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August 11th, 2004 Dan Cook | News Stories
 

SINGLE-WIDE PRIDE

The fight to save Portland's trashiest trailer park.

     
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John Fahrer climbs atop the twisted wreckage of a charred 40-year-old single-wide and surveys his empire.

The overgrown weeds can't hide the wreckage: busted furniture, rusted auto engines, discarded condoms and needles, abandoned tires and twisted bike frames are scattered among decaying mobile homes.

Hard to believe that this spot, where Northeast Killingsworth Street meets Portland Highway, was once one of Portland's best trailer parks. Even harder to believe that what Fahrer is looking at represents a vast improvement over what was here just a few months ago.

As recently as April, meth-heads called the shots at Glenwood Trailer Park. At Glenwood's low point, late last year, squatters illegally occupied almost a quarter of the 80 spaces and set up tents and makeshift sheds in the northwest end of the 3.2-acre property.

Fahrer and his brother, Mike, who bought the place last fall, are trying to take back control, battling lingering vagrants, skeptical city inspectors and a pile of bills that threatens to spiral out of control with each new "discovery" the brothers make. They've already hauled out 100 tons of trash from the property, endured three fires and shrugged off innumerable threats from people they've evicted.

For now, at least, they're plugging away, cheered on by the dozen or so residents who remain.

"I think we can make it work," Fahrer says. "We owe at least that much to the people who stuck it out during the worst days."

Those are comforting words to Georgia Luke, Bill Bigelow and Patricia Counsil, all of whom lived through a crime wave last summer. The trio of longtime Glenwoodites is typical of many urban mobile-home park dwellers: poor, retired and anything but mobile.

Trailer-court living was once an integral part of the American dream. After World War II, many young couples who couldn't yet afford a house could buy their own trailer, building equity and establishing a credit history.

Now the urban trailer park has, for many Portlanders, become the waystation of last resort. "It's all I have," Luke says of her 40-year-old trailer that's been parked at Glenwood for more than 20 years. "I'm not leaving."

Trailer parks.

A required detail in any Tonya profile and the punchline to countless talk-show jokes.

But they also are home to millions of Americans, including enough Oregonians--an estimated 300,000--that if you put them all in one place, they'd make up the second-largest city in the state.

While most of Oregon's trailers sit on single lots and patches of rural property, at least 100,000 Oregon residents live in mobile-home parks.

The phone book lists 97 such parks in the metropolitan area, three-quarters of which are within Portland city limits. They run the gamut from shaded, quiet, village-like clusters of expensive double-wide manufactured homes in the suburbs to the low-end Portland parks where older single-wides or even "fifth-wheels" (see glossary, page 19) prevail.

Glenwood is one of five time-worn parks clustered along Northeast Killingsworth between 60th and 73rd avenues.

Parks like these are home to at least 10,000 Portlanders, many of them retirees on fixed incomes, minimum-wage warriors, immigrants and young families. Many are in the transition period between losing their jobs and losing their homes.

Up on Killingsworth, and out on Southeast 82nd Avenue, aging single-wides are packed tight along twisting, narrow park roads. Junk and litter abound. Police files for parks like these are jammed with investigations for larceny, fugitives, disorderly conduct, illegal drugs, assault and sex offenses.

But none can compare with Glenwood.

It wasn't always like this. Sitting on a ridge where cool breezes from the Columbia River stir the branches of towering firs, in its prime Glenwood offered a serenity and beauty unmatched by rival trailer parks.

John Fahrer knows it well. His father, James Fahrer, bought the place in 1964 from the late Judge Philip Abraham, the park's founder. As a boy, John Fahrer played and worked at Glenwood. During his college days, he lived in a trailer there. The family business began as a second job for the elder Fahrer, an engineer by training. Eventually it consumed him, and now it threatens to consume his sons.

Under the father's iron-fisted rule, single-wides nuzzled into each of the neatly maintained 80 trailer slots at Glenwood. James Fahrer made strict (some say capricious) park laws and enforced them.

Patricia Counsil, who has lived for 32 years in a trailer surrounded by rose bushes, remembers the old days fondly.

She and other Glenwood residents tended their vegetable and flower gardens and, in the evenings, sat beneath the trees to chat and enjoy the cool breezes off the Columbia River. Her chef's job at The Table restaurant was a five-minute walk, leaving her time to putter in the yard and redecorate her trailer as the mood struck her.

Sure, she had her run-ins with "the old man." But she felt that, overall, he had the best interests of the residents at heart.

Georgia Luke agrees. "When Jim Fahrer ran the place, you knew someone was in charge," Luke says. "When he was gone, no one was in charge any more."

Today, trailers occupy just 17 of the 80 slots. Most other spaces sit vacant. A few contain chassis of demolished trailers, all that's left of a drug dealer's entrepreneurial operation or a squatter's hovel.

Here's the story of Glenwood's decline in a nutshell: Around 1999, Jim Fahrer's health began to fail. He couldn't spend as much time at the park, and he wouldn't designate an official on-site manager. After he died in January 2003, an attorney for his estate brought in a management company that only loosely supervised the park.

The old timers can't recall exactly when the first interlopers arrived, but by last summer, they had taken over Glenwood.

"When that first feller come in here and squatted, it was like the word was out: You can live free at Glenwood," says Bill Bigelow, who's lived at the park for 20-plus years. "And then we had every criminal in the county in the place."

Easing back in his metal chair and taking a pull on his malt-liquor bottle, the 67-year-old Bigelow said that for much of 2003, Glenwood was a 24-7 criminal enterprise zone.

Drugs of all types--but methamphetamine in particular--drew a round-the-clock roster of buyers. Prostitutes also did a brisk business.

Cars, tires, wire and just about anything else of value that could be stolen came into the park whole and left in pieces to be sold for scrap.

"You'd call the cops, the guys'd run and hide, and come right back out and get to tearin' things apart once the cops left," Bigelow says.

Then, the fires began.

The first bad blaze broke out on March 25 of this year, apparently ignited when a drug lab exploded inside a trailer. Mike Fahrer was on his way to work when news of the first fire at Glenwood crackled over his police radio.

When he arrived, complete chaos greeted him. "It was just unreal," Mike Fahrer says. "The fire department is fighting the fire and the squatters are fighting with them, I mean a real fist fight is going on. I'm thinking the whole place is going to go up in flames and we'll lose everything."

The firefighters were able to contain that fire, as well as two others that have broken out since.

It was too much for some of the tenants, who hitched up their mobile homes and looked for more hospitable environs. But for folks like Georgia Luke, that wasn't an option.

Luke was one of the Glenwood longtimers who refused to leave. The 62-year-old former factory worker, who lives alone, is typical of urban trailer dwellers.

She moved into a single-wide on the eastern edge of the park after her marriage broke up. She worked at a paper-box factory a short drive from Glenwood for 13 years before she was laid off. She tried other jobs but at last had to admit that her working days were numbered.

Georgia Luke isn't destitute, but by official standards she lives in poverty. She subsists primarily on disability payments. She pays $390 a month for the right to keep her trailer parked at Glenwood. She pays for electricity; the park picks up the water bill. The county pegs her trailer's value at $4,180 and takes just $70.84 in property taxes a year.

Her attachment to the little single-wide, deceptively roomy and decorated with a loving touch, is organic; the thought of living someplace else causes her to shake her head slowly as if throwing off a bad dream.

Like many Glenwood residents, Luke's life is narrowly defined. She loves to read, watches her favorite TV shows, works in the tiny yard, dotes on her cat and keeps tabs on park activities by hobnobbing with a few trusted friends.

Even when a trailer of brawling drug dealers slipped into the adjacent space one night, Luke never considered leaving.

It's not just sentiment that keeps her there. Her trailer probably wouldn't survive the stress of a move, and many parks won't accept trailers built before 1976, when the government set new manufacturing standards for mobiles. And even if she could find another park to take it, the standard $5,000 cost for moving a single-wide (twice that for a double) would be prohibitive.

"I can't move my trailer," she says. "So I'd have to find an apartment, and what would I get for $390 a month? I have two bedrooms here and two bathrooms. My water's free. I wouldn't find a place like that for the money."

And then there are the things that are hard to put a price on. "I'd have to give up the cat and my plants. I'd have to give up my place. I'm not doing that, not without a fight."

The Fahrer brothers hold out the hope that Glenwood will once again be a peaceful, safe, affordable place for Luke and the others to live.

That isn't to say this is a charity project: 80 spaces at $400 per month would bring in a pretty nice flow of cash, though right now their debts are piling up. The brothers admit that they underestimated the work ahead of them when they decided to buy the park from their father's estate for $570,000. The road through the park was torn up several years ago for sewer-system work and never repaved, a job that they figure will cost $35,000.

Of the two, John is more involved in the park. An engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, he is single, 44, and devoted to his two yellow Labrador retrievers, Sofie and Lea.

Mike is a 20-year veteran of the Portland Police Bureau currently assigned to traffic duty. Whereas John is garrulous, philosophical and optimistic, Mike, also single, has the cop's wary eye and reserved disposition.

The brothers, who grew up near the University of Portland, first learned of the horrendous conditions at Glenwood last summer. "We really hadn't had anything to do with the business for many years," John Fahrer says. "We didn't realize it wasn't being managed."

The first few times they visited the park, the brothers were more or less chased off by those living there illegally.

"It was wild," says Mike, who has been careful to keep his role as landlord separate from his job as a cop. "These people were selling drugs right in front of us. They didn't care."

Several months after buying the property, John summoned the courage to walk through the rear section of the park, still under the control of drug dealers and squatters.

At first, he recalls, he approached the rabble timidly.

"But then something happened. I just lost my cool. I thought, doggone it, this is our place, not theirs. I went up to one of them, got right in his face and said, 'So when can you be out?' And that was it. After that, I felt the tide turning."

Turning, but not completely turned.

Cats are everywhere, crawling in and out of the carcasses of the old trailers, scaling Glenwood's trees and slinking through the brush. It's a good place for a cat. Rodents abound. The felines scout among the collapsed walls of a makeshift shack where an ex-con called Thumper lived until Fahrer forcibly evicted him a few months back. Scrawled on the walls are swastikas and foul invitations to engage in various forms of coupling. Dismembered bicycles, remnants of Thumper's stolen-bike business, are strewn about.

Some of the trespassers claimed they had "squatters' rights" to their spaces and refused to leave. But with the aid of a lawyer and some gun-toting sheriff's deputies, the brothers finally began evicting the squatters this spring. The last pair moved on in mid-June, but not before smashing all the windows in their trailer, dumping trash around the space and scrawling a goodbye note on the trailer door: "Fuck you John Far!"

John keeps things in perspective. "I get a little upset sometimes when people agree to move on and they don't," he says. "But you can't get physical with these folks. You have to be patient."

That's the same attitude taken by most city officials who've confronted the mess at Glenwood over the past 18 months, though privately some say they'd just as soon see it bulldozed and replaced by apartments or single-family homes. And, the brothers say, they could turn around and sell Glenwood to developers for more than they paid.

Developers. That's a fighting word to Fred and Pat Schwoch, who head the Manufactured Home Owners of Oregon, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Salem.

The couple says closing a park is devastating for the residents. While such closings are rare, they say, few new parks are opening around the state, thanks to rising costs of development and longstanding prejudices.

The Schwochs' spacious manufactured home is parked at Nut Tree in Newberg, where the double- and triple-wides spread over 14 acres are dead ringers for suburban houses, with their shaded porches, elaborate landscaping and hot tubs in the back.

Nut Tree's management, which rents space only to those over 55, manicures the public lawns and driveways and maintains the common clubhouse and pool with country-club attention.

"People still think of trailer parks as places where crime flourishes, as eyesores and worse," Fred Schwoch says. "In fact, most of them are nice, well-run places that offer a wonderful lifestyle for an awful lot of people. If you're elderly, on a fixed income or can't afford a home in the suburbs at today's prices, a manufactured-home park is a great alternative."

But what about the parks strung along Killingsworth and Southeast 82nd Avenue in Portland? They fill a different niche, says Olga Tabakov, a Russian immigrant who owns Fir Grove, just down the road from Glenwood. These places are often the last stop before a no-tell motel or flophouse--poor alternatives for elderly single women or the many families with kids.

Tabakov reserves one section of her park for RVs, renting the space for $20 a day. Sometimes, she says, they run short of cash and sputter their vehicles out to a residential street until they can scrape up another $100 or so. "People don't want to leave here because then they have nowhere else to go," she says. "This is their last resort."

It's surprising that many of those who advocate for low-cost housing fail to recognize the opportunities in trailer parks. "Sometimes I sound like a broken record when I talk to the bureaucrats about this subject," says Rob Justus, executive director of JOIN, a Portland nonprofit whose mission is to house homeless people. "It's a travesty that we're not trying to leverage the opportunities that are available in the private sector to house people permanently."

Justus thinks many affordable-housing proponents hesitate to look at trailers or other privately owned units "because they think it will jeopardize our advocacy to build more affordable housing." By doing this, affordable housing advocates turn their backs on hundreds and even thousands of suitable housing units.

JOIN found permanent housing for 436 homeless people last year, and 90 percent of the units were privately owned, many of them trailers. A year later, 81 percent of JOIN's clients were still in their housing, an incredible record when dealing with the hardcore homeless population.

"We recently moved a man into a trailer park off Division," Justus says. " He's got a three-bedroom place he shares with another renter for $425 a month. And he loves it. He says he has a sense of independence and of community he never had before."

Justus isn't sure what it will take to get the trailer parks and low-end apartments on the radar screens of the major affordable-housing players. A good first step would be to get city inspectors and police and fire officials to pay more attention, before the parks hit the low point that Glenwood reached last summer. But that requires rethinking a longstanding policy of responding primarily to alarms and complaints as opposed to conducting routine inspections.

"We don't generally pay too much attention to trailer parks," says Ed Marihart, who runs the city's inspection department. "Not unless there's a pretty big problem."

And, to be honest, longtime trailer denizens such as Luke, Counsil and Bigelow aren't looking for any help from the government. But for a city that is putting a lot of effort into promoting low-cost home-ownership, Glenwood seems like something officials would want to protect, rather than neglect--or, worse yet, ridicule.

John and Mike Fahrer understand this. Sometimes, John says, when he's just faced down another ornery drug dealer or found a new money pit he hadn't anticipated, he wonders what the hell he's doing, trying to make Glenwood Trailer Park the place it was when "the old man" ran the show.

"I don't think I'm made of the same stuff dad was," he says. "But then I think about Georgia, or Pat or old Bill. I think, where will they go if we don't finish this project? And I come out and work at it another day, and another day, and another one."

John Fahrer walks away from the burned-out trailer, moving with an easy familiarity among the signs of moral and physical decay. Faces appear at the windows of the trailers where folks still live, wary, watchful eyes following strangers through the park. A homeless man riding a bike hitched to a wagon bumps through the park. Fahrer waves to him. "Fast Eddie," he says as the man careens out of sight.

Fahrer heads west, down the rutted road toward Trailer No. 26, where he and Bill Bigelow have been going at the latest challenge: a leaking toilet.

TRAILER TALK

MANUFACTURED HOME:

Any type of housing built on an assembly line and towed to a permanent site. Not built for recreational use. May or may not be placed upon a permanent foundation; may include axles and a tow hitch beneath the dwelling to allow some degree of mobility.

MOBILE HOME:

A generic term referring to any number of manufactured homes that are built with one or more axles and can be driven or towed from one location to another.

SINGLE-WIDE:

Refers to the width of a single unit mobile home. Standards reflected states' views on the dimensions of a mobile home that could be safely towed on the highway in the early 1950s. Most common: 8 feet wide, 12.5 feet high and 35 feet long. By 1969, the 14-wide was introduced and approved.

DOUBLE-WIDE:

Refers to the width of a multisectional mobile home. Introduced in 1969, double-wides were built on factory assembly lines in two pieces, towed to a permanent site, and welded together at the site. Typically 28 feet wide and 64 feet long, many are virtually indistinguishable from site-built homes.

FIFTH WHEEL:

A small unit designed to house travelers that is towed by a motor vehicle. It may be collapsible or non-collapsible.

RECREATIONAL VEHICLE:

A self-propelled mobile home with the living quarters and the driving compartment built as a single unit, with no towing involved.

These definitions are based on the book The Unknown World of the Mobile Home by John Fraser Hart, Michelle Rhodes and John Morgan (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002).

DOUBLE - WIDE DREAMS

In 1981, Neil Diamond sang America to me. As his mellifluous words seeped from the armrest of the Pan Am 747, through a set of headphones and into my 7-year-old ears, I knew the "dream they've come to share" would be ours. Mum and Dad, my brother and I were leaving Scotland behind for Diamond's "sweet land of liberty."

Dad was going to live with us every day, rather than spending months away in some godforsaken oilfield. We were going to own a car. My brother and I were getting skateboards. Most amazingly, the Fitzpatricks were going to own a house.

After four years of culture shock, apartment dwelling and disillusionment, my folks scraped up a marital reconciliation and $14,000 for a 1977 Moduline Westwind double-wide. In March 1985 we moved to the Heritage Village Manufactured Home Community, near Southwest 185th Avenue and Baseline Road in Aloha.

When the kids at Five Oaks Junior High School found out I rode the "trailer bus," my pride in our new home evaporated. I had no idea what "white trash" meant, but being a Scot, I knew how to fight.

"You trailer kids need to learn your place," my eighth-grade math teacher said, after I belted a school jock for spitting on me.

No worries, Teach--in my six years in Heritage Village, I learned all sorts of things.

* Kids from the single-wides are to be hassled mercilessly but never fought.

* Chucking rocks on the tin-roofed trailers in the dead of the night equals pure comedy, especially when the inhabitants are retirees on oxygen, manic-depressive mothers, the neighbor without a nose or the one-legged transvestite.

* When hot-wiring a vehicle, connecting the ignition before bridging the starter minimizes electrical shock.

Though I escaped the handcuffed beatings a friend endured in a tool shed, I readied myself lest the same fate befell me. I learned to clean a gun and conceal a knife.

Mainly, though, I learned that trailer parks are not populated by the weak, inbred stereotypes implied by white-trash jokes, nor are they teeming with cutoff-clad honeys, tough guys in mesh hats and souped-up muscle cars, like today's faux Rednecks like to think. I learned there's nothing feeble or fashionable in the life of bone-weary resignation endured by the workingmen and single moms who lived around me, only hardened fists and a strength that would make you cry.

And now, 23 years after our family discovered our own America, I'm pretty sure: Neil Diamond never lived in a trailer park. --Dave Fitzpatrick


Trailer MixAccording to the 2000 census, there are 7.3 million "mobile home units" in the United states, representing 7 percent of all housing units. Oregon's moderate climate makes it a haven for trailer life. The 2000 Census found 149,732 mobile homes in the Beaver State. That's 10.3 percent of all housing units.

Immobile Homes Some national studies found that fewer than 1 percent of trailers are moved from one park to another.A recent study of 15 mobile-home parks in Washington County found that while trailers were occasionally sold, they usually stayed put. Low-income and elderly mobile-home owners were particularly resistant to moving.

Mobile-home owner stats (2000 Census):* 66.1 percent have an annual household income below $30,000.* 41.1 percent are below $20,000.* 55 percent are at least 55 years old.* 17 percent are 75 or older.* 32 percent live in two-person units.* 35.4 percent are single (three-fourths of whom are women).

No Room at the ParkVarious national studies indicate the average trailer park has a vacancy rate of less than 3 percent. The Washington County study of 15 parks found 10 had no vacancies. The 95 vacancies (out of 1,847 total spaces surveyed) were clustered in new parks and those in transition from largely single-wide parks to parks geared toward larger manufactured homes.

 
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