November 27, 2014

Culture Vulture

Trailers and mobile homes have never been considered architecture, and there is very little written about them. Which is a shame, because when you consider what they are-little metal houses that can be moved around from one place to another-then they become fascinating design problems.

How do you fit everything into a predetermined amount of space? Where do you put the beds? What about the kitchen? The bathroom? Trailers force form to meet function. Stepping inside a well-designed trailer or mobile home (I'm using the terms interchangeably even though I know I shouldn't) is like opening a Fabergé egg. What is hidden opens and reveals itself in a way that can only be described as delightful. (Well, to me, anyway.)

Trailers as we know them began life back in the '20s as little things you would haul behind your automobile for camping trips. At first they mostly contained equipment. Then someone got the idea of sticking a cot in there. Then a stove. By the time the second world war began, trailers had blossomed and enlarged themselves to become what I think of as the Early Classic Period: those incredible streamlined toaster-like objects, 20 or so feet long and clad in shiny aluminum (a look that Airstream happily carries on to this day).

Wartime housing shortages proved that trailers could actually be lived in, as long as you weren't too fussy about space. Defense workers managed to adjust, and the trailer itself got bigger and bigger, gradually morphing into the mobile homes, aka manufactured housing, of today. Now we have double-wides and triple-wides and square footage-not to mention prices-that can rival conventional housing.

While I appreciate the streamlined curves and polished oak interiors of the trailers from the '30s and '40s, and I also marvel at the factory-manufactured palaces of today, my own particular favorites are the models from the '50s and early '60s. Stylistically they take their cues from the automobile industry; and since that was the era of the great big American car, one sees fins, jutting angles, portholes, curlicues and bows and sterns worthy of a 1957 DeSoto. Many of them can still be seen in trailer parks today, and I'm glad to report that they're aging much better than the cars they were based on.

Around 1965 there was a change, and the industry began modeling its wares not on something that moved but something that just sat there-the ranch house. Suddenly the excitement vanished. The magic of trailer styling was gone. The "mobile homes" got bigger and more comfortable, but they also turned into nothing more than big metal sheds.

But design is only one half of the trailer/mobile home mystique. The other is the heavily weighted phrase "trailer park." It has been a part of the American vernacular ever since the first one was born back in the '20s, when some gas station owner let a tourist spend the night in his back lot for 50 cents.

By 1940 trailer parks had acquired a very unsavory reputation. People were actually living in them, not moving on like they were supposed to, and even worse, not paying property taxes. Their chief enemy was no other than J. Edgar Hoover, who, no doubt looking for some easy target, called them dens of crime from which "desperados" would terrorize surrounding neighborhoods. One report even described a traveling bordello that commuted between St. Pete and Sarasota. With this kind of publicity, it's no wonder that trailer parks have gotten such a bad rap. As one sociologist pointed out, they've never become idealized or romantically nostalgic; they always represent "otherness." There has always been something taboo about them.

But all of us here in Southwest Florida, the trailer park capital of the world, know that "otherness" has many levels. At the top of the scale is the gated golf course community, with its "million-dollar clubhouse" and shiny new models that line curving, immaculately maintained streets. Here middle-class retired people drive their new Cadillacs and Buick Park Avenues and wave at each other.

Moving down a notch comes the older version of the same park, a little shabby and sun baked and very, very quiet. Once a day, elderly widows creep out to the mailbox. Here the thrill of retirement is long gone, and the place exudes an overwhelming loneliness. The only traffic to be seen is cars delivering Meals on Wheels.

Next comes the kind of park where people of any age can live. Some are quite respectable and provide an affordable housing option for young families-check out the tiny yards crowded with big plastic playhouses and swing sets. But most of these "any age" parks fall into the classic white- trash trailer park of country and Western fame, so familiar to the viewers of TV's Cops. This is the land of beer, tattoos, and spousal abuse and missing teeth. The phrase "trailer trash" has entered the language and can be a virulent insult or a proud declaration of something akin to redneck pride.

And, of course, there are the parks that don't quite fit into any category. Variations on the theme include the "live and let live" park where bikers, Vietnam vets and aging hippies manage to co-exist in relative peace; the Mexican trailer park, where the homes may be shabby but are painted in bright, optimistic colors and flowers and plants dot the yards; and the occasional Old Florida gem, some small, sunny park set in a spectacular waterfront location that any developer would scheme to get his hands on.

The hurricanes of 2004 changed the trailer picture forever. Almost a year later, Charlotte and DeSoto counties are still littered with the remains of literally thousands of trailers, most damaged beyond repair. Experts predicted the end of the Florida mobile home lifestyle as we know it, but sales figures on new homes-which are safer than the old-are proving resilient.

One thing may be gone forever, though. You look at the brand-new models and say, "That's a trailer?" They are dead ringers for conventional housing, and the latest style is something that could be mistaken for a tasteful little Craftsman bungalow. The look of "otherness" has vanished, and along with it a gold mine of Americana.

There's a park in Bokeelia called Cap'n Mac's that's right on the water. The trailers aren't all that remarkable, but they do face a little marina area and the place exudes an Old Florida charm. Everything is bright and sunny, with the residents, still very active, puttering around, painting and gardening and socializing up a storm. I didn't see anything for sale, but I'm sure that some day I'll find a trailer there with my name on it.

Robert Plunket, author of My Search for Warren Harding and Love Junkie, is a frequent contributor to the New York Times and various national publications.