Manufactured home parks: The varied faces of the American Dream

In the late 1960s, Walter and Ruth Robinson purchased an acre or so of property along the lazily-named Big River in rural Missouri.

They’d raised four children in the suburbs of St. Louis.The eldest joined the Marines and never made it home from the Vietnam War. Insurance money collected after his death covered the few hundred dollars it took to have a permanent place of respite from the world that swallowed their child.

Shortly after the purchase, a camper was placed on the property. Not long after, my grandfather dug an outhouse at the head of a trail leading down to the river. Within a decade, a manufactured home was put on the property.

After Walter retired, the only way my grandmother would move to the boonies and into a “tornado magnet” was if it had a basement. My handprints are still found all over the concrete pads that became the permanent foundation, the home is still part of my family. My aunt lives there now, and I spent a week there this summer laughing and playing with the next generation of kids exploring the property in all its wonders.

The first time I watched manufactured home owners struggle in Keizer was more than 15 years ago. The same park owner that is the source of recent problems, as well as other park owners, began attempting to convert parks into subdivisions and tried forcing the manufactured home owners to pay up or move out. I watched as homeowner after homeowner turned out at zoning hearings and city council meetings imploring anyone, in any position of authority, to intervene.

The homeowners in the parks did the things we tell everyone to do: if you see a problem, speak up, make it known. Change will follow. Many shed tears as they spoke and that was their undoing. They wept because a house, whatever it’s made of, becomes a home. City leaders dubbed them and their testimony as “emotional,” and therefore they had no place in the discussion. No help arrived and some had to abandon the very thing we hold up as the pinnacle of the American Dream.

Watching the pleas to save their homes fall on deaf ears – in the interest of neighbors who chose not to look and owners who could care less as long as the checks keep coming – took an unexpected toll. It’s why Walter and Ruth are always close to mind as I continue to cover the issues manufactured home owners are facing in Keizer. In part, I’m grateful they never faced the constant barrage of endless rent paid to a faceless property owner that wants to take ever less responsibility for upkeep.

More than that, my grandparents serve as a reminder of how every American Dream looks different. I’m not certain a manufactured home was the dream my grandparents hoped for when they were first starting out on their journey together, but the space they created in one is a home in every way that matters. I can’t imagine the strong and vivid memories I continue to make there in a different setting. And I will be emotional about it when it is no longer ours.

As I watch newspapers, and our industry as a whole, struggle to maintain relevance, I’m more and more convinced that the most important role of journalism in these troubled times as a constant, thrumming reminder to everyone that we are all still human.

We’re all still human regardless of how we choose to identify. Still human despite the shade of our skin or words in our creed. Still human no matter the type of roof over our heads.