Outside the Master Plan

Photo by Tenaya HillsCamille Barr is sitting on her back porch enjoying the afternoon sunshine. A few yards away a sprinkler drenches the hot yard. Her dog, Charlotte, runs through the yard and then goes back inside. Near Barr's feet, her pet chicken, Foghorn, silently picks at a corncob.

“I feel so lucky to live here,” she says. “I've lived here seven years. This is just a really cool place. Everyone knows their neighbors. Most people who've lived here say they can't re-create this place anywhere.”

Barr's place is UC Irvine, specifically the Irvine Meadows West trailer park, located near some science buildings just off Bison. It's just a doughnut of trailers sitting around a communal park.

About 80 trailers have been there since 1979, but now life at the park is coming to an end.

“It's always been considered a temporary facility,” said Chuck Piper, UC Irvine's assistant vice chancellor for student affairs. “There's a lot of facility growth in that area. We need the space for parking that has been displaced by the new construction.”

Housing officials have given the grad and undergrad students who live in the trailer park until next July to leave. The decision dates back to 1999, when park residents and the administration worked out a deal to delay closure until July 2004.

Many of the trailers look old, long frozen into place by the addition of porches, lofts and extra rooms. Some residents took out student loans to pay for their trailers. Others put them on their credit cards. A few current and past residents turned their modest, often run-down trailers into solid, one- and two-bedroom homes. Others, like the guy who grafted an octagonal room made of particleboard onto his trailer, had poorer results.

The trailers sit on gravel amid dense foliage. Many are so cramped the residents have to put the refrigerator on the porch. One resident cut a hole in his wall for his fridge, leaving most of the unit outside and the door flush with the inner wall.

“We do all our own maintenance here,” said Barr, who just completed her doctoral thesis in evolutionary biology. “Most people don't know what they're doing, but they learn. On the first day it rains you'll go up on the roof to put down tar and see 10 others doing the same thing. In the old days residents could just chainsaw their trailers in half and build around them, but now you need permits.”

To the students, many completing their doctoral theses, the trailer park is their private refuge from the master-planned sterility beyond. They see the housing department's decision to raze the park not as a bow to parking pressures, but a calculated strategy to destroy something “outside the master plan”—a phrase that's become the residents' motto.

That master plan includes a collection of buildings designed by such architects as Michael Graves, Robert A. M. Stern and William Pereira. People from the world over come to UCI to see the structures' stark, futuristic shapes. To those who see order and comfort in these buildings, the tumbledown Irvine Meadows West trailer park can only be some retrograde threat.

Still, the UCI population is growing dramatically. So much so, in fact, that the university is building 1,500 new dorm units. New parking space, university officials say, is vital.

“We know UCI needs money,” said Barr. “But they also need quality grad students. There are really good people here who go on to top faculty jobs. Many of them came to UCI because of this park. This is a real good grad-student draw.”

On July 6, residents held Hitchstock, a free concert on a stage in front of that trailer to raise awareness of the park residents' plight. About 100 supporters wore T-shirts—DEBRIS OR NOT DEBRIS, THEY PAVED PARADISE AND PUT UP A PARKING LOT—and listened to a band called Tennessee's Trailer Park Troubadours.

Their fight is difficult, but they figure the benefits of living at Irvine Meadows West are too good to let slip away.

“There are so many different types of people here,” said Barr, now walking through the park's communal garden, looking at her tomato and corn plants and the bamboo that grows dozens of feet high. “There are English [literature] people, philosophers, theater people here—people I never would have met on my own. To be happy, you don't need a lot of space. But we feel that all of this is our space. Our whole neighborhood is our space. I wish I could live here the rest of my life.”

Research assistance by Tenaya Hills.

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