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

"Many of these mobile home parks can be compared to some of the little villages in Europe, Quebec, or Mexico," says Professor Hart, who visited dozens of parks in the process of researching his book. "A mobile home has a limited amount of space, so there's not much room for home socializing. There's little in the way of privacy, so you really have to be neighborly to get by. You find that folks will do a lot of socializing outside their homes. Life is very much in the streets, and there seems to be a much closer-knit sense of community than you might find in a suburban neighborhood or in the city."

Yet for generations communities have attempted to legislate, regulate, and zone trailer parks out of existence. The mobile home industry was launched in the late 1920s by a Michigan pharmaceutical executive named Arthur Sherman, and by 1937 Forbes magazine was already decrying the growth of "trailer shantytowns," branding them "crowded rookeries of itinerant flophouses."

"Many people think that mobile home parks depress the value of adjacent properties and increase traffic and crime," according to The Unknown World. "They are widely perceived as hotbeds of sex and violence, and the media are all too happy to pander to this perception. On the scale of general social acceptability, mobile home parks rank somewhere in the neighborhood of junkyards, but junkyards for people rather than for automobiles. They are segregated to remote and unattractive places, and discreetly distanced from other kinds of residential areas."

In large part, Hilltop owes its existence to those attitudes. In 1956, a man named Les Johnson--who was then the owner of the Trailer City Park--led the drive to incorporate the community. The land that is now Hilltop was then a part of Fridley Township, and home to two mobile home parks; Johnson and a number of other residents were concerned that Fridley was planning to eradicate the trailers. They approached neighboring Columbia Heights and requested that the city annex the land that included the parks. After being rebuffed, Johnson circulated a petition for a vote on incorporation, and on May 1, 1956, the residents of the parks voted on the issue. The incorporation passed resoundingly, 137 to 34.

Soon thereafter Columbia Heights came to regret its blunder and proceeded to gobble up the remaining land around the new community, effectively surrounding it and curtailing its expansion. Heights also fired the first volley in what would become an ongoing battle between the two municipalities when it threatened to cut off Hilltop's water and sewer service on purely punitive grounds. That particular issue became a constant source of friction between the cities over the years. Columbia Heights was also concerned about Hilltop's proposal to issue liquor licenses, which would threaten the sales of Heights' own municipal liquor store, a business that at the time accounted for a third of the city's operating budget. And then there was the matter of Hilltop's police and fire protection. The city contracted with Fridley for fire protection and established its own police force, hiring a retired highway patrolman to serve as police chief and supervise three part-time officers.

As Hilltop was organizing its city government--electing its first mayor and a four-person city council--all of these issues were playing out in the local papers. "Are we forgetting what happened in Hungary, where an outside government tried to force their will on the people?" a Hilltop resident wrote to the Record in 1957. A later editorial in the same paper echoed the prevailing mood in Columbia Heights at the time: "We've heard many, many people predict that the new village will fall by the wayside. They all contend that it's merely a matter of time when the village will...be forced to discontinue its existence." By 1959 the Metropolitan Municipalities Commission had entered the fray and asked then-Attorney General Walter Mondale to contest the Hilltop charter to the state supreme court. A month later the Record reported that the city council had "directed its attorneys...to study ways of erasing Hilltop from the metropolitan map."

Yet in 1961, when the Minneapolis Star ran an article headlined "Hilltop, 5 Years Old In May, Still Fighting For Its Life," the town was not simply limping along and steeling itself for inevitable extinction. Hilltop's population was growing, and city officials were out trying to attract new businesses. The Central Plaza strip mall--built by a developer who had been spurned in Columbia Heights--opened in 1958 on the south edge of town, complete with a supermarket, drugstore, and 4,000-square-foot off-sale liquor store, providing an influx of much needed tax revenue for the fledgling village. Another liquor license had been granted to a bowling alley, and the city council had approved a permit for construction of the 20-unit Starlite Motel on Central Avenue, a structure that even today stands as one of the city's few recognizable landmarks.

Throughout Hilltop's early years there was constant tussling at both the local and state government levels over the issue of liquor licenses for the city, and the Columbia Heights Record pitched in to further inflame public sentiment. Ed Kaspszak intimated in his "Clips and Quips" column that there was something fishy about the characters muscling in on Columbia Heights' liquor turf. "The people to whom these licenses were issued were reportedly associated in some manner to the celebrated Twin Cities liquor syndicate of which Kid Cann is supposed to be a member," Kaspszak wrote, only to publish a retraction in his column the next week. That, however, didn't stop his paper from publishing another piece of gossip about the situation a few weeks later. Under the heading "Rumors of the Week," an anonymous scribe wrote, "Heard a rumor that one of the reasons Mike Troup, former owner of the White Horse restaurant in Golden Valley, obtained a liquor license in Hilltop Village was that he would be required to 'kick-back' 12% of his gross sales to the Village treasury...."

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