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

As contented as she's been in Hilltop, Eva will nonetheless admit that she continues to be flummoxed by some of the common notions about trailer park living. "It gets me," she says. "Even on some of these good TV shows you'll still hear remarks degrading people who live in trailers. That 'trailer trash' business, it's unnecessary and uncalled-for."

Across the Shears' kitchen table, I think I see Erv roll his eyes. Erv's clearly a guy who's been around the block and has long since made his peace with the ignorance of this world. People can think whatever they want. What he'd really like to do is get this intruder out of his home so he can head out to the shed and have a beer with his son.

 

For a city with such a low profile, Hilltop has nonetheless found itself in the local media spotlight from time to time. Browsing through the city's archive serves to confirm Professor Hart's contention that "the media like trailer parks, because they associate them with scandal, sex, and violence, and those are subjects that sell." There was a minor dustup that made for droll local news in 1970, when then-mayor George Reiter attempted to replace the village clerk--a woman--because, he said, men were temperamentally better suited for the position. "I don't like to work with women," Reiter told a reporter for the Columbia Heights paper. "They get in your hair. You can't talk to them like you can talk to men."

In 1976 there was a triple murder in one of the townhouses along the city's western Monroe Street border. The men arrested in the killings were from International Falls, but the case got big play in the local papers and rattled residents. Throughout the 1970s Hilltop led the metro area in population loss, falling from a high of 1,015 to 817 in 1980. That same year the city was back in the local news when three prison escapees were captured at a Hilltop trailer owned by the mother of one of the men. Then there was a murder-suicide involving a brother and sister in 1987, and the Danz embezzlement scandal in 1991.

In 1995, as Hilltop prepared to commemorate its 40th anniversary, the city made the biggest news splash in its history when a headline on the front page of the Star Tribune's Metro section proclaimed, "Tiny Hilltop is Crime Capital." That claim, bolstered by 1994 state crime statistics, led to a rash of unwelcome attention for the city. According to the numbers, Hilltop's 131 serious crimes boiled down to one for every six residents. The statistics included 108 larcenies, ranging from shoplifting to bicycle thefts.

"It's all about the math," Ruth Nelson says. "If you have a couple Snickers bars stolen from the drugstore or one bar fight over the course of the year and you spread it out over a population of 766, well, all of a sudden you're right there at the top of the list. Somebody from one of the television stations got a hold of the statistics and was convinced they'd need an armed guard to come in and check out the community. We didn't appreciate all the publicity, but for the most part when it was mentioned in the media they took a tongue-in-cheek approach to it. Reporters would come in here and ask residents on the street if they realized they lived in the crime capital of Minnesota and people would just laugh."

Tom Johnson has been the police chief of Columbia Heights since 1995, and his department is responsible for patrolling Hilltop's streets. The city pays Columbia Heights $144,000 a year for police protection, plus a per-incident fee for the services of its rescue squad (which tacks on an additional $10,000 to $30,000 annually). Johnson agrees that the crime statistics for Hilltop are deceptive. "I certainly don't feel that the reputation is justified by the things we see," Johnson said. "It's one of those areas where we mostly see small stuff going on. You'll have some shoplifting arrests in the strip malls that will make the numbers look worse than they really are. Since I've been here we really haven't had to deal with anything of a very serious nature, and we've had a terrific relationship with the mayor, the city administrator, and the residents."

Linda Johnson married into Hilltop's unofficial first family (her husband is Les Johnson's son, Steve) and moved into the city in 1970. Together with her husband she now runs one of the four parks in Hilltop; her nephews own and operate one of the others. She is also serving a term on the city council. "We have three generations of our family living in Hilltop," Johnson says. "My dad, my two sons, and my husband and I all live here. At one time my sisters were here as well." Johnson's a jovial woman who laughs easily at her little town's reputation as a hotbed of crime. "I never even lock my doors," she says with a shrug. "It's really like any other small town, with the same sorts of advantages and problems. We probably could have moved out of the park, but we like it here; it's homey and neighborly, and the nice thing about being owner-occupied is that you tend to keep a much tighter rein on things. You're much more vigilant when you're living in a park and raising your own children there. That sort of stability makes a big difference in Hilltop. I've been here 30 years and we have people in our park who have been here longer than I have."

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