Trailer Parks

by Tim Gilmore, 6/21/2012

You can’t understand a town like Jacksonville without understanding some things about trailer parks. Jacksonville has a kind of noplace to it, an impermanence, a sense that most neighborhoods, most retail or corporate developments large or small can be replaced and probably will be replaced by the newer model thereof. Most of Jacksonville was built with newness as its main redeeming feature. When newness is old and nothing else is left, a house, a street, a neighborhood, or a retail block seems to ask for death. Trailer parks don’t lie to themselves or anyone else about that noplaceness, that impermanence. Here, trailer parks make up a significant portion of the “urban” fabric, and at the same time constitute a place-out-of-place within that urban fabric. In other words, a sizeable part of the so-called city is trailer parks, but trailer parks also form holes in the city. They are geographical lacunae into which people slip, often in hiding, seeking to belong to a place that is not that place that surrounds and absorbs them.

In the Southside Mobile Home Park behind the Centerfold Lounge strip club off Philips Highway, Putnam Avenue heads toward Napoli Court and Napoli Road, but curves first to the left on 4351-3 Putnam Ap. Here, raggedy trees stand over a few of these gray 12 by 60-foot 1970s house trailers with full-size 1970s vans parked on the dirt in front of them. The old road is gray, the dirt is gray, the sky is gray, the house trailers are gray, their concrete steps are gray, and their windows are gray. Air conditioner window units sag out of windows. Oddly, the streets here are as narrow and the housing as close as urban densities not found much throughout the rest of the city. The front yard of one trailer bursts forth with green foliage and roses and hanging plants. It’s a dense maze in here, with some house trailers occupying the median between narrow lanes of trailers. The trailer park is a warren of small gray rectangles packed tightly, even the dullness and blandness and grayness of which are faded. But to be content here, to be able to be happy living here, would require the healthiest self-reliance.

When John Steinbeck sets off across the country with his American Standard Poodle named Charley in 1960, on the journey he will document in Travels with Charley two years later, he notices an epidemic of trailer parks spreading across the landscape. “Early in my travels I had become aware of these new things under the sun, of their great numbers, and since they occur in increasing numbers all over the nation, observation of them and perhaps some speculation is in order.” He doesn’t condemn them. From Cannery Row to The Grapes of Wrath to the violent labor struggle novel In Dubious Battle, Steinbeck reads as this country’s greatest populist writer. As such, he doesn’t immediately disparage a new form of cheaper and more mobile living. “It seemed to me a revolution in living and on a rapid increase. Why did a family choose to live in such a home? Well, it was comfortable, compact, easy to clean, easy to heat.” This was a time when mobile home parks on such a large scale were new and bore all the novelty of the geodesic dome houses assembled in the 1970s, but without the countercultural pretension.

But Steinbeck did hit on the impermanence, the “turn-in value,” which he called “the greatest selling appeal of all—one that crawls through nearly all American life.” You make improvements and when you’re ready, you trade yours in for the newer model. This plan works better than it does with cars, because there’s a greater market for used mobile homes. “They are easy to maintain, no need to paint since they are usually of aluminum, and are not tied to fluctuating land values.”

In the early to mid-20th century, North Main Street became a place for families who didn’t have much to raise their children. Such places representing little wealth and little sense of place, larger economic forces and small buyers easily took them over. In 1937, the Phoenix Park Tourist Court at Phoenix Park and Main Street offered single and family cottages with kitchenettes and baths “for travelers only.” In such places all over the city, “travelers” could become people who might travel in a year or two, or who might just settle down longterm as cheap renters. Side by side, the tiny cottages struck a rhythm of peaked roofs beneath tall longleaf pines. They all had screened front porches. Alongside and in between these tourist courts and motor courts and miniscule motor hotels grew blocks of trailers and trailer courts and trailer parks. They were inexpensive and easy and impermanent, and that was good for poor families. It also meant they were easily infiltrated by drugs and thugs and prostitution and violence. Turn of the 21st century, a cop passes out several sheets of faces and names of nearby residents previously convicted of sex crimes to the neighborhood watch group assembled at Joseph’s Pizza and Italian Restaurant at 7316 North Main Street. The neighbors can’t believe how many of them there are. They notice that almost all of them live in the nearby trailer parks.

Steinbeck writes, “Then there are the loners, and I have talked with them also. Driving along, you see high on a hill a single mobile home placed to command a great view. Others nestle under trees fringing a river or a lake. These loners have rented a tiny piece of land from the owner. They need only enough for the unit and the right of passage to get to it. Sometimes the loner digs a well and a cesspool, and plants a garden, but others transport their water in fifty-gallon oil drums.”

Perhaps also the freedom to be lost must be factored in, and no suspicion need attain to such freedom. It’s possible the greatest freedom is the freedom to be lost. It’s not necessarily a happy existence, but for some loners, perhaps it’s a happier existence than the rest of us can ever afford. Perhaps the impermanence of such a home structure connects the loner more closely to the ground, the earth, the planet. Perhaps that’s the case whether the trailer sits in a ring of woods by a small creek, as is the case in strange niches between busy roads all over this city as much as it is in the outskirts, or in dirt and gravel and asphalt heavily lived upon. Perhaps the house trailer, even the trailer park, should be the perfect home for the Buddhist, or for the quiet wise thinker, or for the Ph.D. in the Humanities who can store his books somewhere else that’s easily accessible. In fact, the mayor and city council members should spend time living in trailer parks.

Two a.m. Monday night, loud argument in the dense asphalt loop of the Trailer Village of North Jacksonville, dense with faded and sagging old trailers, dense with dusty palmetto bushes, dense with angry drunk men and woman at two a.m. Nobody seems to know what it was about. Nobody’s sure how many rounds were fired. Nobody says they know why Clayton Kimbrough was shot. No arrests were made.

He remembers when he was a little boy, when the trailer park where he lived and the nearby trailer parks were filled with soldiers having come back from World War Two. When the place got tiresome, his family quickly and easily moved from one trailer, or one trailer park, to another. Now, he laments, the trailer park has gone into steep decline. Long-term family residences have disappeared from trailer parks. Families making their way up in the world have vanished. Most of the remaining trailer parks are longtime low-income, he says. There are the newer parks, though, with clean and shiny doublewide trailers, triple-wides, even quadruple-wides, and with all the amenities of a high-rent apartment complex. But they’re not the same, not like when he was kid. They’re not small and cozy, like the soft metal nests of his boyhood.

Only this metal shell separates him from the night. He has decorated the walls of his bedroom with twinings of vines and wreaths made from wildflowers, with abandoned wasp nests and an empty beehive. At night, the moon comes through his window and illuminates the dried flowers and tendrils and the round paper cells of the nests. He can hear the owls tonight and he knows he will hear the peacocks from the other side of the pines in the morning. Sometimes at night he hears the low otherworldly baying of the bloodhounds. He will wake up early when the sun on the day looks new on the ancient world, and he will walk down to the bracken and pick blackberries from the fields. Home’s a kind of space capsule that’s landed him with his parents here in the dirt and the vegetation of the earth, with which he feels so intimate. His tin-can space capsule has landed him here with his parents in this boyhood in these fields and woods, a little earthling at home in the earth.

One reader says that’s the same schmaltzy false nostalgia that’s the basis of all conservatism. He grew up in a trailer park too, but his favorite memory is lying up under the trailer in the dirt with his dog, a hound named Muck. That’s a good enough memory. It was a womb.