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The Social Wasteland: America’s Trailer Parks

What does one imagine life in a trailer park is like? 6% of the U.S.’s population live in trailer parks, but they are often misunderstood, ignored, and stereotyped. In this paper Forrest explores trailer parks in the United States using the lens of community and diversity, and tries to find their space in the American urban landscape. 

Written by Forrest Maynock

What does one imagine life in a trailer park is like? Many people likely have an image in their mind of what life in a trailer park is like based on the type of “trailer park related media” they consume; if they watch the evening news then all they must imagine is a land of meth users and labs in a state of constant turmoil, but on the other hand if they watch a show like Trailer Park Boys, a Canadian TV show depicting life in a trailer park, they may imagine a band of likable “white trash” idiots constantly trying to “make it big,” but failing each time. Trailer parks in America like any other complex community are filled with characters that encompass a wide variety of roles in the social structure. As Rupert Neate from The Guardian points out, the US Census has indicated that “more than 20 million people, or 6% of the population, live in trailer parks” (Rupert, 2015). This is a significant part of the American population that are often being stereotyped as either rampant drug users or “dumb white trash.” In this paper I would like to explore trailer parks in the United States using the lens of community and diversity, and find their space in the American urban landscape. 

So what exactly is a trailer park? Trailer parks are plots of privately owned land that are then allocated into much smaller plots that are rented and where affordable mobile homes are then parked. The key factor is that living in a trailer park is generally inexpensive even for those without stable employment; one of the prevailing stereotypes in the American experience is that trailer   parks are the home of the “white trash” social deviants of society that dwell on the edges (Gary, 2016; Rupert, 2015). As Nina Renata Aaron states in her article titled Downwardly mobile: how trailer living became an inescapable marker of class, “trailers became the province of the have-nots, and along the way, the pernicious myth of ‘trailer park trash’ became core to a set of stereotypes about lower-class white people” (Aaron, 2018). Richard Florida in his book Rise of the Creative Class (2004) indicates that the working class has gone from the most dominant class in American society to a shrinking class that is being overtaken by the Creative and Services classes (Florida, 2004, 167); this shrinking of the working class can be seen in trailer parks. The image of trailer parks has shifted from one of middle/working class, 1950’s style communities, to economic wastelands filled with unemployed or low wage workers (Aaron, 2018). In many ways these trailer parks mirror the downward spiral of the inner city neighborhoods; where American ghettos may be heavily affected by “white flight,” American trailer parks seem to act as the receptacle for America’s poor, (generally) white, service/working class population , and where ghettos can be affected by the outside forces of gentrification penetrating the community, trailer parks are pushed to the margins to be ignored by all (Gary, 2016). 

In popular culture and the eyes of the general public, trailer parks are not very diverse places, and are mostly dominated by white people. This image carries a lot of weight, but depending on the location of the trailer park, the population may vary from being predominantly white to being heavily mixed racially. Trailer parks are also diverse in class, though classes mostly seem to be segregated to their own parks (Aaron, 2018; Gary 2016; Rupert 2015). Why does this sort of class segregation exist? When viewing the ghettos of large cities we can see cases of gentrification manifesting and creating problems for the poor residents, so why does this not    happen in trailer parks? The short answer is that there are no historical buildings to buy up, and that trailer parks are usually far removed from the city centre. In her book titled The Cultures of Cities (1995), Sharon Zukin states that “[t]he symbolic economy recycles real estate as it does designer clothes. Visual display matters in American and European cities today, because the identities of places are established by sites of delectation” (Zukin, 352). Trailer parks, particularly the poorer ones, are not designed to be visually appealing, and in fact they seem to be designed to be efficient in space allotment (Rupert, 2015), so they lack the “symbolic economy” that Zukin discusses. As for the parks inhabited by the middle class retirees, one can usually find a gate blocking outsiders from entering, and trailer spaces or trailers that are much larger and “cleaner” looking than those in the “poor” parks (Gary, 2016). Instead of “omnivores” or “pioneers” from the middle class entering existing parks to gentrify (Tissot, 2015, Introduction, pg. 1 of pdf), the middle class trailer park residents have simply created their own private spaces completely separated from the “others.” In her book Good Neighbors: Gentrifying Diversity in Boston’s South End, Sylvie Tissot addresses this style of “diversity” saying that “[t]he enthusiasm for diversity ultimately translates into a form of power that operates on a particular combination of inclusion and exclusion” (Tissot, 2015, Chapter 4, pg. 6 of pdf). Here the diversity is not in the physical location, but instead in the “imitation” by the middle class of the denizens of non-middle class trailer parks; so trailer parks are very diverse as a population, but individually are (generally) segregated by class. 

Ghettos and trailer parks also share many similarities in terms of community; more specifically there are two strong connections in terms of social capital and a heavy reliance on government aid (Rupert 2015). In her book The Hero’s Fight: African Americans in West Baltimore and the Shadow of the State, Patricia Fernández-Kelly addresses how government agencies in the United States infiltrate the daily lives of the poor population, and how that negatively affects those communities (Fernández-Kelly, 2015, pg. 145 of pdf). Fernández-Kelly was specifically speaking of West Baltimore where she conducted her study, in her book, but much of this can be applied to trailer parks where many of these same issues apply. Fernández-Kelly goes on to say that government has,  

“[B]ecome a key factor eroding the capacity of inner-city residents to mobilize resources and create alternative means of subsistence or defense. In tandem with capital retrogression and the workings of predatory drug merchants, state programs for the poor exacerbate social fracture and economic stagnation” (Fernández-Kelly, 2015, pg. 145 of pdf). 

This is also the case in trailer parks; within trailer parks many residents are put in a position where they cannot afford to live without the aid of government programs such as unemployment, disability, and food stamps to name a few (Rupert, 2015). Trailer parks also have a similar social capital to that of ghettos; trailer parks, like ghettos, are not viewed by the public as a positive aspect of society, and in turn fail to develop “extensive” social networks (Aaron, 2018). This idea is expanded upon more by Fernández-Kelly who discusses Mark Granovetter’s idea of strong and weak ties between social actors (Fernández-Kelly, 2015, pg. 242 of pdf). In this theory strong ties are those shared with family or close friends, and weak ties are those of the individual to external actors such as a teacher or boss. Fernández-Kelly goes on to say that “[p]oor people tend to have a plurality of strong ties, but they lack weak ties joining them to groups and resources outside their immediate environment” (Fernández-Kelly, 2015, pg. 242 of pdf). Trailer parks on their surface have a very tight knit community with a disdain for “outsiders;” this creates a limited social network that will prioritise the ingroup and create strong ties within that community, and on the    other end there is a general lack of weak ties to create opportunities. 

Trailer parks in America exist on a strange axis. They share many of the same “issues” that inner city communities face, but lack the same level of public scrutiny. Movies about inner city violence are very dramatic and serious, movies about trailer parks are either nonexistent or filled with stereotypes and belittlement. Even the academic literature seems dismissive: 

“Indeed, the urban black poor of today differ both from their counterparts of earlier years and from the white poor in that they are becoming increasingly concentrated in dilapidated territorial enclaves that epitomize acute social and economic marginalization” (Wacquant and Wilson, pg. 9).

What are trailer parks but “dilapidated territorial enclaves?” It is almost like trailer parks are phantom communities in the American landscape; too “stupid” to save, too socially isolated to care about, and something for the middle class “pioneers” to imitate, but not “restore” like they do the ghettos that they gentrify. As illustrated in the video titled “Portrait of a Family” from The Carlos Watson Show (YouTube channel), this “social exilement” is not lost on the residents of these parks; as John Richmond from the video indicates he and his children are stereotyped because of where they live, so he buys land to escape, but escaping is not always an option. As is the same for many inner city residents, there is no real option for moving or betterment of life by using conventional means. I don’t know the answer, but as Nolan Gary suggests: “When we stop treating low-income communities as objects of scorn, to be subjected to top-down, paternalistic planning, we might find that we have a lot to learn from them” (Gary, 2016). 

This paper was originally written as an assignment for the class DCUL321: Urban Sociology, by professor Haruna Miyagawa.

Sources: 

Aaron, Nina Renata (March 13, 2018). “Downwardly mobile: how trailer living became an inescapable marker of class”. Timeline. https://timeline.com/history-trailer-part-mobile-home-poverty-74bb8a7c44be

Fernández-Kelly, P. (2015). The Hero’s Fight. Princeton University Press.

Gray, Nolan (August 12, 2016). “Reclaiming “Redneck” Urbanism: What Urban Planners can Learn from Trailer Parks”. Strong Towns. https://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2016/8/11/reclaiming-redneck-urbanism-what-urban-planners-can-learn-from-trailer-parks

Lin, J., & Mele, C. (Eds.). (2012). The urban sociology reader. “The Creative Class” from The Rise of the Creative Class and How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community Life, and Everyday Life (2004) by Richard Florida. Routledge. 

Lin, J., & Mele, C. (Eds.). (2012). The urban sociology reader. “Whose Culture? Whose City?” from The Cultures of Cities (1995) by Sharon Zukin. Routledge.

Neate, Rupert (May 3, 2015). “America’s trailer parks: the residents may be poor but the owners are getting rich”. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/may/03/owning-trailer-parks-mobile-home-university-investment

Portrait of a Family: Trailer Park Nation: OZY. YouTube. (2015, May 24). https://youtu.be/xHsc_ljtO80.

Tissot, S. (2015). Good Neighbors: Gentrifying Diversity in Boston’s South End. Verso Books.

Wacquant, L. J., & Wilson, W. J. (1989). The cost of racial and class exclusion in the inner city. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 501(1), 8-25.

Source of the photo: https://unsplash.com/photos/Zh96ROMiiZw

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