In the early 1920s, the international freight trade collapsed leaving as many as 1,000 Norwegian seamen unemployed and unable to get back home. With little to no income many of them made shelters on a large area of landfill and rubble just north of Erie Basin.
In 1918 New York City’s Department of Transportation had bought the area and knocked down the buildings that were there with the intention of building a switching yard for the trains moving cargo along the waterfront. The plan was then dropped, and soon the remains of buildings were joined by discarded furniture, building materials and other large objects dumped there. For the homeless Norwegians this place provided both a space and materials to construct shacks to live in. Economic conditions improved, briefly, in after 1922 and many moved out but the population swelled even larger following the Depression of 1929. This time the Norwegians were joined by Puerto Ricans who found themselves in similar straits.
One of the early names for the makeshift settlement was “smoke castles,” notes Norwegian scholar Roger Kvarsvik. This was presumably for the dangerous, and equally makeshift drink made of wood alcohol, sugar and water popular there. The drink when mixed had a smoky look, but while cheap was sometimes lethal.
The area was christened Ørkenen Sur in 1926. Meaning ‘bitter desert’ or ‘barren wilderness’ in Norwegian, the name was reference to such a land mentioned in the book of Exodus. It was all called, among other names, Tin Can Hill, Hoover City and simply shanty town. With over 700 people living in Ørkenen Sur the place, reports Kvarsvik, had its own hairdressers, artisans and even its own meeting hall and “mayor.” People survived by bartering, taking odd jobs and through food and charity from the several religious aid organizations.
The end to Ørkenen Sur began in September 1934, when the city began to convert much of the land into a park.
It is estimated that during its existence between 30-40 Norwegians died there chiefly from tuberculosis, pneumonia and alcohol poisoning. Still despite all its problems, lack of proper sanitation not the least of them, many of the shacks were well made and tended made by desperate by proud men.