A Haven in Hard Times

Picture of Oakland, CA. skyline.
Oakland, CA.

Oakland’s Pipe City

Oakland Magazine – May 5th, 2011

During the Great Depression, from 1929–39, America’s million or more homeless survived in “Hoovervilles,” flimsy shantytowns of cardboard and wooden crates, often located close to a soup kitchen. But in Oakland, the homeless created something more — a self-reliant community fashioned from a yard full of concrete pipes. 

In September 1932, when one in four Americans were out of work and many suffered from chronic hunger, homeless men in Oakland began camping out in the surplus sewer pipes stored on the grounds of the American Concrete Pipe Company, located at the foot of 19th Avenue. As cold weather approached, word spread quickly and soon all 200 pipes were filled with mattresses and men. “Pipe City” was born. 

Though the human honeycomb down by the water’s edge was Oakland’s last refuge of the destitute, Pipe City defied expectation — it was organized, self-reliant, spunky. A burly, out-of-work construction crew chief, “Dutch” Jensen, served as mayor; Frank Sewell was appointed police chief. Jensen, who negotiated the men’s squatters’ rights with the concrete company, ran Pipe City on three simple rules: no drinking, no slovenliness, no “talking politics.” He organized the community into subsections and sent them out each day to scavenge for food, dropping the day’s harvest into the communal stew at night. Any spare food was kept in a common — and well-guarded — storeroom. Pipe City dwellers didn’t beg and accepted no government assistance. As news of Pipe City spread, however, more fortunate Oaklanders pitched in to help, bringing food, blankets, mattresses, clothing and shoes. On Christmas Day, every man ate a turkey dinner with cranberry sauce. 

Though they were down and out, Pipe City’s residents didn’t seem to see themselves that way: They shared their food, clothing and shelter with even more desperate families who found their way to the spartan shelter during the cold winter months. “You can’t let children go hungry,” Jensen explained to the local press. 

Pipe City was so well-run that it became a sort of self-help model: UC professors brought their sociology classes down to study its organizational structure, and footage of Pipe City began appearing in movie house newsreels across the country. The muckraking writer Upton Sinclair was so inspired by a visit to Pipe City that he wrote a book about it and other shelters entitled, Co-op: A Novel of Living Together.

In a spirit that today’s cash-strapped cities would admire, Pipe City residents voluntarily disbanded their community with the first warm breezes of spring (after cleaning it up first), thankful to the concrete company and the city that had helped them survive a tough winter. 

“We’ll leave everything as we found it,” Jensen said as the day of departure approached. “After that, it’s every man for himself.”

Special thanks to Dorothy Lazard, reference librarian at the Main Library’s Oakland History Room, for her assistance. To find out more about Pipe City, visit the Oakland Museum of California, which has an interactive exhibit that allows visitors to experience life in a pipe. 

Leave a Reply