Shantytown, USA: Forgotten Landscapes of the Working Poor by Lisa Goff (review)
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Shantytown, USA: Forgotten Landscapes of the Working Poor. By Lisa Goff. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016. Pp. xiv, 305. $35.00 cloth)

From the Bonus Army’s encampment to Resurrection City to Occupy Wall Street, Americans have frequently turned to ad hoc settlements to make plain the limits of the American dream. Yet, as Lisa Goff demonstrates, these moments easily obscure the more complex history of the shantytowns that dotted the nation’s landscape into the twentieth century. Shantytown, USA: Forgotten Landscapes of the Working Poor celebrates the working-class homeowners who pieced together their own version of the American dream on the margins of urban America. This achievement drew the gaze of middle-class Americans who simultaneously celebrated shantytowns as part of the American frontier past and wrung their hands at the persistence of shantytowns in an industrialized nation. The very persistence of these places thus allowed commentators to label shanty dwellers lazy and dangerous while grudgingly recognizing their embodiment of the frontier values of thrift and industry. Goff traces the playing out of this logic through municipal government’s attempts to force squatter settlements onto the grid—into the system of state legibility—and therefore into the real-estate market, where they would be developed.

Shantytown, USA is at its best when unraveling the class-encoded rhetoric surrounding these vernacular landscapes. Goff rightly celebrates the shantytown as an authentic working-class landscape that “resonates with values of hospitality, autonomy, adaptation, and reinvention,” even as she admits the “bitter inter-ethnic and intra-class conflicts among poor urban laborers” that they often housed (p. xiii). She does a masterful job at coaxing the shantytown from the historical shadows and restoring it to turn-of-the-century urban history. In the process, she interprets a wide array of evidence including sketches, photographs, theater, and literature alongside municipal and legal records. Her opening chapter is an especially well-crafted revisiting of Thoreau’s dwelling at Walden Pond. “At Walden,” she explains, “Thoreau built a shanty. In Walden, he persuades readers that it was [End Page 298] a house” (p. 3).

For all of its achievements, however, Shantytown, USA does not live up to its title. Chapters on Thoreau, James Fenimore Cooper, southern “Darktowns,” and Hoovervilles are not enough to nationalize what is otherwise a story of Manhattan and Brooklyn. The issue here is not so much the ease with which New York City stands in for urban America. Rather, it is troubling how quickly the author pivots to southern cities to find examples of racially segregated shantytowns rather than remaining in a city that was no stranger to racialized violence and residential segregation. While that chapter’s integration of Atlanta and Washington, D.C., was likely intended to nationalize the story, doing so implicitly removes New York City from Goff’s discussions of racially defined landscapes of poverty.

Goff makes a strong case for restoring the shanty to the forefront of our historical consciousness. Perhaps her most important argument is that the shantytown represents “a decentralized, self-built, market-based” alternative to the tenements and public-housing projects that failed so many of the working poor in American cities (p. 249). Urban shantytowns, in other words, cultivated the resourcefulness, independence, creativity, and self-reliance of the working poor in a way that undermines the images of victimized, tenemented wretches captured in the photography of Jacob Riis. Yet, as Goff tantalizingly suggests in her epilogue, municipal reform, development, and federally funded urban renewal each failed to destroy the shantytown. They merely pushed it outside the city limits. One only needs to drive around the backcountry roads an hour outside any major metropolitan area to find the modern heirs to shantytown. They live in patched-up double-wide trailers, set in a yard full of rusted-out lawnmowers, a scattering of power tools, and broken children’s toys laying in the long grass under a large trampoline. It is only fitting, after all, that a suburban nation should have decentralized, exurban shantytowns to once again draw the ire of their middle-class neighbors. [End Page 299]

Andrew C. Baker

ANDREW C. BAKER teaches modern U.S...