by Tim Gilmore, 5/18/2018
1. Everybody’s Fair in “Not Necessary America”
“Eh,” Dmitri says, and I’m encouraged by his opening statement.
He shrugs his shoulders and spits to the side, rises from the sodden and crooked recliner perched outside the door of his house trailer. He wears no shirt, long jean shorts.
“I live here maybe five year, maybe two.” He nods his hairless head sagely. He calls Ideal Trailer Park a good place for anyone. “This land,” it’s “not necessary America,” he says, it’s land where you end up, so everybody’s fair. I understand. I’ve often hoped, in my lowest (and most free) moments, I might find, lost in the world, such a place of refuge.
Ideal has claimed these four acres along U.S. 1 at the old City Limits for six decades. Nobody here knows why the trailer park is called “Ideal” or who named it.
It’s the last of an assemblage of trailer parks that cluttered and cornered the city limits here decades back. Across the years, the trailers have traded out, older models for newer, but surely the land records all life lived like a secret cassette tape that’s run non-stop since 1955.
When Ideal was new, it was one of some “12,000 trailer parks […] scattered about the country,” according to Andrew Hurley in his 2001 book Diners, Bowling Alleys, and Trailer Parks: Redefining the Good Life in Postwar America.
In Jacksonville, as elsewhere, the first “trailer camps,” “trailer courts,” or “trailer cities” popped up during the Depression, became supplemental military housing during World War II, and offered a short-term solution for the postwar housing shortage.
Trailer inhabitants touted the fact that their homes were mobile, moveable. Though most people who lived in trailers never moved them, they associated mobile homes with a greater freedom, self-reliance, the romance of the American road.
Still, from the beginning, trailer parks suffered a bad reputation. By 1950, “The previous 15 years of economic hardship and war had tarnished the reputation of trailer living,” Hurley writes. “The humble trailers that had provided desperately needed shelter during two periods of national emergency had become associated in the public mind with down-on-their-luck itinerants and migrant defense workers.”
And the opinion of the public at large wasn’t about to improve.
2. Gypsies, Trailer Trash, Slums, and Channa’s Shrine to the Virgin
Ideal was first called Trail’n Trailer Park. An early 1960s postcard shows an aerial view stamped with the original name. On the back, “Ideal Trailer Park” superscripts “Trail’n Trailer Park,” blacked out with a marker.
“Located on U.S. Highway No. 1 at City Limits of Jacksonville,” the back of the card proclaims, Ideal offers “All Tile Showers and Rest Rooms, Recreation Room, May-tag Washing Machines, Grocery Store and Restaurant for Your Convenience.” As with motels, in those days, it wasn’t unusual to find, at trailer parks, on-site groceries and restaurants, both offering cheap bags of spicy chicharrónes and buckets of boiled peanuts.
I walk Ideal, round the circumference, show people the postcard, ask for long views of the place through time.
Channa has lived in her wilting, white-become-beige trailer—its wheels sinking and oxidizing into and becoming the earth they’ve always been—these last three years. She likes living here. She used to hate being asked what “Latina” means, but not as much as the question: “What are you?” She’s only lately understood what it means to be asked if she’s “Cherokee.” But nobody asks these questions here.
Channa’s shy. Introvertida. Silenciosa. She loves people, loves friends, loves children; still, people exhaust her. In the back of her Trailer No. 11, Channa’s made a small makeshift shrine to the Virgin Mary, and it’s here, in supplication, that she feels most connected both:
to other people, every one of us, and
to the earth.
She feels an ironic sense of liberty here, similar to what Dmitri feels, and it doesn’t matter to her what people started saying about trailer parks as early as the 1950s.
A 1951 feature in Survey magazine by Alexander Wellington called “Trailer Park Slums” captures the worst impressions of trailer living. Wellington writes of a Pittsburgh-area trailer park where 75 tenants shared one bathroom, children urinated and defecated behind trailers, and “hundreds of rats” feasted on tenants’ garbage.
Hurley writes, “Trailer courts were viewed as the most recent incarnation of the urban slum, and their presence in the vicinity of stable middle-class suburbs was interpreted as a blighting influence.”
The language of anti-trailer-park propaganda often resembled the snide and cruel rhetoric of “slum clearance” films that argued for migrating the poor into public housing. When Wellington writes of a little girl bitten by a rat in a trailer park, he sneers, “Good thing it wasn’t her face they chewed, isn’t it?”
By the 1960s, if trailer park residents weren’t called “gypsies,” which might be derogatory or romantic, the epithet was “trailer trash.” The fact that trailer parks had located mostly on city peripheries meant that as “white flight” suburbanized the urban outskirts, trailer parks contrasted starkly to nearby upper-middle-class cookie-cutter subdivisions. Statistically, trailer park residents were poorer, more blue-collar, less educated. It didn’t matter to suburbanites that trailer parks had banned minorities as stringently as did new subdivisions.
By the end of the 20th century, however, suburbia, having usurped the image of the American Dream, often attracted more immigrants than the urban core, especially when core neighborhoods gentrified. In cities like Jacksonville, certain suburbs became more diverse than the central city. Trailer parks, engulfed in inner rings of the oldest suburbs or lost in undeveloped wastelands exurbia had yet to reach, often became, more than ever, worlds of their own.
Usually still lower-income, the difference, otherwise, between trailer parks, could be glaring. Trailer parks near Jacksonville’s naval bases might be predominantly military. A park behind the strip clubs on prostitute-populated Philips Highway became home to dozens of strippers and sex workers.
Ideal Trailer Park became a microcosm of poverty and diversity set adrift at the old city limits in a sprawling Southern city whose boundaries consolidated 50 years ago with those of the county.
3. My Ugly Angel / Plato’s Trailer Park
Today in Ideal, the newest models of aluminum trailers look and smell tepid and old. They sag to the middle. Plywood replaces windows and doors. The earth comes up tin in living rooms fungal with MTV to smell like home.
I walk through to the oldest model, more curved at the edges, faded beige, its owner, shirtless, baked leather, pressure-washing the outside walls at noon.
He won’t tell me his name, looks left, then right, says he’s been here such a long time, says 2003, says 1980s, chews dramatically on absolutely nothing. I show him the postcard. He chews on considering it.
“Ideal,” he tells me, “is my home. You understand? My home. Maybe not be your home. It’s my home. You understand?”
An old BMX bike leans against the door of his trailer, unlatched. He says no one’s ever stolen it. He rides his bike through trails no one else knows. He rides the road, but prefers ways unpaved, best loves old roads only he recalls. I know what that feels like.
He grows marigolds in a wooden box he built and doubts anything’s more beautiful than their gilded crowns. His granddaughter lives in hipster-Riverside, he says, makes “golden milk,” mixing turmeric, coconut milk, honey, ginger, and green or black tea. He likes it. She romanticizes his outsider-ness. He doesn’t mind.
The unpaved road circles itself forever, casting aside barbecue grills and weight sets and concrete blocks and cats. I show everyone here the postcard. I show the postcard to so many cats. One cat has but one eye. He bites a corner of the card.
What a way to while away a morning! Why wander nameless roads clutching old postcards of trailer parks? This city’s my ugly angel, with whom I’m cursed to spend my life in struggle.
But that’s not fair. I consider the early lure of trailer parks. Why wouldn’t you want to live life on your own terms, in your own space, debt free, owing no one, in proximity to great old trees, the moon glowing gloriously bright through the night?
You’d need nothing more than a little cash. Then the earth and your own personal space beneath trees and the sweet-fragranced night in the spring was yours.
Maybe the name of this place implies the “ideal” in the Platonic sense, constituting some greater and more true “real” behind the “real,” as though what’s real is always but a physical shadow of the greater truth, the ideal. Maybe Plato named this trailer park, maybe Ralph Waldo Emerson. What is the great universal truth only approachable through this one particular trailer park as metaphor?
No one will tell me.