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

 

Ruth Nelson is the Hilltop city manager, and the town's only full-time employee. She's a modest, pointedly efficient woman, and a one-woman chamber of commerce. She's not defensive, exactly, but it's clear she's proud of her town and doesn't suffer fools gladly.

"Convenience and affordability are the two big reasons why people come here," Nelson says. "But the independence, privacy, and sense of community are the reasons people stay. Despite what people think, there is nothing mobile about the homes and nothing transient about the population." Nelson estimates that the community experiences a turnover of less than five percent of the populace in an average year. "People tend to stay long enough to get to know each other," she says. "This is a town where everyone pretty much knows everybody else, certainly much more so than in a suburban neighborhood. And the location is convenient; we're right on a bus line into the city, and there's stuff going on all around us that people can walk to if they want. It's a good place for people who are just starting out, and it's easy and comfortable for seniors who are on their own."

The economic factors Nelson's talking about are easily enough grasped. In 1998, when Hilltop inaugurated a wildly successful campaign to upgrade its housing stock (to date 40 homes have been replaced under a Minnesota Housing Finance Agency program), more than half the existing trailer homes in the city had a market value of $2,000 to $7,000. Six percent were valued at less than $2,000. A new, two-bedroom singlewide trailer today runs in the range of $30,000, while a top-of-the-line doublewide can go for more than $50,000. Maintenance is relatively inexpensive when compared with standard, site-built housing, and lots in Hilltop rent for $250 to $300. Since 1978, when HUD initiated a strict building code for mobile homes, trailers have become safer, more fire-resistant and energy efficient. According to 2000 census figures, 450 of Hilltop's 766 residents were between the ages of 20 and 54, and the community's median household income was $26,528, compared with $47,111 statewide. The town's population, like that of the rest of the state, was overwhelmingly white.

Nelson took the Hilltop job in 1991, after her predecessor, Karen Danz, who has been the city's clerk for 20 years, was arrested and convicted for embezzling more than $200,000 from the community's treasury. The scandal drove the little city to the brink of bankruptcy. Hilltop's annual budget at the time was only $250,000, and the city came within a week of losing its police protection from Columbia Heights, but insurance and a fidelity bond kicked in and ultimately saved Hilltop from extinction.

The Danz scandal wasn't the first time the city's existence had been threatened, nor was it the town's only controversy, yet despite the occasional sordid drama Hilltop has largely managed to evade public notice for almost 47 years.

Part of that, of course, is by design; that's the way Hilltop likes it. But there's also that question of the public's perception of trailer parks in general. In The Unknown World of the Mobile Home (Johns Hopkins Press), University of Minnesota geography professor John Fraser Hart, along with co-authors Michelle J. Rhodes and John T. Morgan, contends that "many Americans simply pretend that mobile homes do not exist, and if they think about them at all, which is not very often, they perceive mobile homes as cheap, flimsy, and undesirable housing for unattractive people. They assume that the residents of mobile homes are seriously deficient: deficient in income, deficient in education, deficient in intelligence, and deficient in moral fiber."

Even if they weren't so plainspoken on the issue you'd know damn well what the authors of The Unknown World of the Mobile Home were getting at. Trailer park residents, along with fat people, are among the last safe targets for all manner of bigotry and abuse in the form of satire and crude humor--what's easier than a trailer park joke?

 

I lived in atrailer once upon a time and have fond memories of the experience. It was, as Nelson says, a cheap and convenient way to live, but it was also comfortable and ridiculously uncomplicated. I enjoyed the close camaraderie with my neighbors, an interesting and deeply eccentric crew that included a retired naturalist, a couple of Indian potters with a Saint Bernard, a Bob Dylan obsessive who did tai chi exercises outside in his baggy white briefs, and a guy who was trying to carve out a career for himself as the most incompetent and underemployed private detective in Maine. My singlewide afforded me a level of privacy and even solitude unlike anything I'd ever known. At the same time I've never since been part of a community where storytelling served such an important social function. I could never live in a trailer now, and that saddens me. It's also, of course, an indictment of my lifestyle. I have too damn much stuff, and though I make frequent resolutions to pare my life down some day, I know that I'll never be that unfettered again. These days I live in a crowded house in the middle of the city, and the extent to which my neighbors remain utter strangers never ceases to disturb and amaze me.

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