Q: ‘What happened in Santa Barbara during the Great Depression?’
— Susan Hahn The horrendous economic slump of the 1930s affected all parts of the United States. Santa Barbara initially attempted to meet the crisis with its own resources, only to find conditions worsening year by year.
Santa Barbara’s first response to the deepening financial crisis was to turn to the resources of charitable agencies and generous individuals. This was in line with the approach President Herbert Hoover urged for communities across the nation. Moreover, Santa Barbara already had in place a tradition of institutional and private philanthropy. In the early stages of the Depression, Santa Barbara came to rely especially heavily upon these sources of relief.
One of these local sources was the Citizens Unemployment Relief Committee, founded in 1930 by four prominent philanthropists who jointly contributed $50,000 to employ some 200 workers in cooperation with the city’s park and street departments. One of the projects undertaken was the cleanup of the old salt pond that today is the Andree Clark Bird Refuge.
As 1930 slipped away, it became apparent that the economic crisis was deepening. Between October and November 1930, the dollar value of construction projects in and around the city dropped an amazing 50 percent. Montecito’s elite estate owners experienced growing financial pressures as the stock market and national production fell. As a consequence, those who worked on these estates were among the first to feel the misfortune of unemployment. Property values plunged; one estate, valued at more than $1 million at the beginning of the 1930s, sold for $35,000 at the end of the decade.
Private sources of relief continued to be mined with diminishing results until early 1932. It became apparent that private resources did not have deep enough pockets to weather the crisis. The rather weak attempts at public relief in the last months of the Hoover administration also proved inadequate to the task. Employment projects offered too few jobs for too short a duration.
The onset of the New Deal in conjunction with the beginning of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency in 1932 began to transform the economic landscape. Santa Barbara benefited from a pair of special allies: Democratic Senator William McAdoo, who lived here part-time, and his close friend, Santa Barbara News-Press publisher Thomas Storke, himself a power on the local political scene. With the influence of these two along with other prominent citizens, Santa Barbara, by the end of the Depression, had garnered some $22 million in federal funding for a variety of projects. These included the County Bowl, Los Baños del Mar, the National Guard Armory, the main post office, and portions of Gibraltar Road, colloquially called Depression Drive for a time. By the latter half of 1938, economic conditions had significantly improved, although, like much of the rest of the country, full recovery would not occur until the onset of World War II.
Certainly Santa Barbara did not suffer as deeply as some other areas of the country, but there had been pain, especially among the lower economic classes. Some venerable institutions had fallen by the wayside, such as the Santa Barbara Girls School, the Santa Barbara School of the Arts, Diehl’s Grocery, and the Santa Barbara Morning Press. By the end of the 1930s, Santa Barbara, as with the rest of the nation, was tied into a new governmental economic network that had developed in response to the Great Depression.