Immobile Dreams

How did the trailer come to be a symbol of failure?

Growing up in Phoenix, Arizona, in the late 1960s, I was aware of two types of trailer parks—the ones along the northwestern lip of town that were often decorated with neat pathways of white stones and the ones farther out, at the margins of our community, that were clusters of tan and brown metal rectangles linked by dusty, unpaved roads. Snowbirds and retirees of modest means lived in the white stone trailer parks. The people who lived in the others were what my family and neighbors referred to as “trash.” They were not just poor; they were bad. Dangerous. Possibly criminals, though we didn't know for sure.

Looking back, I realize the unfairness and irony of my family's judgment of trailer parks and the people who lived there. Their crime was simply that they didn't know any better than to live in a trailer park. My parents were desperately trying to maintain their grip on lower-middle-class status. Both of them worked outside the home. We often ate beans and cornbread for dinner. We didn't take vacations, and I remember my mother sobbing once when my younger brother came home with a hole in the knee of his pants. But we owned a three-bedroom, two-bath ranch house in a moderate-income subdivision. That brick rectangle on a corner lot in a suburb of Phoenix made us middle class; it made us better than trailer trash.

Historically, class and social status in the United States have been linked to the acquisition of wealth rather than family lineage. As a result, class mobility—both upward and downward—has been a common experience for many Americans. Individuals may even experience changes in class status within their lifetimes. Partly as a result of this economic mobility, and partly because we tend, as a nation, to sidestep class as a category of social analysis, we rely very heavily upon cultural markers, such as trailers, to ascertain class instead. This means that class becomes more about consumer tastes than economic interests, so that what separated my family from trailer dwellers wasn't necessarily income, but rather taste.

Equally important, Americans use geographic references to code class: “the flats,” “out in the sticks,” “the other side of the tracks,” “the projects,” “the boondocks.” Instead of explicitly acknowledging class, we use geography as another cultural marker to refer to economically and culturally lower-class Americans.

At the same time, geographic mobility and the American dream of upward class mobility are virtually inseparable in U.S. history. From the first westward movements of colonial European Americans, to the great migration of African Americans from the South to the North in the early twentieth century, to the Dust Bowl and Rust Belt migrants of the 1930s and 1980s, Americans have sought upward class mobility through geographic mobility. Yet the trailer—the mobile home—has become a powerful cultural icon of class immobility. Whether we encounter these clusters of mobile homes in an isolated, rural setting or skirting the edges of an Eastern Seaboard metropolis, as Americans we ascribe specific limitations—of class, social standing, and cultural value—to the people who live there.

One reason we are able to collectively agree upon the meanings of such powerful cultural symbols as trailer parks is that doing so allows us to participate in a hierarchy of class without explicitly discussing class. Thus, President Bill Clinton's former advisor James Carville could say of Paula Jones, the woman who sued Clinton for sexual harassment, “drag $100 bills through trailer parks, [and] there's no telling what you'll find,” thus effectively claiming that working-class women's claims of sexual harassment are inherently less believable than those of middle-class women. For a nation that generally denies the existence of class as a social force, cultural symbols freighted with assumed meaning are convenient markers that replace a critical understanding of how class operates in our culture.

The trailer came into existence during the 1920s—a decade of explosive class mobility. Increasing numbers of urban, middle-class Americans took to the highways to enjoy nature during that era. Family automobile camping trips became a popular form of recreation, and people began to attach various types of home-built trailers to the backs of their automobiles; by the mid-1920s, companies were selling recreational trailers.

Interestingly, it was at this moment in history that many Americans began to believe that cities represented the new, modern civilization of the twentieth century, and that small towns and rural areas were out of step with the times. Urban Americans started to articulate a disdain for their country cousins, which was a dramatic shift in cultural attitudes in a nation that historically revered the rural landscape. Cultural historians have noted how this attitude translated into perceptions of nature. City dwellers tended to look down upon country folk, believing that they didn't appreciate the beauty of nature and saw the land only as a place to make a living.

The trailer as a symbol of middle-class recreation receded dramatically with the onset of the Great Depression. As people lost their jobs and homes, trailers showed up in shantytowns and Hoovervilles across the nation. Some people wandered the highways, using trailers as makeshift dwellings. Others, like displaced tenant farmers from the Dust Bowl regions, simply piled their households onto Tin Lizzies and Model As and lit out for California. Many families became semipermanent tenants in the new campgrounds, especially in the Western regions of the nation (which led to the terms “trailer park” and “trailer court”). In 1938, the American Automobile Association estimated that 10 percent of the three hundred thousand trailers in the nation were used as full-time housing rather than for recreational travel.

During the Great Depression, when many Americans blamed themselves rather than structural flaws within the economic system for their financial ruin, it became common to link security with stability, particularly in regard to geographic permanence. Residents of cities and towns usually expressed concern over the transient nature of people living in trailers. They also feared that impoverished transients would drain the already overextended social services of the community. It seemed clear that those Americans who were rootless and wandering were the poorest of the poor during the Depression. Wandering to the edges of the cities, idling in crude dwellings, unemployed, impoverished, these Americans and their tawdry trailers represented the threat that loomed in every citizen's life—the loss of job, social status, and a permanent home.

Across the country, many cities and towns passed local laws and zoning regulations to prohibit the use of trailers as permanent housing. Generally, trailers were prohibited within city limits. Often they could serve as permanent housing only if they were located within commercial trailer courts, which were most often found along the edges of city limits. The geographical marginalization of people living in trailers served to marginalize them from community life, as well.

The negative attitudes toward trailers changed dramatically however, with the United States' entry into World War II. Suddenly, there was an immediate demand for housing for workers in defense plants and other war-related industries. In response, travel-trailer manufacturers designed the Spartan trailer for the U.S. government. The Spartan was twenty-two feet long and eight feet wide and included a kitchen and bathroom. During the war, the government purchased 35,000 Spartan trailers and built 8,500 trailer parks upon which to locate them.

In addition to Spartan trailers, the government also contracted two other mobile-housing designs. One was a factory-built single unit, and the other was a two-section unit. Both could be transported to a site, attached to utilities, and occupied immediately. Within months, more than a thousand of these mobile homes were built and located at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to house Manhattan Project workers.

The housing shortage continued after the war, and thousands of trailer parks appeared across the nation. Throughout the 1950s and into the '60s, mobile homes became a more acceptable downscale housing option. But by the mid-'60s, increased traditional housing stock and a booming economy had made home ownership affordable for a majority of Americans. Even though mobile home manufacturers' associations had worked to improve the image of mobile homes and trailer parks during the postwar years, by the '60s the stigma of trailer parks as slums reemerged.

This time, cities used two types of strategies to outlaw trailer parks. First, some communities classified mobile homes as buildings; then, because the trailers could not meet local building codes, they were banned. Manufacturers responded with court cases, arguing that a mobile home was a vehicle, not a building, because it had a chassis and wheels. Another strategy was to declare trailer parks commercial businesses, which prevented them from being located in residential zones. Thus trailer parks were relegated to industrial areas, nonresidential zones, or alongside highways outside of or at the edge of town.

Being located in seedy, industrial sections of town reinforced the prejudice toward mobile homes. Yet despite this handicap, the mobile home industry grew dramatically during the '60s and '70s. Several factors contributed to this growth. First, technological advances in manufactured housing made trailers economically competitive with traditional housing. Second, the industry began to produce larger, more luxurious homes with amenities such as central air-conditioning and covered parking. Finally, beginning in 1969, several states allowed for highway transport of wider mobile homes, and in 1974 Congress passed the Federal Mobile Home Construction and Safety Act, which established minimum standards for safety and durability. In 1965, around three hundred thousand mobile homes were shipped. By 1972, that number had reached nearly six hundred thousand. Those mobile homes made up one-third of all single-family housing constructed in 1972.

As the industry grew, however, a lack of regulations led to the production of cheap and dangerous homes. Dealers overlooked installation standards, and many borrowers were saddled with usurious interest rates. Mobile home disasters increasingly became media staples, and many people called for increased industry regulation. While mobile homes were considered low-income housing or rural slums, public attitudes in general reflected a greater disapproval of industry abuses than of people who lived in mobile homes.

The exception tended to be disparaging attitudes toward rural inhabitants of trailers, which flourished during the 1980s, a decade that witnessed dramatic economic changes. Massive job loss in the Rust Belt resulted in significant migration to Sun Belt states, particularly Arizona, Texas, and California. And, not surprisingly, the number of mobile homes increased by 2.7 million between 1980 and 1990, an increase of 57 percent. By the end of the decade, the South contained 52 percent of the country's mobile homes; the West was second with 22 percent, half of which were in California and Arizona. According to census data, not only did mobile-home households have significantly lower median incomes than other households ($19,925 versus $29,642), but they also saw their income decline further below average throughout the decade.

During the '80s, deindustrialization, rising stock prices, and supply-side economic policies resulted in a significant increase in economic inequality. Not only did middle-class incomes stagnate, but the incomes of the lowest one-fifth of Americans declined. In contrast, “yuppies” became a household word—young urban professionals who spent lavish amounts on designer goods and other consumer symbols of upward class mobility. At the same time, investments in public housing evaporated and cuts in welfare programs led to unprecedented homelessness in the United States. One step above living on the streets was living in a mobile home.

Compared to traditional housing, trailers offered inexpensive alternatives for those Americans experiencing downward social mobility. Because loans to purchase them were consumer rather than real estate loans, subprime lending schemes emerged in the mobile home industry well before our current housing debacle. In fact, many single working mothers who purchased mobile homes in the late '80s and early '90s became victims of unscrupulous lenders.

It was at this point in history—when class was extremely volatile and many white, working-class Americans had relocated from the Rust Belt to the Southwest, the Southeast, and California, often purchasing mobile homes as they experienced downward class mobility—that images of trailer trash proliferated in popular culture. Even the television series Roseanne, the quintessential working-class sitcom, ran episodes mocking the residents of trailer parks. The images were unflattering and cruel. “Trailer trash” often meant white women of questionable morals. They were racial mirror images of the equally cruel, and equally unrealistic, stereotypes of “welfare queens”—1980s code for young black urban women. Trailers were the late-twentieth-century version of Southern redneck homesteads, the last resort for the uneducated, the unemployed, the underclass. The trailer park served as a metaphor, a cultural marker of class difference during a decade when Americans were more inclined to ascribe poverty to moral failings than to class-based inequities.

These images have endured. Although objectively, mobile homes and trailer parks are simply a legitimate form of working-class housing, most Americans have uncritically embraced the negative cultural image of trailer parks—except, perhaps, those who live in them. Americans can use the trailer park as a way to distance themselves from the economic failures of society. The stigma of trailer trash privileges “us” over “them” and allows Americans to self-identify as “middle class” even when objective measures make that class status dubious. But these sorts of cultural stigmas also prevent people from identifying shared economic interests. For example, few middle-class Americans paid much attention to the subprime lending scandals in the mobile home industry during the late 1980s and early 1990s. If we had, and if we had identified with fellow Americans living in trailers and being gouged by unscrupulous lenders, how might our current housing situation have changed? In this instance, the trailer park as a cultural marker effectively worked to obscure and reinforce the dominant economic structures that encouraged subprime lending.

Media coverage of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) trailer parks erected as emergency housing for Hurricane Katrina victims suggests the pervasive negative cultural stereotypes of trailers. Both conservatives and liberals assailed FEMA's use of mobile homes, which were described as “grim,” and critics argued that vouchers for apartment rentals were preferable to fully furnished trailers, even though more than three hundred thousand families needed homes—far more than there were available apartments in the Gulf Coast area. Newt Gingrich termed the parks “ghettos of despair,” and many people worked to keep the parks out of their communities. Countless newspaper articles reported that the trailers had become hotbeds of crime and drug use—as if the trailers themselves, rather than the nature of emergency housing and makeshift communities, were to blame for drug deals, prostitution, and even murder.

The negative images also provided marketing techniques for companies that manufactured tiny cottages, which, before Katrina, were referred to as “park trailers.” In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, they became known as “Katrina Cottages.” In 2006 a major home improvement chain sold the kits for about $55 per square foot, not including labor costs, foundation, and heating and cooling. The “charming” 300-square-foot cottage was offered as an alternative to the FEMA trailers, which measured about 280 square feet and were provided by the government to people left homeless by the hurricane. Jason Spellings, a Jackson, Mississippi, builder who constructed one of the cottages claimed, “Studies show that when you put a bunch of these [FEMA] trailers in an area, crime will be high and it's going to be a bad area.”

As it turns out, avoiding a FEMA trailer was a good idea, but not because of a link to crime: A federal scientist testified in April 2008 in a congressional subcommittee hearing that his superiors at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) ignored his concerns about potential health risks posed by high levels of formaldehyde found in the trailers. Despite earlier warnings about formaldehyde, it wasn't until February 2008 that CDC recommended people leave the trailers. At that time FEMA began arranging new housing for the thirty-five thousand families still living in FEMA trailers.

I live in a rural community in Eastern Oregon. My profession marks me as middle-class. But my income, single-parent household, and status as a renter place me squarely in the working class, at least in quantifiable economic terms. Last summer I told my thirteen-year-old daughter that we might move into one of the nice trailer parks outside of town. I called it a “mobile home community” and pitched it as a chance to purchase our own home. She looked at me in horror. Raised on a steady diet of liberal, progressive politics, weaned on labor union meetings, and endlessly drilled about the need to respect all people and all forms of labor, she replied, “But we can't! What if my friends found out I lived in a trailer?” Apparently, living in a trailer still poses many dangers.

From the Summer 2008 Class issue


America, Economics, History, Identity, Home


No comments yet.

Also in this Issue

New Again

Clinging to the Dream

Under God

Firing a Friend

My Brother, the Keeper

Immobile Dreams

Home Economics