Posts Tagged ‘tramps’

Missing Tramps

One image of the Great Depression was of the tramps, the hobos drifting from town to town. Folk singer Woody Guthrie sang many a lyric on the theme, such as “the highway that’s our home / It’s a never-ending highway / For a dust bowl refugee.” And: “Go to sleep you weary hobo / Let the towns drift slowly by / Can’t you hear the steel rails hummin’ / That’s the hobo’s lullaby.” Also: “By the relief office I seen my people / As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking / Is this land made for you and me?” Steinbeck’s classic Grapes of Wrath(1939; movie directed by John Ford, 1940) was, of course, about a hobo-ing family, the Joads.

Dorothea Lange 1936 LC-DIG-fsa-8b29930

But tramping was not unique to the Great Depression. It typically appeared during every major American depression and financial panic. Millions, mainly men, displaced from economically busted or drought-blasted farms, or laid off at the mills, mines, or major ports, hit the road and rails looking for work.

Now, here we are in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Where are the tramps of the Great Recession?


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Ugly or Needy

Many American cities have faced the quandary of how to deal with panhandlers. (This issue is sometimes confused with the problem of the homeless; some panhandlers are homeless, many are not.) Neighborhood homeowners find their presence an irritant and fear that they depress property values; shop owners suspect that they scare away customers; and tourists who encounter panhandlers in, say, San Francisco’s theater district, swear they won’t come back until the “problem is cleaned up.”

This is not a new problem (although it may have resurged in the last generation or so). This cartoon published in the magazine, Puck, dates from 1879. The character in the left corner, Puck, is complaining to a city official, “If you can’t remove these people from the streets [to the institutions depicted in the background] on the score of Charity, do it for Decency’s sake.”

Puck 1879 LC-USZ62-52594-1

One way that 19th-century Chicago (and other cities) tried to manage the problem was euphemistic. As Adrienne Phelps Coco describes in a recent article, the city passed an “ugly law,” trying to drive unattractive people from the public streets.


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