Trailer Trash?

The rural, white poor is a demographic that has come to light in recent months thanks to our most recent election. The finger of blame was pointed almost entirely at poor whites, the kind the world associates with trailer park living. While the majority of the blame should likely be placed on Trump’s true base – golf-club swinging republicans and their gated communities of god-fearing evangelical racism, it is no doubt that the rural poor very often carry political beliefs that go against their own interests. But some of this, at least, can likely be attributed to their general isolation and lack of community-based programs. In poor urban settings, there is a greater sense of collective responsibility. Due to the construction of urban environments, communities are developed organically. There is a more supportive inter-community network. As a result, it’s quite possible that this line of community-based thought transcends to the voting booth, to the protests and sit-ins and campaigns carried out everyday within urban communities of relatively diverse class.

Trailer parks used to be more community-based too. And when they were, the rural poor were also far more radical. In fact, poor southern whites at one point not only modelled their community based programs on those offered by the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, but also formed a coalition based on class solidarity. West Virginian coal miners who had recently immigrated to Chicago recognized that their struggle was inherently bound to those for racial justice. Although the struggles were different, improving conditions for one group meant improving conditions for the other. And this transcended to the laborers still working in more rural environments. At one point, the midwest and the south were where the vast majority of labor struggles took place. Often, this was because citizens worked and lived side by side.

Of course, the need for shared struggle must have been at least partially recognized as a result of urban design. The coal miners recognized this need after migrating to Chicago – where the cities were a central site of radical communication. And more rural protests also occurred in places in which the design of their towns and workplaces facilitated some level of communication.

But do you know what does not facilitate any sort of communication beyond the very shallow? Super-sized suburban family homes. Beyond talk about the family’s new SUV or disturbingly well-manicured lawns, very little actually transpires. And it is with the rise of suburbs that the trailer parks, once considered respectable and affordable places for families to gather and build communities, became demonized as sites of criminal decay and erosion. And partially, this must be because trailer parks are dangerous to the intentions of the ruling class. Not only do they provide the means through which people can build self-sustaining communities based on the collective good, but when communication and cooperation are actively encouraged, the working class is far more likely to recognize its role as a key player in subverting ruling class politics.

We’re not saying that most working class people live in trailer parks. But we are saying that what was once an attractive working class alternative to the typical suburban American Dream is now primarily associated with people often referred to as “white trash” or “redneck.” If trailer parks could be more recognized for the value that they could serve as community-based living spaces, then the very fabric of the rural poor and working class could potentially change in more radical ways.

Trailer parks strike an interesting balance between the supposed ideal of homeownership and community cohesion. There’s some outdoor space, so people can generally do what they please with that space. Residents can have pets and gardens, a certain sense of independence; however, in their earlier days, trailer parks had community centers. There were parks, places for people to gather. And due to certain space constraints, even though residents can build pseudo-yards, outdoor activity is often done more publicly. There may be a picnic table out front, a grill. But the big backyard, private and family oriented, has evolved into the American ideal of privacy and property. The suburbs have been, based on false and exaggerated crime epidemics, built to keep other people out. Which means community is unable to fully develop, especially amongst people not immediately situated within the homeowner’s inner circle.

A space that simply fulfills a purpose – somewhere to gather, to grow flowers or food, to interact with the people around you – is no longer sufficient. Space needs to act as a status symbol. And, ideally, a status symbol that encourages purely shallow interactions. Large, gated backyards may seem an ideal environment to raise your three kids and two labs, but only if you want them living a life in which conversation involves primarily passive aggressive commentary on your neighbors’ nearly identical yards, kids, and dogs. People gather. But only if they’re invited, in advance, and if they engage in the unspoken promise to talk about nothing more than the PTA and the pastel color they’re painting their house.

Trailer parks allow for a more organic interaction among residents because more of daily life is brought out front. In the same way that city neighborhoods naturally create spaces for residents to meet, in the same way that a system of self-policing has evolved, in the ways that the city spaces grow to meet the needs of their residents, so too can the seemingly “opposite of the city” trailer park. Its structure as community center implies that, if constructed with this ideology in mind and if actively considered a valuable living space, the trailer park can provide a much needed rural and working-class community-based housing center.

It must be noted, of course, that this is a far deeper argument than city versus suburb. Not all neighborhoods encourage this type of interaction among residents. As we have discussed before, the cold and calculated architecture of condominiums actively discourage community participation. It takes one walk around the immaculate upper-east side to notice that everyone hates each other. But walk around a working class urban environment in which fellow residents and community spaces provide for cultural, social, and political needs and it’s difficult not to recognize the roles that cities should play. And to wonder, then, what equivalent rural environments have. And the answer potentially could be the trailer park.

Of course, trailer parks have likely been stigmatized (at least in part) because they do have the potential to provide this community-based model of living. Trailer parks are considered “inadequate” for a variety of reasons: They’ve been racked in recent years by drug addiction, a visual representation of the opiate-induced degradation of small town America. Drugs like methamphetamines and pain killers thrive in this environment likely because those who pursue trailer parks often work higher intensity, more injury prone jobs. And, much like with drug epidemics in the inner cities, residents feel undervalued and alienated – exhausted by long working days and state sanctioned poverty.

But some reasons trailer parks have become stigmatized are simply aesthetic. Suburbs are considered the wholesome and clean family pinnacle, and clutter cannot be tolerated. At least, clutter made known to the public. Trailer parks, because there is less storage space, do have more stuff outside: There’s furniture, kids’ toys, car parts, etc. But look in any suburbanites garage and you’ll see nearly the same set of stuff. The difference is, car culture leads to garage culture and people with three-car garages just have more space to adequately hide their shit.

It seems that what we’re doing is condemning people for the space they don’t have rather than for how they use the space that they do. The suburbs, in contrast to trailer parks, are a lot of wasted space. Take the front lawn for example. It’s useless. It stands as a sort of well-manicured moat upon which only the upper-middle class can tread. And even then, the front lawn is barely touched. The backyard, despite its upper-middle class connotations of private space and private property, at least serves a recreational purpose. The front yard does not.

This front lawn aesthetic is another reason why trailer parks are so harshly condemned: People criticize the parks because of the drug use and perceived degradation, but another reason people harshly criticize them is simply because they’re “tacky.” Colorful lawn ornaments of eclectic origin are often strewn about, embodying an entirely different visual pleasure than the bare and monotonous front lawns of suburban homes. Tasteful has grown to be associated with simplicity. And simplicity is celebrated because diversity of thought is not.

Trailer park residents have suffered in more ways than stigmatization. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 18 million low-income people live in mobile homes, a major source of unsubsidized, affordable housing in the United States. While a lot of residents own their homes, many don’t own the land under them. And when those parks are sold or otherwise closed, residents can be evicted. State laws vary in the protections they offer residents of mobile homes. Most of the time residents are asked to leave with no warning and are forced to relocate their lives. Some of these homes are too old to be moved, so owners are forced to leave their greatest financial asset behind. About 41 percent of all people who live in mobile homes are age 55 and older and, almost one-fifth live in poverty.

Esther Sullivan, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado Denver, conducted an ethnographic study of how mobile home park closures impact residents. Texas and Florida have the greatest number of mobile home residents in the nation; however, the two states differ vastly in their laws that protect mobile home owners. Florida provides residents with relocation resources meant to streamline the process, but the program was clearly not meant to actually help residents, but to further confuse them. The study states, “Florida residents felt increasingly bewildered, helpless, and reliant on the private actors profiting off the disposal, relocation, and reinstallation of their homes.” Texas does not provide relocation aid at all, but places this responsibility on the residents. As a result, countless trailer park residents are displaced from their homes every year, and most are given little to no assistance in how to proceed.

Denver Meadows Mobile Home and RV Park in north Aurora is an example of a trailer park under threat of displacement by developers. Such a community provides a close-knit alternative to the suburbs outside of Denver, but the ever-expanding and increasingly gentrified nature of this particular region has made the property upon which these trailers sit valuable. The current owners of the park say that they want to sell the land so that they can retire, but residents believe that the owners want to sell for profit from developers. In December of 2015, the owner of the park applied to rezone Denver Meadows to allow construction of high-rise apartments, shops, and hotels. Many of the owners own their trailers, but not the land underneath. This split-ownership model amounts to an affordable housing paradox.There are instances where residents recruit the help of nonprofits to purchase the land on the part of the residents. But unfortunately, this has proven futile. The owner of Denver Meadows declined the offer of the residents to purchase the park. Now they must evacuate the area to make room for commercialization.

It’s hugely disappointing that trailer parks are no longer considered a respectable housing option because they have immense potential to provide a community-based solution to rural poverty and alienation. If trailer parks were designed with this in mind, and if the stigma surrounding them could be removed, such spaces could even go so far as to alter rural-America’s political landscape.

Further Reading:

Mobile home parks and eviction: A look at regulations in Texas and Florida

The Denver Metro’s Hunger For Housing Is Squeezing Mobile Home Parks

What happens if the Denver area loses its last mobile home parks?


One thought on “Trailer Trash?

  1. I think they way they are portrayed in media, especially film, has a negative impact as well. Like all labeling and slurs, things are passed from one generation to the next. The truth has no place in the lies people are given…that’s why we’re in the mess we’re in. No one seems to be able to THINK for themselves any longer they just buy into the words coming out of a talking head’s mouth. Nice post.

    Liked by 1 person

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