Class Conflict on the Creek?

Citizen Wealth Financial Justice
one of the fishing buddies on the Creek
one of the fishing buddies on the Creek

Rock Creek, Montana   More is changing on the creek than the climate, it would seem. Having just finished Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, I found her whispering in my ear as I tried to get my arms around the changing scene in this beautiful spot, where I’ve found so much peace in the past.

This is my seventh season on the creek, reading, fishing, writing, working, hiking, and visiting with family and friends. These have been special times that I associated with being a dozen miles off of paved road, off-the-grid, away from the rat race, and virtually in a parallel universe that rose and set with the sun and the rhythms of living with fish jumping, eagles and hawks soaring, deer running through camp, chipmunks bold and brassy, walking eye to eye with the occasional moose, and even new sign of bear. I had come to believe, even as jaded and cynical as I remain, that this was a place apart.

The son of a friend and comrade for decades commented to me as we leaned against my pickup that “gentrification is coming.” Visiting another friend who runs the local office of the National Wildlife Federation in Missoula, he commented that he had been around the area almost 40 years and remembered when people living up the creek were just seen as “white trash,” and now prices had skyrocketed along the paved road and were moving up the creek. Sure enough there were now For Sale signs posted all around the bridge gate. Last season we were surprised that a less-than-modern plywood cabin up the road was listed for over $120,000. Now it is just one of three houses for sale on our small island of sorts. Close by, a neighbor was trying to sell their place for $246,000.

Even here where we are planted, there have been improvements aplenty. In 2010 when the Silver Bullet arrived there was nothing but a shed and a tent pad. We were an upgrade. Now there are two tiny cabins and one two-story cabin, a washing area, a cooking area, art projects, talk of a well and a second outhouse, and at least at this moment still one tent pad and our Airstream. Even in the quiet, as we read in the trailer in the morning, we could hear someone passing by on the road repeating to someone else over and over that this whole property looked like a “Hooverville, a Hooverville, do you hear me?” Well, yes, I heard you. If this Shangri-La is now her idea of a “Hooverville,” what’s happening here, Mr. Jones, and does class have something to do with it?

This is Montana where the myth is that your land is your land and your business where you can do what you want, and privacy and respect is always warranted and expected. Much of this nose sniffing in the air and tongue wagging seems to have found a home to roost, focused on our trailer. Isenberg is brilliant in her book on trailers and we “trash” who embrace them. She sees them in the American “cultural imagination” as “a symbol of untethered freedom” on one hand and on the other as associated with “liberty’s dark side: deviant, dystopian wastelands set on the fringe of the metropolis.”

Isenberg dates much of this trailer antipathy to the war years when the sudden mobilization of available labor for production was magnetized into war centers without adequate housing and trailer parks in places like the shipyard of Pascagoula, Mississippi where 5000 were housed that way. Or she cites the building of a steel mill in Pennsylvania that provoked an outcry of fear that it would reduce “property values.” Isenberg writes, “The construction workers were deemed trash not because of their class background per se, but because they lived in trailers. It was their homes on wheels that carried the stigma.” Manufacturers tried to reduce the stigma by rebranding trailers as “bungalows-on-wheels” to erase how they were seen in the vestiges of the war years, but it never has quite taken.

Zoning restrictions and the fact that the FHA did not agree to insure mortgages on mobile homes until 1971, “proved difficult for the trailer to compete with the tract home.” Isenberg notes that by “the late fifties, more mobile homes were built than prefabricated homes, yet municipalities continued to look down on them,” including prohibiting them from many city limits. A jurist writing a dissent in a New Jersey case “exposed the dangerous implications of this decision: ‘Trailer dwellers’ had become a class of people, he explained, through which discrimination was tolerated under the vague language of protecting the ‘general welfare.’” She tells the story as well of a project to build a trailer park community in Yorba Linda, California, that was finally approved only after the developers “added one final touch: a five-foot high wall around the entire complex.” She goes on to report, “Another local resident, without any apparent shame, admitted, ‘we call them the ‘people inside the wall,’ and we’re ‘the people outside the wall.’” Finally, the historian in an editorial voice asks, “Was there any better symbol of an undisguised belief in class stratification than the construction of a wall?”

Where’s the space and place in America where class does not trump nature and the ability to live freely, even for only several weeks a year? I look forward to many more seasons on the Creek, but wonder if it becomes a matter of keeping up with all of these Joneses, whether I’m simply – and literally — outclassed and need to start looking for some other place to drop my line, read my books, write my words, and visit with friends and family?

the fishing buddy who actually brings in the fish