemployed Detroiter carries a sign pleading for work, not charity.

By 1930, car production was down to 3,363,000. In Detroit, Prohibition had been in effect for 10 years, but nightclubs thrived and gangs controlled the liquor trade. July was known as Bloody July after 10 were murdered by gangsters and radio commentator and anti-mob gadfly Jerry Buckley was killed in the lobby of the LaSalle Hotel.

Unemployment was becoming a huge problem: on Sept. 25, a list of Detroit registration places for the unemployed was announced. By the end of that day, 19,412 jobless had registered; 46,314 had registered by the 26th; by Sept. 29, just four days after the announcement, 75,704 had registered.

But poverty had not diminished moral rectitude: a man who had accepted a charitable donation of a shirt returned the diamond cufflinks he found in the cuffs.

The Mayor’s Commission on Unemployment came up with the idea of the jobless becoming apple vendors. The idea came from a similar plan in New York City. Veterans and men with dependents were eligible. Apples were bought from Washington State growers directly at the produce terminal and sold for 5c each. Vendors had to pay for the first box, which was under two dollars. Vendors were licensed and had to be Detroiters with at least one year of residence, and were assigned to specific locations. Some 11,000 apples were sold the first day, November 24, 1930, by 150 vendors. Busy corners were rotated so that one man didn’t have the best spot. At one time there were 700 apple vendors, but by 1934, they were on the wane with only 50 older men participating.

By Nov. 29,1930, the Capuchins were feeding 800 per day. The Fisher brothers provided shelter for 2,500 homeless men in the Fisher plant at Fort and 23rd Street. White Tower restaurants served free lunches on Dec. 25.

By 1931, the situation was critical. There were unemployment relief demonstrations in front of City Hall on Jan. 2. Auto production went down to 1,332,000 units. The idled Fisher plant became the City Municipal Lodging House, with heat, lights, showers and meals. But with the despair of joblessness came a corresponding increase in kindness.

Sen. James Couzens donated $200,000 and Louis Mendelsohn $100,000. Rosenberg’s Department store delivered 1,000 food baskets and Hudson’s gave $10,000. As many as 1,600 physicians donated free medical care under the auspices of the Medical Relief Committee. Thrift Gardens were planted in the spring of 1931. Acreage was donated so that families could grow their own food. There were 4,369 gardens the first year and 7,000 by 1933.

Clothing drives were always in progress. They were held by police, churches and schools. The Red Cross sent 1,200,000 yards of fabric here in Sept. 1932. The Red Wings had fans bring clothes to get into the game. Hudson Motor Car Co. cutters cut out fabric for boys shirts.

Image
The unemployed demonstrate outside Detroit City Hall in January 1930.

Country parishes of the Archdiocese of Detroit donated surplus crops to Detroit, which in Jan. 1931 was declared by the U.S. Census to be the hardest hit of 19 cities, with 174,527 able to work and out of a job and 49,041 laid off for an unemployed figure of 223,568. Detroit was followed by Cleveland, Chicago, Buffalo and Philadelphia.

In 1932, some landlords had been allowing families to live rent free for months, counting on a promise by the Welfare Department that they would start to be paid in July. When the department announced in July that no money would be forthcoming, Clark Park was set up as an emergency camp for evicted families. Private citizens and the National Guard donated tents. The women had sewing circles, the children used the playgrounds and the men looked for work. Neighbors who initially opposed the encampment ended up donating food and organizing games for the children.

On March 7, the Ford Hunger March from Detroit was organized by John Schmies, communist candidate for mayor of Detroit, and led by Albert Goetz. Three thousand marched from Detroit to Dearborn asking for union recognition, full employment (Ford had had massive layoffs) and a six hour work day with no reduction in wages. When Dearborn police attempted to stop them at the border, rioting resulted. Four marchers were killed and hundreds were injured. About 15,000 marched in the funeral procession, and 30,000 gathered at the grave to hear the communist workers anthem, ‘The International’ and the funeral march from the 1905 Russian Revolution.

Tax delinquencies caused a fiscal crisis in Detroit. City employee salaries were reduced and welfare was sharply reduced. Nationally, 15,000,000 were unemployed. Doctors gave free care to 4,000 and the Fisher plant, ‘Fisher Lodge’ which had been closed, reopened to homeless men.

On Feb. 14, 1933, Gov. Comstock declared a bank holiday in Michigan. The unemployed couldn’t pay their mortgages, so the banks were taking in no money. They held collateral worth a fraction of its original value. The two biggest were Guardian and First National. Four smaller independent banks were in better shape. Outstate funds helped local corporations cope, but on March 6, two days after his inauguration, President Roosevelt declared a national bank emergency. By March 21, all solvent banks reopened, but Detroit’s two largest were liquidated. Two new banks were founded: Manufacturers and National Bank of Detroit.

Image
Rioters organized by John Schmies, Communist Party candidate for mayor of Detroit, chase Dearborn police up Miller Avenue in a clash that resulted in four deaths.

    Michigan citizens voted to repeal federal prohibition on April 3. On April 27, The city issued scrip to pay employees, and a Michigan sales tax was approved June 1.

On March 31, Roosevelt signed the Civil Conservation Corps into law. On April 19, he took the nation off the gold standard. On April 7, beer and wine were legalized. On Nov. 17, the United States recognized the Soviet government. On Oct. 14, Germany withdrew from the League of Nations. On Dec. 5, Repeal was ratified; it took effect in Michigan Dec. 30.

The Civil Conservation Corps was a government program that was considered a resounding success. Young men lived in camps and did forestry work. Michigan provided many of the workers as well as receiving many of the benefits of the program. The Camps were run by military men, mostly reserve army officers. The first applicants in Michigan were taken April 10, 1933. The age span was 18 to 25, along with some World War I veterans. Participants made $30 a month, with $22 to $25 sent home to their families. Within 16 months, there were 61 camps in Michigan. with 11,725 men. They wore blue denim uniforms and were intiially referred to derogatorily as ‘wood lice’ The men worked during the day under the National Forestry Service or the Michigan Emergency/Conservation Work, and at night were under the control of the military oficers who ran the camps. In the first year in Michigan, they planted 28,000,000 trees and cleared 2,491 miles of truck trails. Eventually, they reduced fire hazards, reduced losses from tree diseases, built 13 lookout houses, 14 lookout towers, cleared 1,000 acres for campgrounds, built 4,000 fire towers, strung 75,000 miles of telephone wire, built 132,000 miles of road, fought fires, dyked flooding river banks and planted 1,800,000,000 trees. They put in 8-hour days and schooling was available. And the program was credited with reducing the prison population, by giving young men something to do and by straightening them out.

In 1934, Prohibition was over and the cult of lawlessness was waning. John Dillinger, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker and Pretty Boy Floyd were all killed by lawmen. Billy Sunday opened his second revival in Detroit.


ImageDetroit’s sports teams provided some diversion in 1935 as the Tigers won the World Series, Lions won the NFL championship and the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup. Here ticker tape litters downtown streets after the Tigers’ victory over the Chicago Cubs.

In 1935, Detroit became the City of Champions: The Tigers won the World Series against the Cubs, the Lions won the NFL championship and the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup. Gar Wood with his racing boats and Olympic track star Eddie “the Midnight Express” Tolan were already champs and Joe Louis was to become the heavyweight champion in 1937.

By the late 1930’s, Hitler had annexed Austria. He was ceded part of Czechoslovakia and invaded the rest. Italy occupied Albania and Ethiopia. As Europe marched toward war, the United States geared up to build the tanks and planes to fight it. Factories began to hire again, and men went back to work and eventually off to war.

Detroit had struggled through the Great Depression with ingenuity, generosity, pride and grit.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News.)