Pushing Tin

Nestled in the middle of the Twin Cities, the tiny trailer-park city of Hilltop (pop. 766) has been getting shoved around since the day it was born

What follows is the once-upon-a-time story of a group of trailer park residents who were spurned and kicked around until one day they got fed up and created a humble little city they could call their own, complete with a magnificent 24-hour Flameburger restaurant. This all happened a long time ago, but before we proceed with this largely neglected chapter of local history, I'd like to ask each and every one of you to look into your heart of darkness and unburden yourself of the more uncharitable notions you harbor there. I ask you to pause for just one moment--it won't take long--and think about some of the things the phrase "trailer park" inevitably conjures in your mind. 'Fess up, you hateful wretches: Trailer trash. Tin gypsies. Human Humane Society. Blatz Babylon. Hee-Haw Heaven. Redneck Reservation. Arkansas Timeshares. Methamphetamine Inc. NASCAR Fantasy Camp. George Jonestown. Disgraceland. Hillbilly Hilton. Unplanned Parenthood.

There. I must admit, the harshness and inspired malice of your associations astonishes and appalls even me. I'd like you to leave these odious judgments behind for a time. I want to introduce you to the little city of Hilltop. It is, I contend, a tough and charming exemplar of the best sort of bootstrap democracy, and I'd like to think that you're going to be very ashamed of yourselves.

Study a map of the Twin Cities sometime. Chances are good you've never even noticed Hilltop. Even if you've driven past the city along Central Avenue Northeast, its roughly four-block eastern border, you probably wouldn't have paid it much mind. The town is completely surrounded by its longtime antagonist, Columbia Heights. Like Lesotho, the little country marooned in the middle of South Africa, or San Marino, the diminutive republic in central Italy, Hilltop is an obscurity contained entirely within someone else's borders. It's a time-warp island in the middle of the metropolitan map, and its history suggests that the town owes both its survival and the frequent threats to its existence to the same unavoidable reality: It's so completely, essentially different.

To those accustomed to the relatively roomy grid of the city, with its orderly plots and endless right angles, the tiny north suburban community of Hilltop seems like a claustrophobic tangle of one-ways and dead-end lanes. To a first-time visitor the town feels like a squat, isolated place, and wandering its trailer-lined streets you'd never know you're in the middle of a sprawling metropolis. With all the local businesses clustered along its busy border avenues, the interior of Hilltop is stripped of the sort of commercial hustle that you associate with an actual town; there are no billboards, no neon signs, no clinics or convenience stores or dry cleaners. Its 16 square blocks of little lots and narrow streets are, for practical purposes, a single neighborhood. Or, in the eyes of many outsiders, a trailer park masquerading as an incorporated city.

One night in late December, a damp fog settled on the town, and the trailers were lit up in the fog like Halloween pumpkins or Chinese lanterns. Walking the disconcertingly dark streets, you'd have had the feeling of walking among houseboats docked along a quiet river. Light snow was falling through the lamps along the narrow lanes, and the modest displays of holiday lights up and down the rows looked poignant and forlorn. But then, Hilltop is full of poignant and telling details: American flags, decorated mailboxes, handmade signs routed with the names of the homesteaders, children's playthings strewn about, small garden plots presided over by lawn statuary of trolls, miniature deer, the Virgin Mary. Through windows I saw the familiar blue glow of televisions looming in living rooms, a little girl doing jumping jacks, and a group of people gathered around a kitchen table, playing cards. Granted, it was a cold evening, but I did not encounter a single keg party or front-stoop banjo picker or roving pack of insolent peckerwoods, no feral strays or cockfights or randy housewives. I didn't even see many pickup trucks. I guess it was a quiet night in Hilltop. Or maybe those colorful and entertaining things you think you know about trailer parks are based almost purely on some of our broadest and most stubborn cultural stereotypes.

 

Hilltop's city offices are located in a modest building tucked away behind Big Bob's Carpet just inside the town's eastern border. Built in 1988, on the former site of Shaky Al's Junkyard, the Hilltop community center is a serious upgrade from the modest trailer that once served as the town hall. The little burg consists mainly of four mobile-home parks crammed into 80 acres. Oh, Hilltop also has a few apartment buildings, a handful of condominiums, a dozen or so site-built homes, and a couple of strip malls along its periphery, but the great majority of the town's 766 residents live in the 263 mobile homes that sit within the city's borders. (Hilltop is one of only two incorporated cities in America that consist primarily of "manufactured housing"--trailers, that is; the other is the St. Paul suburb of Landfall.)

The official history of Hilltop, such as it is, stands recorded in a couple of fat blue binders in the city's office. Browsing through these archives--scrapbooks, really, containing brochures, newspaper clippings, and vintage photographs--conjures a community that seems equal parts Mayberry, Peyton Place, and Twin Peaks. The city had its own police department for years, until 1972, when one of its officers drove the town's only squad car into a tree. The city couldn't afford to replace the car and the Hilltop PD was history. The city's archives also include the recorded proceedings of the Hilltop Village court, which as recently as April 1964 was issuing fines for petty crimes that included driving the wrong way on a one-way street, disorderly conduct, and smoking in bed ($55). The city's early ordinances (signed into law on June 4, 1956 by William Wychor, the town's first mayor) wisely prohibited such indisputably undesirable vagrants as "fortune tellers and other such like imposters"; "a person known to be a pickpocket, thief, burglar, yeggman, or confidence man and having no visible or lawful means of support"; anyone "procuring or attempting to solicit money or any other thing of value by falsely pretending and representing himself to be blind, deaf, dumb, without arms or legs, or to be otherwise physically deficient"; and "a person wandering about and lodging in taverns, groceries, ale houses, market places, sheds, stables, barns, or other uninhabited buildings or in the open air, and not giving a good account of himself." I'd ask you now to pause once again and consider: Does this meticulous concern for matters of public decency and safety, as evidenced by the vigilant and fiercely moral tone of these ordinances, jibe with any of the cruel notions from our earlier catalog of affronts? I think not.

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