Trailer Parks

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Trailer Parks

Any film or television program refers to certain "stock" devices to create a chosen visual and emotional environment. A frequent image in modern culture is a tightly-packed row of homes, similar in style and each with a tiny fragment of land, which serves for parking, storage, recreation, gardening, and decoration. The homes follow the model of the tight suburb, but they are not American ranch houses. This image is dominated by rectangular trailers, most of which have removed wheels or at least concealed them with a trelice covering. During its history, the trailer, or mobile home, has been viewed as progressive, adventurous, and, finally, as the opposite of these American ideals. Today, when a director or producer incorporates the trailer park into a visual narrative, she seeks most often to depict Americans locked in—spiritually and physically—to a lower economic class by social strictures. Some call the trailer park America's modern tenement; yet, the trailer park's existence also suggests one of the nation's most democratic achievements—home ownership available to all classes.

The enlightened thought of Thomas Jefferson helped to make personal home ownership an American ideal. As they configured capitalist thought, economic philosophers/visionaries Adam Smith and Thomas Hobbes incorporated property value into the scheme by making personal land ownership possible within enlightened societies at the end of the 1700s. The owner could then increase the value by "improving" the property so that it would be sold for a higher price. This philosophy made up the foundation for Jefferson's dream of an agrarian republic, full of small property owners who each tended (and improved) his own land. The American housing ideal has not ventured too far from these foundations over 200 years of development. Urban growth has provided alternative models—such as apartments and condos—but the ideal of the vast majority of Americans is to own their own home. Rising home prices after 1950 forced developers to construct a new version of this ideal that would involve classes previously unable to own their own property. The effort to appeal to lower and lower-middle class American urges for home ownership bred the trailer park.

The trailer grew out of Americans' early-twentieth-century impulse to travel the nation by automobile. The trailer-camper allowed complete freedom to pull over at any time and enjoy the comforts of home. This travel filled an important void when services were few, and allowed many Americans to reject the rapidity and regiment of train travel for the slow, wandering travel of the open road. Prior to the spread of hotels and following the proliferation of automobile ownership, roadside camping offered the most reliable form of comfort during travel. An autocamper's outfit was an instant hotel to which one had to add only water. "Just back off the main road," instructs one guide, "in a little grove of white birches on the bank of a noisy brook, which will furnish water and perchance fish enough to fill the breakfast frying pan!" While tents remained the most popular implement for car camping, the trailer grew in popularity from 1920 to 1950. By tent or trailer, car camping spread from fad to institution during this era, giving form to the autocamp: an open site in which campers pooled together. A unique culture rapidly grew out of such sites, particularly the male effort to assess and rate others' camping equipment and technology. Not dissimilar from the shared space of the modern trailer park, campers interacted with others whenever they left the cover of their tent or trailer. In the autocamps, the travelers discussed other sites, the road, and equipment. Out of such ingenuity, the "gypsy-trailer form" began standardized manufacture after 1920.

Cabin camping also grew in popularity during the inter-war years; by 1935, however, the nation was most enthused with the evolving trailer technology. Between 1935 and 1937, popular articles included "Back to the Covered Wagon," "Nation of Nomads," "Tin-Canners," "Nomads of the Road," "Home of the Free," and many other related topics. Futurists even began to predict that every American would soon live permanently in a cheap trailer. Their thinking revolved around the common sense of such mobility as well as the Depression-era thoughts of limiting waste. The trailer, after all, offered Americans the fulfillment of their most basic needs of shelter and safety, with few unnecessary frills. Modernist thinkers rallied around this model as the wave for the standardized future—the geodesic dome with wheels. Such thinkers, however, overlooked Americans' unique cultural preferences. Americans who could still afford nicer homes would want them. But the trailer offered possibilities for those of lesser means. As developers created standardized suburbs for the middle and upper-middle class from 1950 to 1980, the same drive for conformity and ownership fueled the construction of the first trailer parks. Now, of course, the sites were not for transients who would take their trailer and leave in the morning; they were not, however, intended as end homes. The mobility behind the trailer park was economic: developers assumed young families would use them as a temporary home while saving for their suburban dream home.

Used originally as temporary housing, trailer parks became noticeable to most Americans after World War II, when they were clustered around Army posts and construction sites. Today, mobile home parks are not temporary aberrations on the landscape. More than 13 million Americans, most of them from young blue-collar families, call trailers their temporary homes. Few Americans or architectural historians are willing to consider such mobile homes dwellings. Critics stress that the trailer is not architecture; instead, it is an industrial product, mass-produced, low-cost, and disposable. Bypassing craftsmen, the trailer comes out of a midwestern factory by truck almost ready for occupancy. The attraction, of course, is the low cost of the trailer, compared even to the smallest house. Standardized suburban homes, such as the bungalow, have achieved dwelling status; but the mobile home remains without a place in our architectural lexicon. Quite literally, most communities also exclude trailer parks from the mainstream, relegating them to the least desirable tracts of land, such as along rail lines, highways, or flood areas. Additionally, the odd transience of the trailer place it outside of taxation and even standard land ownership. The trailer park is not dissimilar from the autocamps of the early twentieth century: ordinarily, residents own their trailer but only lease or rent the plot on which it rests. The home, though, will normally remain at the site long after residents move.

At once, the trailer park represents the proliferation of American ideals of ownership to all economic classes and also a culture of exclusion and transience. The trailer park, then, clearly becomes ironic as it begins young families on the track to owning their own home while also divorcing them from enduring community connections. As the media reported the housing crisis of the 1970s, it also helped to create the enduring stereotypes of trailer parks. Townhouses and trailers were consistently presented as inadequate, makeshift substitutes for detached suburban dwellings. The new alternatives were posed as a threat to the postwar suburban ideal. Currently, between 50 and 70 percent of American communities ban mobile homes from privately owned lots in residential neighborhoods. This restricts Americans who may only be able to afford a mobile home to reside within the lowly trailer park. Over half of the nation's mobile homes are sited in parks, surrounded by high walls required by local codes. It is likely that the trailer park, a construction of modern, industrial sensibilities, will remain "lower-class" squatter settlements into the future.

—Brian Black

Further Reading:

Belasco, Warren James. Americans on the Road. Cambridge, MITPress, 1981.

Jackson, John Brinckerhoff. A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time. New Haven, Yale University Press, 1994.

Wright, Gwendolyn. Building the Dream. Cambridge, MIT Press, 1981.