Hanging Out in the Jungles

Posted by Daniel on Mar 15, 2013

The other evening three young filmmakers came to my house to interview me about the Jungles. They seemed to believe that they were on to a subject that few people knew about and I suppose they are right.

The Jungles was the name ascribed to a number of shanty towns created in Vancouver during the Great Depression by the single, unemployed men who had arrived on the West Coast looking for work. They did not last very long -- a few months, perhaps, in the spring and summer of 1931 -- but they panicked city officials who saw them as breeding grounds for crime, disease and, worst of all, revolution.

Vancouver was a very volatile place during the early 1930s. Jobless men poured into the city by the thousands, attracted by the relatively mild climate and the possibility of finding work. "The Mecca for the Unemployed," is what one official called the city. The streets and parks were the scenes of protest marches and demonstrations by men demanding relief and jobs.

Unable to find or afford housing, hundreds of the newcomers squatted in "hobo jungles" in the railyards in the False Creek flats, underneath the Georgia Viaduct and on the Burrard Inlet waterfront. Shacks were made of scavenged boards, boxes, bricks and crates; rusted out car bodies were a favourite camping spot. The men obtained water from stagnant ponds, foraged for food and begged for handouts. The Reverend Andrew Roddan, minister at First United Church, began a soup kitchen to feed them.

All levels of government worried about the influence of Communist agitators amongst the unemployed. Fortuitously, in September 1931 the city's medical officer reported a possible case of typhoid in one of the Jungles. This was exactly the pretext the city was looking for. Two days later crews moved in and razed the camps, burning some shacks and smashing others into pieces. Most of the men were relocated to government work camps which opened later that fall in the Interior.

Not that this draconian move against the unemployed did much for the problem. Ivan Ackery, for many years the manager of the Orpheum Theatre, recalled in his memoirs that "1932 and 1933 were the blackest years for Vancouver. Beggars went from house to house, looking for meals or handouts. The streets were filled with people just wandering around in despair..."

The Jungles were one response to the economic crisis of the 1930s. At the same time they belong to a tradition of squatting in the city. There were squatter communities in Stanley Park until the Thirties. You could argue that Gassy Jack Deighton, founder of Gastown, was a squatter, as was Sam Greer, pioneer of Kitsilano. (Kits Beach was originally known as Greer's Beach.) A small cluster of floathomes occupied False Creek into the 1950s, and in North Vancouver there were squatters on Maplewood Flats into the 1970s.

The point is that squatting, and the fear of squatters, has a long history in Vancouver.