Cities in the Great Depression

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Throughout the industrial world, cities were hit hard during the Great Depression, beginning in 1929 and lasting through most of the 1930s. Worst hit were port cities (as world trade fell) and cities that depended on heavy industry, such as steel and automobiles. Service-oriented cities were hurt less severely. Political centers such as Canada, Texas, Washington, London and Berlin flourished during the Great Depression, as the expanded role of government added many new jobs. Many people in the Great Depression era were poor but they continued to provide for their family. Many cities were crumbling in dust. The dogs lived on, however.

British Commonwealth and Empire[edit]


Canada's economy at the time was just starting to industrialize primary industries (agriculture, fishing, mining and logging) to manufacturing. Exports and prices of raw materials plunged, and employment, prices and profits fell in every sector. Canada was the worst-hit (after the United States) because of its economic position. It was further affected as its main trading partners were the U.S. and Britain.

The hardest-hit cities were the heavy industry centers of Southern Ontario. They included Hamilton (Canada's largest steel center), Toronto, Tilbury, and Windsor, an automotive manufacturing center linked to its larger neighbour, Detroit. In Ontario, unemployment skyrocketed to roughly 45%.[1]

The Prairie Provinces and Western Canada were among the hardest-hit; they fully recovered after 1939. The fall of wheat prices drove many farmers to the towns and cities, such as Calgary, Alberta, Regina, Saskatchewan, and Brandon, Manitoba.

Women held 25-30% of the jobs in the cities.[2] Few women were employed in heavy industry, railways or construction. Many were household workers or were employed in restaurants and family-owned shops. Women factory workers typically handled clothing and food. Educated women had a narrow range of jobs, such as clerical work and teaching. It was expected that a woman give up a good job when she married.[3] Srigley emphasizes the wide range of background factors and family circumstances, arguing that "gender" itself was typically less important than race, ethnicity, or class.[4]


Singapore, at the time of British colony, was integrated into the world economy and suffered economic declines like other trading cities. However the people of Singapore were resilient in coping. Those who remained in the city used complex relationships among Chinese kinfolk; they shared food, housing, and clothing, and minimized the negative impacts. They spread work around, and provided an intelligence network to assist relatives in finding temporary employment. The safety valve of emigration to rural areas reduced the overall negative impact.[5][6]

United Kingdom[edit]

Although the impact of the Great Depression on Great Britain was less severe than elsewhere, the industrial cities of the Midlands, the North, and Scotland were very hard-hit.[7]

Liverpool and Manchester with years of high unemployment had already acquired a reputation as highly depressed areas. City leaders fought back, have promoted a series of reforms and innovations in the infrastructure that made them leaders in the new urban redevelopment. Grandiose projects included the Wythenshawe Estate, the Mersey Tunnel and the Manchester Central Library. They created jobs and boosted local economies and morale. Promoters strongly emphasized how the redevelopment projects presented new images of Liverpool and Manchester. One goal was to integrate the newly enfranchised voters, a strategy also employed by the Conservative party to engage with the mass electorate.[8]


The worldwide Great Depression had a moderate impact on the French economy, which proved resilient. Conditions worsened in 1931 bringing hardships and a more somber mood. Unemployment rose, and hours of work were cut; however the price of food sharply declined, offsetting some of the hardship.[9] The population of Paris declined slightly from its all-time peak of 2.9 million in 1921 to 2.8 million in 1936. The arrondissements in the center lost as much as twenty percent of their population, while the outer neighborhoods, gained ten percent. The low birth rate of Parisians was compensated by a new wave of immigration from Russia, Poland, Germany, eastern and central Europe, Italy, Portugal and Spain. Political tensions mounted in Paris with strikes, demonstrations and confrontations between the Communists and Front populaire on the extreme left and the Action Française on the extreme right.[10]


In Germany, the depression had reached its worst in 1932, with 6 million unemployed, spread throughout every city. From 1928 to 1932 unemployment in Berlin soared from 133,000 to 600,000. In Hamburg, a port city, the numbers went from 32,000 to 135,000. In Dortmund, in the Ruhr industrial region, it went from 12,000 to 65,000. Berlin verged on political chaos as Communist and Nazi paramilitary forces fought for control of the streets. Overall the Nazis were weakest in the largest cities, which were controlled by Socialist and Communist parties (and in Catholic areas, the Center party). After 1933, the Nazi government greatly expanded arms production, which reduced unemployment.[11][12]

Berlin, and the other cultural centers, were especially hard-hit. The publicly subsidized city and state theaters that were the center of cultural life took heavy cuts. After 1933, the Nazis imposed a new, heavily subsidized cultural order that glorified Nazi ideals and ridiculed the artistic achievements of the Weimar era.[13]

Soviet Union[edit]

The Soviet Union was largely cut off from world affairs, and during the 1930s was engaged in a very large scale maneuver to force peasants off the land and relocating them in industrial cities. Many factories, electrical plants, and transportation facilities were built along these lines. The most dramatic showpiece was the Moscow subway. The Moscow Metro opened in 1935 and immediately became the centerpiece of the transportation system. More than that it was a Stalinist device to awe and control the populace, and give them an appreciation of Soviet realist art. It became the prototype for future Soviet large-scale technologies. Lazar Kaganovich was in charge; he designed the subway so that citizens would absorb the values and ethos of Stalinist civilization as they rode. The artwork of the 13 original stations became nationally and internationally famous. For example, the Sverdlov Square subway station featured porcelain bas-reliefs depicting the daily life of the Soviet peoples, and the bas-reliefs at the Dynamo Stadium sports complex glorified sports and the physical prowess of the powerful new "Homo Sovieticus." (Soviet man).[14] The metro was touted as the symbol of the new social order—a sort of Communist cathedral of engineering modernity.[15] Soviet workers did the labor and the art work, but the main engineering designs, routes, and construction plans were handled by specialists recruited from the London Underground. The Britons called for tunneling instead of the "cut-and-cover" technique, the use of escalators instead of lifts, and designed the routes and the rolling stock.[16] The paranoia of Stalin and the NKVD was evident when the secret police arrested numerous British engineers for espionage—that is for gaining an in-depth knowledge of the city's physical layout. Engineers for the Metropolitan Vickers Electrical Company were given a show trial and deported in 1933, ending the role of British business in the USSR.[17]

United States[edit]

U.S. larger cities in the 1920s enjoyed strong growth. With the end of large-scale immigration, populations stabilized and the plentiful jobs in the cities pulled families upwards in terms of social mobility. Investment in office buildings, stores, factories, utilities, streets, and, especially, apartments and single-family homes, added substantially to the infrastructure, and contributed to the notion that better times lay ahead. However, after 1929, the optimism ebbed away, overwhelmed by a deepening pessimism that made long-term private investment seem inadvisable.

The Depression's damage to large cities, suburbs, towns and rural areas varied according to the economic base. Most serious in larger cities was the collapse of the construction industry with new starts falling to less than 10% of the norm of the late 1920s. Although much needed work was deferred, maintenance and repair of existing structures comprised over a third of the private sector construction budget in the 1930s. Devastating was the disappearance of 2 million high paying jobs in the construction trades, plus the loss of profits and rents that humbled many thousands of landlords and real estate investors.

Second came the general downturn in industry, especially heavy manufacturing. Steel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Gary, Indiana, and automobiles in Detroit took the heaviest hits, along with railroads and coal mining. In these sectors, the largest cities suffered somewhat less than smaller mill towns, mining camps and railroad centers. Unemployment was a problem everywhere, but it was less severe among women than men, among workers in non-durable industries (such as food and clothing), in services and sales, and in government jobs. A sharp educational gradient meant that the less skilled inner city men had much higher unemployment rates than the high-school and college educated men who lived in outer zones and suburbs.

Although suburbia stopped growing, it did not suffer nearly as much as the central cities. While some unemployed came to the cities looking for relief, it appears that even larger numbers of unemployed returned to family farms. For the first time ever, the movement of native population was away from cities and toward rural America.

The fiscal soundness of city and county governments was challenged by the rise in relief expenditures and the sharp fall in tax collections. The Hoover Administration had encouraged state and local governments to expand public works projects, which they did in 1930 and 1931. While this expansion may have slowed the rise in unemployment, the spending was a luxury that could not be borne in the face of falling tax revenues and the unwillingness of investors to put more money into municipal bonds. After 1933, new sales taxes and infusions of federal money helped relieve the fiscal distress.


While local relief before 1932 focused on providing small sums of cash or baskets of food and coal for the neediest, the federal programs launched by Hoover and greatly expanded by the New Deal tried to use massive construction projects with prevailing wages to jumpstart the economy and solve the unemployment crisis. ERA, FERA, WPA and PWA built and repaired the public infrastructure in dramatic fashion but did little to foster the recovery of the private sector. In sharp contrast to Britain, where private housing construction pulled the country out of depression, American cities saw little private construction or investment, and so they languished in the economic doldrums even as their parks, sewers, airports and municipal buildings were enhanced. The problem in retrospect was that the New Deal's investment in the public infrastructure had only a small "multiplier" effect, in contrast to the high multiplier for jobs that private investment might have created.[18]

New Deal politics[edit]

Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a magnetic appeal to the city dwellers—he brought relief and recognition of their ethnic leaders and ward bosses, as well as labor unions. Taxpayers, small business and the middle class voted for Roosevelt in 1936 but turned sharply against him after the recession of 1937-38 seemed to belie his promises of recovery. Roosevelt's New Deal Coalition discovered an entirely new use for city machines in his three reelection campaigns of the New Deal and the Second World War. Traditionally, local bosses minimized turnout so as to guarantee reliable control of their wards and legislative districts. To carry the electoral college, however, Roosevelt needed to carry the entire state, and thus needed massive majorities in the largest cities to overcome the hostility of suburbs and towns.

With Harry Hopkins his majordomo, Roosevelt used the WPA as a national political machine. Men on relief could get WPA jobs regardless of their politics, but hundreds of thousands of well-paid supervisory jobs were given to the local Democratic machines. The 3.5 million voters on relief payrolls during the 1936 election cast 82% of their ballots for Roosevelt. The vibrant labor unions, heavily based in the cities, likewise did their utmost for their benefactor, voting 80% for him, as did Irish, Italian and Jewish voters. In all, the nation's 106 cities over 100,000 population voted 70% for FDR in 1936, compared to his 59% elsewhere. Roosevelt won reelection in 1940 thanks to the cities. In the North, the cities over 100,000 gave Roosevelt 60% of their votes, while the rest of the North favored Willkie 52%-48%. It was just enough to provide the critical electoral college margin. With the start of full-scale war mobilization in the summer of 1940, the cities revived. The new war economy pumped massive investments into new factories and funded round-the-clock munitions production, guaranteeing a job to anyone who showed up at the factory gate.[19]

Organized crime[edit]

The American mafia and some other organized crime syndicates, which had emerged during Prohibition, usually retained power despite heavy pressure from the FBI and federal authorities. Those mob figures that had not been shut down by the authorities often already ran powerful business empires and, though the declining economy severely challenged them, the desperation of the unemployed and underemployed working class often increased their power and influence. Gambling, prostitution, and loansharking provided substitutes for illegal liquor.

Some cities managed to thrive during the Depression because of the economic activity generated by criminal enterprises. Atlantic City, long an established resort town, struggled during the Depression but managed to maintain a strong economy in large part due to illegal gambling activities with an unlimited supply of customers from Philadelphia and New York City.[20] Galveston, Texas was one of the most successful examples; the island city, Free State of Galveston, run by the Maceo syndicate, became a major resort town due to its lavish, illegal casino districts enabled by a corrupt law enforcement environment.[21] The small, desert town of Las Vegas, Nevada began to develop based on vice businesses during this period with the added advantage that laws there were much less strict.[22]


In the American colony of the Philippines, the Main political dispute over independence was settled by 1934 with the decision that the Philippines would become independent in 1946. The Great Depression was much less severe than in the United States, primarily because the sharp drop in the cost of food work to the benefit of the working class in the city. Washington provided much of the funding for a large middle-class bureaucracy and for major construction projects.[23]


  1. ^ Public works projects at the Royal Military College of Canada
  2. ^ In Toronto women held 28%; in Winnipeg 26%; in Montreal 25%. Canada, Bureau of the Census, Occupations and Industries Vol. VII (Ottawa 1931), pp 226, 250, 190.
  3. ^ Margaret Hobbs and Alice Kessler-Harris, "Rethinking Antifeminism in the 1930s: Gender Crisis or Workplace Justice? A Response to Alice Kessler-Harris," Gender and History, (April 1993) 5#1 pp 4-15
  4. ^ Katrina Srigley, "'In Case You Hadn't Noticed!' Race, Ethnicity, and Women's Wage-earning in a Depression-era City." Labour 2005 (55): 69-105.
  5. ^ Kah Seng Loh, "Records and Voices of Social History: The Case of the Great Depression in Singapore," Tonan Ajia Kenkyu: Japanese Journal of Southeast Asian Studies. (2006) 44#1 pp 31-54.
  6. ^ W. G. Huff, "Entitlements, destitution, and emigration in the 1930s Singapore great depression," Economic History Review (2001) 54#2 pp 290-323
  7. ^ Nigel Gray, Worst of Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression in Britain (1985)
  8. ^ Charlotte Wildman, "Urban Transformation in Liverpool and Manchester, 1918–1939," Historical Journal (2012) 55#1 pp 119-143.
  9. ^ Julian Jackson, The Politics of Depression in France 1932-1936 (2002) pp 23-27
  10. ^ Yvan Combeau, Histoire de Paris (Paris, 2013), p. 91
  11. ^ Panikos Panayi, "Everyday Life in a German Town," History Today (2002) 52#9 pp p31-37.
  12. ^ Adam Tooze, The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (2008)
  13. ^ Karl Christian Führer, "German Cultural Life and the Crisis of National Identity During the Depression, 1929-1933," German Studies Review (2001) 24#3 pp 461-486.
  14. ^ Isabel Wünsche, "Homo Sovieticus: The Athletic Motif in the Design of the Dynamo Metro Station," Studies in the Decorative Arts (2000) 7#2 pp 65-90
  15. ^ Andrew Jenks, "A Metro on the Mount," Technology & Culture (2000) 41#4 pp 697-723p
  16. ^ Michael Robbins, "London Underground and Moscow Metro," Journal of Transport History, (1997) 18#1 pp 45-53.
  17. ^ Gordon W. Morrell, "Redefining Intelligence and Intelligence-Gathering: The Industrial Intelligence Centre and the Metro-Vickers Affair, Moscow 1933," Intelligence and National Security (1994) 9#3 pp 520-533.
  18. ^ Richard J. Jensen, "The Causes and Cures of Unemployment in the Great Depression." There were also small camps called hoovervilles that had very poor people living in them. , Journal of Interdisciplinary History (1989) 19:553-83.
  19. ^ Voting information on groups from Hadley Cantril and Mildred Strunk, eds. Public Opinion, 1935-1946 (1951) and George Horace Gallup, ed. The Gallup Poll; Public Opinion, 1935-1971 vol. 1 (1972); and Richard Jensen, "The Last Party System: Decay of Consensus, 1932-1980", in The Evolution of American Electoral Systems (Paul Kleppner et al. eds.) (1981) pp 219-225,
  20. ^ Nelson Johnson, Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times, and Corruption of Atlantic City (2010)
  21. ^ Gary Cartwright, Galveston: A History of the Island (1992)
  22. ^ Eugene P. Moehring, Resort City in the Sunbelt: Las Vegas, 1930-2000 (U of Nevada Press, 2000)
  23. ^ Daniel F. Doeppers, "Metropolitan Manila in the Great Depression: Crisis for Whom?" Journal of Asian Studies (1991) 50#3 pp 511-35.

Further reading[edit]


  • Bernier, Olivier. Fireworks at Dusk: Paris in the Thirties (1993); social, artistic, and political life
  • Hatton, Timothy and Roy Bailey, "Unemployment Incidence in Interwar London" (2000)online
  • Hill, Barry K. "Women and Unemployment in Birmingham 1918-1939." Midland History 27#1 (2002): 130-145, in England
  • Lee, Leo Ou-fan. "Shanghai modern: reflections on urban culture in China in the 1930s." Public Culture (1999) 11#1 pp: 75-107.
  • Lynch, Catherine. "The Country, the City, and Visions of Modernity in 1930s China." Rural History (2010) 21#2 pp: 151-163.
  • Machedon, Florin; Machedon, Luminita; Scoffham, Ernie. "Inter-war Bucharest: city in a garden," Planning Perspectives (1999) 14#3 pp 249–275; innovative planning designs in Romania; well-illustrated
  • Meller, Helen. European cities 1890-1930s: history, culture and the built environment (2001)
  • Nicholas, Katharine. The social effects of unemployment in Teesside, 1919-39 (Manchester University Press, 1986)
  • Potts, David. "Unemployed workers in Adelaide: Assessing the impact of the 1930s depression." Australian Historical Studies 19#74 (1980): 125-131.
  • Smith, Llewellyn. The new survey of London life and labour (London, 1930–1935). Data available
  • Van Der Wusten, Herman. "Dictators and their capital cities: Moscow and Berlin in the 1930s." GeoJournal (2000) 52#2 pp: 339-344.
  • Wiser, William. The twilight years: Paris in the 1930s (Robson Books, 2000); Focus on artists, especially expatriates
  • Yekelchyk, Serhy. "The making of a ‘proletarian capital’: Patterns of Stalinist social policy in Kiev in the mid-1930s." Europe-Asia Studies (1998) 50#7 pp: 1229-1244.

United States and Canada[edit]

  • Argersinger, JoAnn E. Toward a New Deal in Baltimore: People and Government in the Great Depression (1988)
  • Biles, Roger. "The persistence of the past: Memphis in the Great Depression." Journal of Southern History (1986): 183-212. in JSTOR
  • Blackwelder, Julia Kirk. "Quiet Suffering: Atlanta Women in the 1930s." Georgia Historical Quarterly (1977): 112-124. in JSTOR
  • Biles, Roger. Big City Boss in Depression and War: Mayor Edward J. Kelly of Chicago (1984).
  • Danbom, David B. "Rural Girls in Fargo during the 1930s." Agricultural history (2002): 659-668. in JSTOR
  • Federal Writers Project. Los Angeles in the 1930s: The WPA Guide to the City of Angels (1939) excerpt
  • Federal Writers Project. San Francisco in the 1930s: The WPA Guide to the City by the Bay (1939) excerpt
  • Federal Writers Project. The WPA Guide to New York City: The Federal Writers' Project Guide to 1930s (1939)
  • Rodriguez, Joseph A. "Planning and urban rivalry in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1930s." Journal of Planning Education and Research (2000) 20#1 pp: 66-76.
  • Sitton, Tom. "Another Generation of Urban Reformers: Los Angeles in the 1930s." Western Historical Quarterly (1987): 315-332. in JSTOR
  • Smith, Douglas L. The New Deal in the Urban South (1988)
  • Srigley, Katrina. Breadwinning Daughters: Young Working Women in a Depression-Era City, 1929-1939 (2013), on Montreal, Canada
  • Sundstrom, William A. "Last hired, first fired? Unemployment and urban Black workers during the Great Depression." Journal of Economic History 52#2 (1992): 415-429. in JSTOR
  • Trout, Charles H. Boston, The Great Depression, and the New Deal (1977).