“Crowded Rookeries of itinerant Flophouses”: A Review of “The Unknown World of the Mobile Home “by John Fraser Hurt, Michelle J. Rhodes and John T. Morgan (2002, Johns Hopkins University Press).
by Curtis Price
Here in the Deep South, trailer parks are everywhere, yet surprisingly little has been written about them. At best, trailer parks remain mysterious, if slightly disreputable; at worse, the stereotypes of “trailer trash” conjure up images of Honey Boo-Boos and floozies in flip-flops sipping Jack Daniels in their sweet tea while watching “Duck Dynasty.” The Unknown World of the Mobile Home is one of the few books that tracks the history and sociology of mobile housing and it makes a fine read on what is still a major source of housing for working class people in we “redder” sections of the country.
Mobile homes (then known as “trailers”) originated in the 1920s. Workers with new access to cars, thanks to the Fordist compact, and with new-found mobility, escaped crowded cities and took off galavanting around the country. Since mass tourism was just in its infancy, there were few hotels to accommodate the new waves of vacationers who wanted to stay around lakes and other un-built areas. So workers built their own vacation trailers, lovingly and meticulously hand-constructed with all sorts of improvised frills, flourishes and details; trailers that were little more than tents or tiny shacks on a platform hauled behind cars for portable shelter. As is so often the case, where workers’ inventiveness gets co-opted by the money men, shrewd entrepreneurs saw an opportunity to create a market and so the first pre-manufactured housing came into being as “trailers.”
With the onset of the Depression, the housing market tanked and for many, trailers became first homes. Trailers were also used by traveling salesmen, construction workers and other itinerant workers as a cheap alternative to motels and boarding houses. But the real shift in the market for trailers, which until then were for either “the nearly dead or newly wed,” as one trailer manufacturer quipped, came with WW2, where extreme housing shortages saw trailers changing from vacation uses to permanent homes on a mass scale. San Francisco, for instance, was once covered with trailer parks and improvised housing as workers flocked to looking for jobs.
One of the more interesting sections of the book is the authors’ visit to actual mobile homes communities. They visit, among others, upscale retirement communities in Florida and mobile home communities in Montana, where an influx of wealthier escapees from California into blue-collar logging towns has led to class tensions over the presence of trailer parks. But the most absorbing visit to me was to Garden City, Kansas, where sprawling meat-packing plants have relocated and companies and developers cooperate in building rings of trailer parks around the plants to accommodate a mostly immigrant workforce segregated from the rest of the town. One common thread noted in all the visits is the communal spirit of many trailer parks, where the lack of privacy and separation makes people interact more.
Housing in America, of course, stinks of class, and mobile homes, especially when they are no longer mobile, stink of class to an even higher heaven. As a Forbes article in the 1930s sniffed, trailer parks were “crowded rookeries of itinerant flophouses”; an attitude that has changed little since, even with the transition from “trailer” to “mobile home” to “manufactured housing.” From the beginning mobile homes were looked down upon as de facto “junkyards for people” and dogged by zoning restrictions, especially in urban areas. Trailer parks once built on undesirable land outside major cities) suddenly became attractive to developers; as urbanization spread out, parks closed and were sold off. Trailer park owners are not infrequently unscrupulous themselves, jacking up lot rent, knowing that unlike apartment renters who can skip out without paying, a mobile home owner renting a lot has few choices but to pony up. Few laws exist to protect either mobile home renters or owners.
Yet for many working-class people, manufactured housing has been considered a step up, especially in rural areas. Native Americans preferred mobile housing to older pueblos and in large areas of Alabama’s Black Belt, mobile housing replaced dilapidated sharecropper era housing. Often the price of new traditional housing remains out of reach, especially for younger working class families, and mobile homes have filled the gaps.
Now, however the market for manufactured housing itself has divided, with the double-wide (a home that is manufactured in two sections, hauled to a site and put together, allowing for larger housing units) at the bottom and luxury manufactured housing that resembles traditional housing in scale and amenities at the mid-upper range. But the top tier of manufactured housing is the RV, often costing more than a house, but, unlike traditional manufactured housing, fully mobile. As the authors note, the manufactured housing industry has lost its innovation and is focused less on providing low-cost entry to home ownership and more on this upscale—and more profitable—RV market.