"Ørkenen Sur" - The Norwegian homeless colony in Brooklyn, New York / Entertainment / The Foreigner

"Ørkenen Sur" - The Norwegian homeless colony in Brooklyn, New York. INTERVIEW: There were many Norwegian sailors living on a garbage dump in the interwar period in New York. These Norwegian seamen's remarkable life in a junkyard in Brooklyn is the virtually unknown story. ‘Hoovervilles’ – homeless camps – arose on the outskirts of cities during the harsh 1920s. The sailors were allowed to stay for 60 days without rights; they were illegal immigrants after that. Ørkenen Sur (The Sour Desert) author Thor Gotaas and historian Roger Kvarsvik, have given those who died young in the slums a voice. Red Hook in Brooklyn’s harbor area was a junk heap of industrial metal where unemployed men lived in barrels, holes in the ground, and sheds.

emigration, norway, us, prohibition, newyork, minnesota, paywall



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"Ørkenen Sur" - The Norwegian homeless colony in Brooklyn, New York

Published on Sunday, 4th January, 2015 at 10:25 under the entertainment category, by Tove Andersson.
Last Updated on 4th January 2015 at 10:50.

INTERVIEW: There were many Norwegian sailors living on a garbage dump in the interwar period in New York. These Norwegian seamen's remarkable life in a junkyard in Brooklyn is the virtually unknown story.

Huts and unemployed people, NY
This photo shows huts and unemployed people in West Houston and Mercer St in Manhattan in 1935Huts and unemployed people, NY
Photo: Berenice Abbott/Wikipedia


‘Hoovervilles’ – homeless camps – arose on the outskirts of cities during the harsh 1920s. The sailors were allowed to stay for 60 days without rights; they were illegal immigrants after that.

Ørkenen Sur (The Sour Desert) author Thor Gotaas and historian Roger Kvarsvik, have given those who died young in the slums a voice. Red Hook in Brooklyn’s harbor area was a junk heap of industrial metal where unemployed men lived in barrels, holes in the ground, and sheds.

It is 1930. Eight men, seven of them Norwegian emigrants, are drunk. They drink methanol; the morning after, none of them are alive. They were buried at Potter’s Field - a mass grave for those without dependents.

All eight men at Potter’s Field had left home filled with dreams of a country of milk and honey. But what they found was death at a homeless camp. This is the result of poverty, as the economy crashed and the men were too embarrassed to return back home.

Red Hook, NY, about 1875
Red Hook, NY, about 1875
LOC Geography+Map Division Washington
What happened occurred during the Prohibition Era. It was a period which saw a ban on alcohol sales due to the Volstead Act, named after a Norwegian decedent from Minnesota. Being low-key about the sale of alcohol was important.

“It was said that one should walk in the middle of the street, because there was a greater chance of being robbed on the sidewalk,” says book author Thor Gotaas.

1937, circa: One of several hundred other Norwegians who went to America was Ernst Olsen from eastern Norway’s Fredrikstad. The S/S Karlander ship’s machinist had warned the boxer and poker player against becoming a ‘desert’ bum - and tuberculosis. Poor nutrition and methanol increased health problems.  Nevertheless, Ernst escaped from the ship, thinking the Norwegian Embassy would help.

Like many, he considered jumping in the river or throwing himself in front of a car. A few centimeters away from suicide, he met a Norwegian on the street. Two dinners at Norway House changed his mind and gave him new courage.

“Ørkenen Sur was a community with a ‘mayor’, Ernst Olsen, who reigned with common sense and two fists," Thor Gotaas explains. He has returned there several times. “Children and grandchildren of those who had experienced the slums, met up dressed in Norwegian cardigans to tell their story.”

Together with his co-author Roger Kvarsvik, he has got hold of diaries, old photographs, newspaper and archive material, as well as interviews with people who remember Ørkenen Sur. 

'Ørkenen Sur' book cover
'Ørkenen Sur' book cover
Spartacus Forlag
“Norwegians are better than others, Gina, born of Norwegian parents in Brooklyn was taught. Norwegians were more orderly regarding laundry, worked more, and were more honest than other nationalities," says Gotaas.

Many hard-working Norwegians and Norwegian-Americans worked in Brooklyn, but the seamen and men who lost their work in the shipping industry got a quite different faith.

Is there anything in your childhood that triggered you to write about sailors?

“On my father's side I have sailors from Northern Norway.” Gotaas has written several books on so-termed traveling people.

The desert was turned into a football stadium in 1938. Today, shoppers go to IKEA there, established on part of the former hooverville.

“[Ørkenen Sur is] an important contribution to our understanding of the diversity of experiences and conditions that characterized the Norwegian immigration to America,” comments Odd S. Lovoll, Professor Emeritus of History at St. Olaf College in Minnesota.

Facts:

  • Thor Gotaas has written over 20 historical books.
  • He is particularly concerned with the outsiders in society.
  • Roger Kvarsvik is a trained teacher with a Master's degree in History.
  • He has conducted extensive research on, and written articles about Norwegian sailors and emigrants in the USA.
  • Kvarvsvik is employed at the Maritime Museum in Bergen.
  • Ørkenen Sur from 2010was reprinted in 2013 by Spartacus Forlag (ISBN: 9788243004931), and is currently only in Norwegian.
  • Those who are familiar with the language can see part of the NRK-transmitted documentary here.


Published on Sunday, 4th January, 2015 at 10:25 under the entertainment category, by Tove Andersson.
Last updated on 4th January 2015 at 10:50.

This post has the following tags: emigration, norway, us, prohibition, newyork, minnesota, paywall.





  
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