The Way of the Trailer
Even after Hurricane Ian, novelist and trailer-park resident Robert Plunket finds much to love in this iconic Florida way of life.
By Robert Plunket
Yes, I live in a trailer park, but don’t tell anyone. The stigma still exists. No other type of housing has received such consistently bad press. You picture men in “wifebeater” T-shirts stumbling around holding cans of beer and yelling at weathered-looking women with cigarettes dangling from their lips and too many children. For many, the trailer park is the definition of low-class.
Such places do exist, of course, and Florida has its share of them. But I live at the other end of the trailer-park spectrum, in an adults-only manufactured housing community with double-wide homes, all of them meticulously manicured, tweaked and decorated. Most residents have golf carts even though there’s no golf course. They use them to ride to the million-dollar clubhouse where the pool and mailboxes are located, along with bingo on Monday, ice cream socials, chair yoga classes, bridge club and other activities. Oh, did I mention pickleball? It’s a decades-old lifestyle that Florida has perfected, and if you’re looking for low-cost retirement living that’s safe and secure, a trailer park in Florida is hard to beat.
I should know. I’m on my third.
Talk about respectable and law-abiding. The guy down on the corner stands in his driveway; and if you don’t come to a complete stop at the stop sign, he points at it and glares. I hear some parks are full of social life and sexually transmitted diseases. Not mine. I was walking the dog late one afternoon and I saw a group of people gathered on my neighbor’s lanai. “At last!” I thought. “A cocktail party.” Then I got closer. It was Bible study.
My first residency in a trailer park happened by accident. About 20 years ago, I found myself between houses and needed a place to live for a couple of months. A friend had a mother who had just been put in a nursing home and wasn’t going to last much longer. The friend said I could stay in the mother’s trailer for $50 a week on a temporary basis.
Why not? As a kid, I was fascinated with trailers. The way some boys like cars and airplanes, I liked trailers. Imagine—a tiny house made out of metal, and you could move it around. Plus, they were located in mysterious places called trailer parks, which were not in our part of town and which I was forbidden to go near. This only made them more appealing.
Here was a chance to try out living in one of those parks.
It was everything you could have wished for in a Florida trailer park. The location was spectacular, right on the southern edge of Tampa Bay. The homes ranged from well-maintained single-wides dating back to the ’60s to brand-new $250,000 models. Many homes faced the wide water view, and others were on a canal or overlooking the marina. RVs were also accommodated, an unusual arrangement that gave the place a vacation atmosphere.
The trailer itself had seen better days. The furniture was mostly gone, leaving a sofa, dining table and a couple of beds. The floor sprang a little as you walked, and there was a strong odor of dog. It had the air of the home of an old lady, one who had been bedridden for a long time. There were portable toilets here and there, and the medicine chest was full of Percocet bottles.
But from the master bedroom, I had a spectacular view of the Skyway Bridge.
My neighbors were mostly snowbirds from Michigan, here to soak up the sun. It was the custom to sit in the shade of your carport in a folding chair and watch people go by. A soothing atmosphere of contentment hovered over the place. And when my cat disappeared, they showed the neighborliness that trailer parks are famous for. The entire park mobilized, and Fester was finally found, getting into trouble with some other cats at the water-treatment plant next door. The plant, a series of great-big silos behind a chain-link fence, was the one ugly element in the beautiful setting.
Alas, the old lady died much too soon, and I had to move out. But the whole experience was so much fun, so stress-free and pleasantly eccentric that I made a vow: I’m going to retire in a trailer park. Or at least seriously think about it.
Homes that you can move around have been with us since the beginning of humanity, but the first recognizable trailer appeared in the 1920s. With the advent of the automobile, camping became a popular vacation option for the middle class, and all sorts of towable sleeping quarters emerged, even if some were just big boxes with a tent. The classic shape—a loaf of bread or perhaps a toaster—appeared in the late ’20s. This was the era of the “tin-can tourist,” vacationers who drove their trailers all over the country and parked them in specially designated campgrounds, and Florida saw the influx of thousands of them each winter. At first, locals considered the tin-can tourists disreputable and their campgrounds a public nuisance. But some Florida town fathers realized these visitors had cash to spend and could turn into future residents and real estate buyers and decided to build attractive parks on municipal land to lure them to their communities.
During the Depression, when so many Americans lost their jobs and homes, people realized you could live in trailers full time if necessary; and that’s when trailers became associated with the down-and-out, along with the seedy parks and campgrounds that housed them. “Trailer trash” lived there, and zoning limited the parks to the edge of town, often next to the sewage plant or the railroad tracks.
But during World War II, trailers became patriotic. The government bought thousands of them to house defense-plant workers. It was no longer a disgrace but a badge of honor to be living in a trailer—even if you didn’t have a bathroom. Your suffering was winning the war. And when the war was finally won, trailers were in even more demand as the GIs returned and started raising families. The stage was set for the 1950s and the Golden Age of Trailers.
Here trailers reached their aesthetic peak. The design motifs were those of the automobile, not the housing industry. They had fins, protrusions, two-tone color schemes, slants, slopes, tail lights, chrome detailing. They were perfect little expressions of midcentury modernism, right down to their meticulously planned interiors, where every inch mattered. A few even had a second story. Public sentiment began to change. Trailers were acceptable in certain circumstances. It was a class thing. For the upper middle class, they were simply not a possibility. (I had to wait until my mother died before I dared live in a trailer.) For the lower middle class, they were OK under certain circumstances—a weekend place at the lake or a retirement home for Gramps, who had no money, anyway.
Then, in 1960, a real estate developer named Del Webb had a better idea of what to do with Gramps. Why not build an age-restricted community where people could retire cheaply and comfortably? There would be lots to do and the like-minded neighbors would provide an instant community. Webb developed his idea with site-built homes in Arizona, but other developers quickly saw its potential for mobile homes in Florida.
The concept was an immediate success. The Villages in Central Florida, the state’s most iconic retirement community, began life as a trailer park. (Part of it is still there. It’s referred to as the “Historic Section.”) The first fully realized modern-day vision is probably Bradenton’s Trailer Estates.
It dates back to 1955 and is said to be the first, and for some time, the largest, mobile home subdivision in the country. It’s famous for having its own zip code and fire department. The range of homes you drive past is amazing. Each decade is represented, and you can see the stylistic changes as trailers turned from wacky midcentury artifacts to metal suburban tract houses. You can even spot a couple of Spartan models from the ’50s. which, with their streamlined, curving exteriors and lavish interiors, were, most experts agree, the most beautiful trailers ever made.
After my brief sojourn in a trailer park, I went through many Florida lifestyles. I bought a cute little bungalow downtown, then a concrete-block ranch house in the suburbs, then moved to a couple of rental apartments, then purchased a duplex that I thought was going to make me a lot of money (it didn’t), and finally ended up, 68 years old and living in a 3-bedroom condo in a golf course community. When Florida housing prices rocketed a few years ago, the condo was suddenly worth a surprising amount of money.
I started brooding, the way people do when they’re about to retire. If I sold the condo and bought something much cheaper, I would have a swell piece of change—money I would need with only Social Security and a $200-a-month pension to live on.
How about a trailer park? I liked living in one before, but that was a lark, like moving to Spain and becoming an expat. This was going to be my permanent home—probably my final home. Dare I?
A famous study once found that people in trailer parks scored highest of any group on happiness—far higher than their wealthy counterparts in high-rise condominiums. It seems living so close together encourages residents to develop deep social connections, an important factor in happiness. That didn’t interest me. I wanted to enjoy a comfortable home in my declining years, surrounded by my books, not play bingo with the neighbors.
What finally sold me were the trailers themselves. Compared to what you get on the lower rungs of Florida housing—the minuscule condo with zero storage space, the tiny house that’s so cheap because it needs so much work—the trailer wins hands down. Over the years, the trailer has evolved into the perfect home for a retired couple. Trailers are usually just over 1,000 square feet, but they “live” much larger. They have an open living and dining area; the kitchen is adjacent but separate. Every dining area has a built-in hutch, and it’s always an eyesore.
The primary bedroom is big, with an aspirational veneer of luxury. There’s a large walk-in closet, but the piece de resistance is the bathroom, often with something called a “garden tub” and a separate walk-in shower. Usually, the bathroom is open to the bedroom, the vanity portion, that is. It’s a cut-rate but acceptable take on what you would find in a fancy model home.
There’s also a second bedroom for visiting grandchildren and other relatives, along with a hall bath. There’s a laundry room. And don’t forget the lanai. Most trailers have these sunrooms attached on the side. They are part den, part TV room, part sun porch, part hobby room, part spare bedroom.
And then there’s my favorite, the shed. Virtually every trailer has one. It’s at the end of the carport and can vary in size from a big closet to a large room. This is what really sold me—all that extra storage space. You’re not just getting a place to live; you’re getting your very own storage unit.
I finally found the perfect place. It was in an upscale but low-key park near Englewood. The lots were 50 feet wide and shaded by beautiful trees. The park was resident-owned and seemed well run. The trailer itself was a nicely updated 1987 double-wide, a classic example of the genre, aging gracefully but supremely comfortable and recently remodeled. Yes, there was a “garden tub,” and yes, there was an ugly hutch. But it fit me to a T, and I soon was happily ensconced in my new living room with its turquoise leather sofas and beachy decor, peeking through the blinds and wondering about the neighbors.
One stood out immediately: the guy around the corner with the Trump banner. He had a screened-in lanai, and when I walked the dog, he would be out there, sitting at a desk and watching several TV monitors at once, keeping up with all the far-right news channels. I realized that befriending the neighbors might be harder than I thought.
But I tried. My first challenge was the Wave. People in trailer parks wave at each other when they pass, whether walking, on a bike or trike, in a golf cart or a car. You have to wave back or you will be thought snobbish.
I found it nerve-racking. Who initiates the wave? Do you wave at the truckful of gardeners? Do you wave at somebody’s visiting grandchild? Do you wave at somebody who isn’t looking at you?
I soon learned that the people I was waving at were a much more diverse group than I had imagined. Some had plenty of money. The couple on the corner had a house in Cape Cod, and the people next door had a house in North Carolina, plus a great-big RV and a Mercedes. But right across the street was a grandmother who worked as a waitress and next to her, another single woman, who collected tolls on the causeway to the key. And every day the Meals on Wheels car would pass my living room window to deliver to the woman on the corner, who was 91.
A few generalities about the people in my park. They were all white. They were all from up North, mostly Michigan. They were usually religious. Two of the neighbors invited me to join their church. The expression most often heard was, “Have a blessed day.”
Most of the men had served in the military and knew how to build and fix things. Their sheds were not storage units for their antiques and collectibles, as mine was; they were fully equipped wood shops. Much of their day was spent doing maintenance. They hosed the driveway, they planted bushes, they did things to their car or truck, they repaired the lawn furniture, they raised and lowered the flag. There was still plenty of time left over for sitting in the carport. Almost everyone I met was politically conservative—and friendly. Some were eager to chat. There were a few oddballs, including me. The old man on the corner was famous for telling people to mind their own business. Oddly enough, this did not make him unpopular. People assumed he was coming down with Alzheimer’s and treated him with compassion.
Holidays were big deals; people decorated their homes and yards not just at Christmas but Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day, and the Super Bowl. This was in addition to the usual year-round decorations, which included statuary (lighthouses, herons, dolphins, little boys with fishing poles, pinwheels and yes, pink flamingoes) and various banners and lawn signs offering support for their favorite sports teams.
All sorts of rules restricted everything from garbage cans and watering your lawn to parking on the street, but they were not onerous. The dog rule—you were allowed to have two small dogs—was routinely flouted. An enormous white dog, ferocious-looking but sweet, lived across the street, and the couple next door had three yappy poodles.
Many of the residents were new to Florida and a little afraid of it. Alligators were a problem. Several alligators lived in our ornamental pond, and during mating season they would wander the streets. Even more worrisome were the coyotes, who had actually carried off a Shih Tzu several years back. Some nights you could hear them howling in the woods.
Were the neighbors nosey? They certainly knew your business. If your air conditioning was broken, they knew. If you ordered a pizza, they knew. But it was in the context of safety concerns. They looked out for each other. If a couple was out of town, neighbors would park in their driveway so it looked like they were home.
Little acts of kindness were routine. People cleaned up your garbage after raccoons got into the can. The lady next door brought me leftover cake from parties at her church. After a year and a half, I was settled in. True, I was a little aloof and apart, without any close friends, but all in all, the move was a success.
Then, on Sept. 28, 2022, I discovered the fatal flaw in living in a Florida trailer park.
I’ve lived in Florida 40 years and never paid much attention to hurricanes. It’s always the same. They say one’s coming, so get ready. Buy canned food and batteries. You do, and what happens? It rains for a day. The TV flickers off and on a couple of times. Big deal.
But Hurricane Ian felt different. Slowly but surely, its path narrowed, until unbelievably, it seemed to be heading directly for my trailer park. The neighbors were springing into action, bolting down their shutters, filling their cars with gas and getting out of there. But I decided to stay. The alternative was to head to North Port High School and sleep on the floor of
It was a long night. I hadn’t counted on how noisy a hurricane is. The wind whistles and roars. You look out the window and the rain appears to be coming at you sideways. Then the banging starts. Things are hitting your trailer. It starts shaking and groaning. Water is dripping from your stove vent. It’s coming in through the windowsills. And the TV weather guy said all this was just the outer edge of the storm. By dawn I had decided to get the hell out of there.
The next two days are a blur. I drove east to Okeechobee and got the last motel room in town. The hurricane followed me, and I lay awake through another night of fierce wind and rain. The drive back the next day was the worst part. I never dreamed the middle of the state would flood. But rolling waves of water covered the two-lane highways. Time after time it seemed the car was about to float away. To this day it still groans when turned to the left. I saw the frantic faces of people whose cars had stalled. I looked up at the heavens and cried, “A trailer! Why did I ever buy a trailer? Now I’m going to die!”
Normally, the trip would take three hours, but after 10 hours of driving through water and debris, I pulled into my trailer park. I could barely recognize it. All the beautiful trees had blown down and were blocking the streets. Layers of ugly debris covered everything. Some trailers were missing their roof or sides or lanais or all three. Our pretty pond was a giant puddle of floating trash. Every single carport had blown away.
My own trailer came into view. I was amazed. It appeared to be reasonably intact. Part of the roof was gone, the carport was nowhere to be seen, and the roof belonging to my neighbor with the Trump banner had blown off in one big piece and flown into the side of my house, pretty much destroying my siding. But my home was still standing.
Inside it smelled soggy. Three windows had blown in, and shards of glass covered the floor and furniture. Waterlogged insulation hung from the ceiling. There was no power, no water. My phone didn’t work. The hutch, I noted grimly, had survived intact.
It was getting dark. I found some dry towels in the linen closet and spread them over the couch. I sat there, calculating my loss. I had insurance but not much. What was I going to do now? Where was I going to live? I looked out the window, hoping for a glimmer of candlelight or the beam of a flashlight. Nothing. I was the only person in the trailer park.
The next day was beautiful. Bright sun, not a cloud in the sky, a fresh breeze from the Gulf. After all the rain, my plants, which had always been a problem, were suddenly bursting with health and vigor, the ones that weren’t covered by wreckage, that is. I heard a car and looked down the street. The neighbors were returning.
If I was paralyzed with despair, they were not. The military training kicked in, and the men set to work. The first mission was to clear the streets. They cut up the fallen trees by hand or with gas-powered chain saws. Work crews formed spontaneously, and even I did what I could. We moved from one task to the next. Windows had to be boarded up, all the jagged metal had to be stacked along the street. It was exhausting. The division of labor was a little old-fashioned—the men did the lifting. and the women made sandwiches. At least there was plenty to eat. With no electricity, the contents of everybody’s refrigerator had to be consumed,
The next four days were all like this. Up at dawn, then clean-up. We went to sleep at sunset. I kept waiting for the police, the fire department, FEMA, somebody official to show up. They never did. It was just me and the neighbors. By the end of the week, they were my new best friends.
We ran back and forth—nobody’s phone worked—with the latest news and rumors. There was a gas station open on Indiana Avenue (not true). They had ice at Racetrack (not true). I-75 had flooded and was shut down (very true).
Our only source of information was a battery-powered radio, which we listened to constantly.
A lot of what we heard was heartbreaking. One woman couldn’t find her 104-year-old mother-in-law. Another man was trapped by the water in North Port and didn’t know what to do. When we found out that Billy Graham Ministries was giving out free tarps, the woman across the street and I jumped in her car and drove to the Baptist church. It was tricky; many of the streets were flooded and we didn’t want to use any more gas than absolutely necessary. (Gas was the biggest problem. Without it we were trapped. We even discussed siphoning it from cars left behind by our snowbird neighbors.)
After a day or two, the local churches started coming around. They brought food and water. Whenever they passed out supplies, all the neighbors formed a circle, held hands, and said a prayer. Grasping the thin hand of the 91-year-old woman who lived on the corner, I looked around the circle with gratitude and admiration. It had taken a hurricane to teach me the true spirit of the trailer park. Now I was one of them. And we are survivors. We worked hard to finally have a wonderful life in our renovated double-wides, and it wasn’t easy. We’re not about to let a little hurricane destroy our dreams.
I was working out back, picking up the innumerable pieces of white Styrofoam, when I looked over and saw that my neighbor, the one with the Trump banner, was up on top of what was left of his roof, and the ladder had slipped. He was trapped up there. A week ago, I would have pretended not to notice, just to make him suffer. But I was a trailer-park person now. I ran over, got him down, then helped him move a waterlogged couch. He shook my hand and called me “bro.”
“Have a blessed day,” I said.
I’m living in a new trailer park now. It’s fancy—gated, set on several lakes, and has two swimming pools. The taste level is very high. The bylaws specifically forbid pink flamingoes. There’s always something going on. We’re having a 1950s car show on Saturday, with barbecue and then dancing on the pool deck. Of course, I’m going.
People are amazed that after Hurricane Ian I would ever buy another trailer. But I did. The lesson I learned was not “don’t live in a trailer” but rather “don’t live in an old trailer.” The newer ones, post-2000, tended to do well in the hurricane.
I drove through my old park the other day. It’s a beehive of remodeling and repair. Someone bought my place “as is” and is about to put on a new roof. People are moving in brand-new $300,000 trailers—I guess I should call them “manufactured homes”—to replace the ones that were destroyed, and the place has a boomtown atmosphere. This is Florida, after all, and just 10 minutes from the beach. My old park is going to do fine.
And so will my new trailer park. There’s just one problem. I think I may be in over my head. All the homes are so perfectly manicured and curated. I’m going to need new landscaping, new window treatments, new outdoor furniture for sitting in the carport. Plus, my hurricane-damaged Kia isn’t cutting it among the Cadillacs and full-size SUVs. I may soon be living beyond my means—in a trailer park. It’s a worry, but I’m sure everything will work out. In the meantime, it’s Monday night, and you know what that means—bingo!
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Robert Plunket is an architecture critic, magazine journalist and novelist. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, Barrons, the Atlantic and Time magazine. His first novel, My Search for Warren Harding, has just been reissued by New Directions Publishing. In April, he was profiled in The Paris Review.
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