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Slum Neighborhoods in Los Angeles

Some Peek in the Stacks blog posts are authored by CSUN students who work in Special Collections and Archives in the Oviatt Library. This week's post was written by Will Wyse, a student assistant in the International Guitar Research Archives. Will is a senior majoring in Guitar Performance.

The 1930’s brought a dramatic population growth to California due to poor farming conditions in other parts of the US, and a high demand for migrant workers in California. According to the U.S. Census, the state's population more than doubled from 3.4 million in 1920, to 6.9 million in 1940. In Los Angeles, this influx of migrant laborers was a catalyst for rapid urbanization, and the beginning of what would become a struggle for Los Angeles residents to find adequate living space.

One of the most economically devastating years of the Great Depression, 1938 preceded the swift economic growth brought upon by the United States’ entrance into World War II. This period in our regional history comes to life through M.S. Siegel’s Pictorial Representations of Some Poor Housing Conditions in Los Angeles, a report made by the Los Angeles Bureau of Housing and Sanitation, which depicts the extremely inadequate living conditions of densely populated areas in Los Angeles in 1938. These images reveal the dire living conditions faced by families and individuals whose poverty put them at risk for disease and exposure to the elements.

Common among nearly every living space photographed is the lack of indoor plumbing, which is something that was becoming common even in rural areas at the time. In addition, most of the houses did not have electricity, or the means to heat water indoors. As shown in one photo, communal water heating was used for up to fifty people. Another common aspect is the lack of ventilation in cooking areas. Many kitchens doubled as living quarters, with windows boarded up in efforts to keep homes warm and dry. Many of the dwellings were inhabited by anywhere from 6 to 11 people, and were often in what the health department called ‘slum conditions’. Altogether, these aspects contributed to the poor health of the slum's inhabitants.

Part of the Los Angeles Department of Health Bulletin Collection, Siegel’s, "Report of Slum Conditions," which accompanied the album, states that "…by furnishing low cost public housing to those most deserving we can inaugurate a program of slum demolition and at the same time possibly prevent the creation of new slum areas". In other words, the health department looked to demolish dilapidated housing completely, in order to build homes for tenants who were able to pay rent.

Although this report was compiled to bring attention to the slums of Los Angeles and improve their conditions, the solution that Siegel was proposing may not have been in favor of poor and working class people. Many of the sheds and dilapidated homes were ordered to be left vacant by the health department. However, the people that inhabited these dwellings often had nowhere else to go. This solution brought healthier living conditions to the area, at the cost of those who were most in need. Overall, the images compiled by M.S. Siegel expose what was once a very inadequate and harmful environment inhabited by extremely poor, working class Angelenos. 

Cover, Pictorial Representations of Some Poor Housing Conditions in the City of Los Angeles. Property of Bureau of Housing and Sanitation, M. S. Siegel, Director.
Photograph of a shed located on Victory Boulevard in Van Nuys, one of many structures in the area that was abandoned before being constructed completely.
Photograph of a chicken coop house. "569 S. Central - Old chicken house used for living and sleeping quarters for a family of 3. Recently vacated by the health department. Many old sheds of this type in the neighborhood have been vacated."
Photograph of children at play." 2019 Atlantic- Another big family- 3 adults and 9 children living in congested conditions."
Photograph of cluttered backyards, with clotheslines and poorly made fences drawing the boundaries between neighbors.
Interior photograph of the Johnson home. "Dr. Johnson in his private sanctuary - cluttered from the ceiling to the floor with cans, old bottles, etc."
Photograph of a cluttered room. Typical living quarters with newspaper and magazine articles around the room, and pinned on the walls. Most of the clutter consists of old bottles and other trash.
Photograph of a converted car home. "916 E. 6th Street - Another tenant in the rear of this address. This man has his sedan completely equipped. The seats fold into a bed- gasoline stove, radio and newspapers on his windows to furnish him privacy."
Exterior photograph of cramped living quarters. Small homes built too close together, with clotheslines running along the back porch.
Photograph of the interior of a dilapidated house. "Bedroom of the same house showing the dilapidated condition of the walls."
Photograph of father and children. "Interior view of Stevens’ home showing the faulty condition of the walls and ceiling."
Photograph of makeshift shelters from broken-down trucks. "916 E. 6th Street- An old discarded perambulating lunch wagon remodeled into a home for bums. On the right hand side of the picture is a discarded delivery truck body made over into a room to house a bum. Both doors of these homes were tightly padlocked which prohibited an interior picture."
Photograph of mother and children. "Interior view showing Mrs. Gomez and her children in the living room. Walls in house in a dilapidated condition."
Photograph of outdoor water heating. "Primitive method of heating water for approximately fifty people."
Photograph depicting poor ventilation. "Dilapidated kitchen with wood stove and smoked up walls with holes in them - most of windows boarded up with box wood."
Photograph of a run-down shack. "1112 S. Mathews - Lorenzo Gomez lives here with his wife and 3 children. Another baby is expected in the near future. This view shows the front entrance to this shack in the rear. The doorway is 4’ 6’’ and all floors are below the ground level. No electric lights, bath tubs or sanitary facilities in the house."
Photograph of toilet shed.  This outdoor shed was for community use. Most homes in the city had indoor plumbing at this time.
Photograph of unsanitary living conditions. "Interior view showing the crowded conditions- all windows permitting little or no ventilation because they are boarded up. Cooking and sleeping in an insanitary [sic] condition."

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