Old Photos Expose Long-gone Shantytown

By Maggie Pavlick

Dust and smoke-filled air hangs wearily over wooden shacks and soup kitchens. A man shaves his sunken face with old straight razor, watching his reflection in a piece of broken glass while another sweeps the dirt floor and tries to make the thin, fragile wooden structure feel like home. Weathered men huddle around a wooden table and drink lukewarm coffee from dented tin mugs. There are shanties made of burlap, tar paper, and old boards.  There is no sewage, no running water, and no electricity – and there was almost no evidence preserved to mark its existence.

This “shantytown” is the past that Pittsburgh’s Strip District nearly forgot until some snapshots of it were developed over seven decades later.

In the early 1930s, the Great Depression was in full swing.  About 300 of Pittsburgh’s impoverished congregated in the Strip District largely because of Father James Renshaw Cox of St.  Patrick’s Church, who worked to open soup kitchens and shelters for the homeless of Pittsburgh.  Cox was even named Honorary Mayor of the Shantytown in 1931.

A photographer for the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph named Ed Salamony noticed this group of people and created some of the only photographic evidence of the Shantytown that exists today, though the photos were never published. In fact, Salamony never even developed the photos, according to Bruce Klein, Founder of the Photo Antiquities Museum of Photographic History.  Salamony donated the negatives that he shot with his 4×5 Graflex camera to the museum decades after he took them, and they were developed for the first time five or six years ago.

The Shantytown’s existence was important but brief. With no sanitation, garbage and human waste lined the streets. Rats and cholera were rampant, and the poor living conditions did nothing to slow their spread.

In 1931, Cox gathered 25,000 unemployed people, including all the members of the Shantytown, and organized the “March of the Jobless” to draw attention to vast and extreme poverty in the U.S. As soon as Cox and “Cox’s Army” left Pittsburgh, the city officials took it upon themselves to destroy the Shantytown and prevent the unsanitary conditions from igniting an epidemic, according to Klein. It was burned to the ground, erasing the work of the unemployed masses and their kindhearted leader.

Luckily, over 80 years later, Salamony’s images of the steadfast citizens of Shantytown are preserved behind glass on the wooden shelves of the Photo Antiquities Museum on Pittsburgh’s North Side. Their spirit still resonates through these powerful images, and as Pittsburghers look back on their hopeful faces now they can feel a sense of pride in the tenacity and hope expressed by the city’s forgotten neighborhood.