And a Time for Hope: Americans in the Great Depression

By James R. McGovern | Go to book overview

12

Urban Support Systems

America's population in 1930 had more foreign born than any time in its history; nearly 14 million, more than 10% of the country's population and together with native-born Americans who had one or two parents born abroad, their total was one-third of all Americans in 1940. 1 This large group was concentrated in the cities, constituting more than half the population in twenty of America's large cities. Immigrants and their children made up an estimated 73% of New York's population. 2 Sections of cities were still named Little Italy, Little Hungary, Little Bohemia, or for other nationalities. 3 Polish weddings, Italian festa, German beer gardens, Jewish delicatessens or synagogue centers proclaimed one enclave or another in these cities. And foreign-language newspapers, estimated to be more than 200 in New York alone, testified to the enduring vitality of Old World culture to New World inhabitants. This scene also typified Cleveland, where two-thirds of the population could be classified as ethnic, or Chicago, the city with the largest number of Scandinavians, Poles, Czechs, Serbo-Croatians, and Lithuanians. 4 In Boston, a guidebook to the city stated that a five-minute walk from the statehouse would bring a visitor to sections where English was merely a second language. 5 Altogether, 22 million people, largely with European backgrounds, informed census takers in 1930 that they used a language other than English in their homes. 6

The foreign born and their children who came into their majority beginning in the 1920s were especially hard hit by the Depression that struck relentlessly at manufacturing and construction, two of their prime areas of employment. Rates of unemployment in the great cities in the early years of the Depression were staggering, approaching or exceeding 50%, and the toll was bitterly exacting on very recent Americans, most of whom were

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