Trailer Park Girl

People are always shocked to find out that I lived in a trailer park for the first seven or so years of my life. I can never figure out why it’s so shocking to them. My parents had little money — with no more than an associate’s degree between them, it was a one-income household. They were a young married couple who both grew up in families that lived on the dole.

I’m not sure why I should feel ashamed about having grown up in a trailer park when so many happy childhood memories are from the years that we lived there. Even as a very little girl, I had a built-in social life because there were other kids in the neighborhood that I could play with. I could walk down over the little hill to play with my best friend, DJ, a boy who was a few years older than me, but who was the undisputed king of the trailer park because his grandfather had built him an amazing treehouse in the woods that lined the park’s periphery.

Looking back at my childhood, thinking about where I came from, where I grew, I do think a lot about what “trailer trash” means to people. I wonder why so many who meet me now can’t believe that I started out somewhere “like that.” That I’ve become a financially independent young woman with a career, despite the fact, I guess, that the socioeconomic situation I was born into should have defined my entire life and set me up for failure.

I think about where my parents were at my age — living in that trailer park with a newborn baby and only one income — and I think they made a wise decision. They lived below their means so that we’d always have food and a warm place to sleep. They surrounded themselves with neighbors — yes, some of whom might have been a little questionable — so they wouldn’t have to navigate young adulthood alone, since their families weren’t supportive. I think they made the best decision they could, given all the variables, but whenever it comes up in conversation no one ever seems as proud of them as I am.

What even is a trailer park? Where did this whole concept of mobile suburbs come from? Where does the stigma of “trailer trash” come from and why do more “well off” communities — like the one I live in now — insist on hiding away the unsightly trailer parks in cul de sacs on the outskirts of town?

Mobile homes are inextricably linked with America’s fascination with the automobile. In the interim between the first and second World War, people were growing restless and the self-sufficiency of traveling via automobile (as opposed to, say, trains or boats) was enticing. This was Depression-era America where many people were struggling to start over after losing their jobs, and often that meant relocation. Having a house — owning it or having responsibility to a family homestead as many did (and still do) — tends to trap people in one place. For families that needed to up sticks in order to find employment, or start over in communities that hadn’t yet been ravened by the economic downfall, there was a huge incentive to have a more mobile, if not temporary, living situation.

For the more economically disadvantaged — that is, those who were particularly hard-hit by the depression — these mobile homes began to save families from homelessness. The most promising element of the concept was that families didn’t have to necessarily purchase a pre-made tent trailer. If they were looking for something that they could live in for a longer term, there wasn’t anything on the market at the time to accommodate them, so many families actually designed and built their own unique mobile homes.

By constructing their own mobile homes, families who were looking to travel more than a short distance could also avoid the lack of roadside amenities — while the concept had taken off in theory, other industries hadn’t yet caught on. The designs were rudimentary, not from lack of skill or imagination, but rather the limitation of the automobiles of the era.

The idea that people — families, really — could actually live in these things and not just travel in them didn’t take off until the end of World War II. A demand for housing as soldiers returned from the front meant that those who had already begun innovating had a real opportunity: not just for families, but co-operative style housing for the soldiers who wanted to finish their educations with the GI bill, but needed somewhere to abide whilst doing it.

Military housing already existed — and anyone who has ever lived on a military base knows that the cookie-cutter houses are all more or less the same design, often plotted in rows upon rows upon rows. Trailers meant for workers — a specific example being those who worked long shifts on The Manhattan Project — had also become relatively common.

It was during this time that a gentleman by the name of James Sweet happened across a newspaper article discussing the housing shortage and wondered what would happen if cheaply-made, light-weight housing structures could be built in a central location, then moved when the individual wanted to relocate elsewhere? His wife, Laura, was a commercial artist who illustrated for magazines, and with her help, Sweet came up with some preliminary design concepts for these houses — which they called, of course, Sweet Homes. While their business wasn’t astronomically successful, it wasn’t a failure. The Sweets made a livable income off their idea and the real limitation was simply travel distances. They lived in Alabama and were unable to transport their mobile homes much farther than neighboring Mississippi.

Once the word got out, however, and other manufacturers throughout the U.S. caught on, there was a boom in the mobile housing market throughout the 1950s and ’60s — leading Congress to enact federal safety standards for them in the early ‘70s.

Around this time, suburbs had also become a traditional way of life in America (cue: “Little Boxes”). This idea that families could live close together in pre-made houses became more widely acceptable, and even desirable. In fact, suburban neighborhoods and trailer parks are essentially of the same design, yet exist on the two extremes of the socioeconomic scale. Trailer parks are relegated to low income and minority groups, while middle class white folk tend to populate the suburban cul-de-sac neighborhoods just outside of more metropolitan areas. One reason for the differentiation has to do with zoning.

Zoning is, essentially, how towns and cities decide what certain areas of land are going to be used for. If a plot of land needs to be utilized for residential or business buildings, that means that certain amenities like heat, electricity and plumbing are required and in most places, those are things that involve town municipal government. It also helps the federal government understand population density and account for the usage of natural and manmade resources.

In some communities, however, there is a particular kind of zoning for housing that is particularly exclusive — it’s often referred to as “snob zoning.” Exclusionary housing policies make it possible for habitable areas of land, which could be turned into low-income or affordable housing, to be reserved for those who can afford to buy more land and enjoy the privileges of living closer to metropolitan areas, oftentimes where they work. This pushes lower income families farther out of town and, thus, farther away from the job source. Other regulations — such as needlessly high tax rates — prevent lower and middle income families from acquiring housing in these locations and deepens the economic gap.

It hasn’t helped the cause of the noble trailer park that popular culture has immortalized its supposed culture through film, television and music. Trailer Park Boys comes to mind. Trailer parks in America are seen as a hotbed of poverty-stricken inbreds whose desultory pastimes include drinking, drugging and domestic violence — as if these things aren’t prevalent in higher socioeconomic classes as well. The images of ba-da-ding-ding front porch-dwelling, warm beer-drinking, toothless degenerates has become so ingrained in our cultural perception of “trailer trash,” it’s not even thought of as a derogatory term anymore — it’s taken largely as fact.

Trailer park life meant very specific things to me when I was growing up; I didn’t have the awareness of zoning or safety standards, nor did I even know much of how “the other half” lived. To me, growing up in that trailer park meant playing until dark with neighborhood kids, building tree houses and snow forts. Listening out my bedroom window for the sound of my dad’s pickup truck leaving for work in the early morning. Riding my bike down the big hill at the top of the lot, avoiding potholes and feeling safe because there wasn’t much traffic and if I fell and skinned my knee, someone would come out on their front porch and ask if I was okay.

Some of the only happy memories I have of my childhood were from that time in my life, before my parents were thrust into insurmountable debt, before my mother was hospitalized, before I had to go live with my grandmother. Nana had a real house. She didn’t live in a trailer. But when she would scream at me or try to attack me as I squeezed by her and fled upstairs, I wished I had neighbors close by to hear her — to believe me, and to perhaps even help.

The most dysfunctional and unstable years of my life were spent in a real house, with four walls and a slanted roof — where fences went up between the houses so that no one ever had to feel responsible for what went on behind their neighbor’s front door.

People are always so surprised that I grew up in a trailer park. That’s the thing about my childhood that surprises them. But they never understand that the rectangular home on wheels, with its thin walls and tight quarters, was the last time I felt safe.

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