Gimme Shelter : Founded in the '70s by Student Squatters, UCI's Low-Rent Trailer Park May Go Mobile

Danny Sullivan is a free-lance writer based in Newport Beach

It sounds rough, living in a thin-walled trailer the size of a large bedroom. Getting a decent shower means throwing on a bathrobe and walking down an asphalt road to a communal bathroom. On a cold night, the power fails when too many space heaters click on to combat the chill. And everyone has a story about leaks during heavy rains.

At UC Irvine's only student trailer park, Irvine Meadows West, on the undeveloped edge of the campus, the grass grows long, the animals run wild and no home looks like another. Friends drop by with dinner or invite neighbors out to a movie, and every so often, a group gets together to tidy the grounds or to sing around a campfire.

Irvine Meadows West is home to about 100 students--a low-priced, alternative form of university housing pioneered by UCI. It has survived for nearly 20 years, ever since a handful of students first squatted in buses, vans and campers on the original site across from the college.

The four-acre trailer park is sheltered from the nearby academic buildings, undergraduate apartments and a campus road running alongside it by hillsides and large trees. It opens toward pristine hills now green from rain. Fashion Island is off in the distance to the west, and nothing but open space is visible in between. To the south are more knolls, some with University Hills homes for faculty and staff peeking over the crest lines.

Five years from now, however, buildings will stand on this site, and presently no one knows if there will be land on campus set aside to accommodate the 80 trailers. Residents fear the worst: that someday there won't be an Irvine Meadows West.

Renting the space for a trailer is $100 per month, with electricity and water thrown in. The community is friendly and laid-back, and a passing "hello" easily becomes a 10-minute conversation. And years without a building code have allowed the expansions of many trailers, resulting in a hodgepodge of odd-shaped and -sized room additions. This alone sets the settlement apart from the private apartments next to the university or other campus housing projects--for which residents are grateful.

"It kept me kind of sane," said Toby Buchanan, a two-year resident of Irvine Meadows West and one of its three student managers. "I don't like the Irvine attitude where all the colors have to be the same and you can't have your car in the alley."

A walk along the asphalt fire road that separates the park's inner and outer rings of trailers reveals, for example, a white camper with "Al's Bed and Breakfast" written on its front in blue letters. An addition resembling a hillbilly's shack erupts skyward from its top. Others have patios and rooms attached to their sides.

Residents grow strawberries and sweet peas, fertilized from small compost piles, in small gardens behind some of the trailers. The communal Circular Garden, about the size of a ball diamond, is filled with bamboo, licorice-smelling fennel and cacti.

The garden was a thesis project by a fine arts major who lived in the park when it first opened, said Brian Miller, another of the park's managers. Scattered among the plants are large art projects, legacies from other residents. Giant ceramic feet stand silently, and a totem pole-like statue guards the garden.

"Here, there's nice bushes and trees and rabbits running around that don't look like they were stuck there," said Graham Davis, a sophomore art major and resident since January.

Despite its idyllic setting, Irvine Meadows West is not a campground.

Dinner's not cooked over a can of Sterno; it's zapped in the microwave. Entertainment's not limited to watching the sunset and going to sleep when darkness falls; there are plenty of stereos and VCRs. The nearest water supply is not a hike away; it comes from the tap, in hot or cold--and you don't need to boil it to kill germs.

Still, some of Kimberly Spears' friends thought the senior English major was crazy when she moved into the park a year ago. But two friends who saw the 8-foot-wide, 40-foot-long trailer she bought from a former resident for $3,500 signed up on the park's one-to-two-year waiting list the next day.

Spears' 35-year-old trailer is essentially a long, wooden box without the stationary tables and seats of conventional recreational vehicles, allowing her to decorate and furnish it like a small house. She has a full-size refrigerator and a queen-size bed, a small blue couch and a little desk lit by a pink lamp--all found in any regular apartment. And she has the place to herself.

"I don't feel like I'm living in a travel trailer," Spears said. "I'd lived in a dorm for a year, then shared a room, so coming in here, it felt spacious."

Not all residents have trailers as nice as Spears'. Some live in small ones where the kitchen table doubles as a desk and folds up when there's need for a living room.

Space is a constant consideration. Tiny refrigerators mean never buying a two-liter bottle of Coke, and minuscule freezers make the park's communal ice machine a popular appliance. It's a common sight to see residents clutching soap and shampoo as they stroll to the park's modest bathroom facility because their hot-water tanks are too small to provide a long shower.

But these are minor inconveniences compared to other forms of student housing, residents say. To them, a rough life is paying an average $250 or more a month to share an apartment bedroom, on or off campus. There's not much privacy in those places either when people are squeezed into an apartment to lower expenses.

The park's low rent attracts students without parental support or who lack hefty scholarships. "These are mostly independent students," said Jim Craig, UCI's director of housing, "who are trying to make it on their own."

Beyond the rent, residents say they're attached to the park's strong sense of community.

Lydia Passannante, a junior fine arts major who has lived in the park since September, says residents look out for each other. Her neighbors know that she doesn't have a car, so they ask if she needs anything when they go shopping. When someone has extra food or furniture, it's donated to another resident. "Things don't get thrown away here," she said, "they move around."

Some residents say the tight-knit community exists because of the people attracted to a lifestyle that provides life's necessities on a small scale. Residents are characterized as everything from "a real granola crowd" and "earthy" to "rebels" and "leaders," depending on whom you ask.

Another explanation for the community spirit could be that a smaller population is a closer one, said Gretchen Casey, acting associate director of the Campus Village undergraduate apartments.

There are only 100 or so residents of Irvine Meadows West compared to almost 800 students in Campus Village, UCI's undergraduate apartment complex. About 11,500 of UCI's 16,000 students--72% of the campus student population--live off campus, according to the UCI Housing Office.

Turnover is slow at the park because once residents have a space, they may stay as long as they remain full-time students. An unenrolled roommate is allowed, which helps a few former residents hang on to the low-rent, idyllic life.

Many of the old trailers with additions manage to hang on, too, rather than be rooted up and replaced when new residents move in. Residents like the extra space some of the older trailers offer, and depending on amenities, trailer prices can range up to $4,000. Most residents break even or make a small profit when they sell their trailers, but many invest time repairing and improving their homes after they buy them, Miller said.

The trailer park has moved three times since it began, gaining size and strength with each move, despite the odds.

Its origins in the early 1970s were unlikely. Modern-day squatters living in buses, vans and campers on private property across from UCI asked the university if they could move onto the campus. The city of Irvine had taken aim at people like the squatters in the winter of 1972 by passing ordinances prohibiting sleeping in a vehicle and parking an RV on city streets.

Allowing students to live in a housing experiment on campus during the time of the Vietnam War protests wasn't an easy idea for the proponents, including squatters and two campus officials, to pitch to the administration.

"It was fairly revolutionary," said Robert F. Gentry, associate dean of students who was acting dean of students at the time.

James Phillips, acting director of housing then, narrates a taped oral history of the park and recalls the different reactions to the idea: "The squatters' proposal was met head-on with a whole spectrum of closed minds. Safety people said it wouldn't be safe. Health people said it would be unhealthy. Insurance people said it would be risky. A vice chancellor said that people shouldn't live that way. When asked why, he said, 'Because it's a crummy way to live.' "

But with a severe housing shortage on the 7-year-old campus, and then-Chancellor Daniel G. Aldrich Jr. behind the idea, doubts were pushed aside and a temporary site for 12 trailers was prepared.

When it opened in September, 1973, Irvine Meadows--as it became known after a small sign was posted by a resident in the early years--boasted perks such as two toilets and a cold water tap. No electricity. No telephones. Rent was $10.

The site changed once more in 1979 from near the present site of the Bren Events Center to its current location. A rent increase to $70 accompanied the move.

While it may appear that the park has beaten the odds and is a permanent fixture at UCI, its biggest fight for survival is yet to come.

This month, construction begins on a road around the far side of the park which will effectively end its isolation. The park will no longer be forgotten on the edge of the campus but rather exist as part of the campus whole.

Residents said they fear that officials in the administration who think the park is an unsightly sprawl will eliminate Irvine Meadows West.

"We're here at the edge of the campus, and it's wonderful. They're going to build a road around us, and who knows what that'll do? We want to plant trees and keep it enclosed," said resident Passannante.

To address concerns over safety and appearance, the park's management agreed to a building moratorium after consulting with the campus housing office last year following a fire marshal's inspection, Buchanan said. Trailers moving into the park are restricted to 35 feet in length and 8 feet in width, and residents are required to keep areas around their spaces neat.

Under the university's long-range plans, physical sciences classrooms, office space and research labs could be built on the park site in the next five years, according to Leon M. Schwartz, vice chancellor of administrative and business services.

The park site "is seen as temporary," said housing director Craig. "That means some time in the future, it might be redesignated as academic space. I would like to think it would be relocated."

The future area for new student housing--where the park would probably be relocated--is within view of the upscale community of Turtle Rock, on a hill overlooking UCI.

The question asked by Schwartz is: If some administrators find a collection of trailers unsightly, "what are the people in Turtle Rock going to say?"

Another concern, Schwartz said, is that high-density housing projects are prefered.

The fate of Irvine Meadows East remains to be seen.

It's demise would sadden Christopher Stevens, a 1984 graduate student in fine arts who lived in Irvine Meadows and helped moved trailers to Irvine Meadows West.

"That would just be terribly sad. It's a good institution. It would be an extreme loss," Stevens said. "Some people would not have been able to be students if it weren't for living there."

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