Illegal trailer park grows into a community

Streets once filled with rotting garbage have been cleared. Most of the menacing wild dogs are gone. Shady employees peddling drugs have been let go. Fire hazards and illegal businesses have been removed.

A year after a federal judge rejected government efforts to shut down the trailer park known as Duroville, this cramped warren of banged-up trailers and relentless poverty is experiencing something of a renaissance.

It’s still hot, ugly and crowded, but the air of despair and fear has lifted. Order prevails where chaos once reigned.

“On the whole, everything has changed for the better,” said Sister Teresita Navarro, a Dominican nun, as she helped children with homework in what was once an illegal bodega. “There used to be so much fear, but now people can put aside their fear and focus on building a community.”

As many as 4,000 people live in Duroville, most of them impoverished migrant workers and their families.

Now they have elected councils and 11 block captains who visit homes, make sure tenants abide by regulations and keep track of the needs of the community.

“When we started, there was a lack of control. People didn’t follow the rules,” said Patty Huante, one of the captains.

In his final order on Duroville last April, then-federal judge Stephen Larson said that although the park was potentially dangerous, keeping it open was preferable to rendering thousands of low-wage farm workers homeless. He placed it in receivership for two years but urged residents to use the time to find better housing elsewhere.

Few have left so far.

One reason is a lack of affordable housing in the Coachella Valley. Another is that government-funded housing projects of the kind Duroville residents could afford require applicants to be legal residents, and many in the park are not. Perhaps the biggest obstacle, though, is that 65% of tenants are Purepechas, indigenous people from Michoacan, Mexico, who have turned Duroville into a tightly knit village. Most come from the same town.

“I work up north for three months a year, and when I come back its like coming back to Ocumicho,” said Uvaldo Esteban.

Merejildo Ortiz, president of the park’s Purepecha Council, said that if everyone follows the rules and tries to “act like the Americans,” the court might allow Duroville to stay open. “It would be a very beautiful thing if the county gave us a place where we could all live together,” he said.

Riverside County has plans for 800 new housing units, including Mountain View Estates, a few miles away. It will have 398 trailers and is due to open by the end of the year. The county’s assistant housing director, Emilio Ramirez, says it is the “biggest opportunity” for Duroville dwellers.

“The rents are designed to be flexible so they are affordable to the family’s income,” he said.

Last week, Arturo Rodriguez, directing attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance, who successfully represented the tenants in federal court, rumbled into the park on his Harley Davidson.

As the sun set, he stood before residents and warned them that Duroville’s days were numbered.

“This is not the same judge we had before,” he told them. “I can’t promise you that he will give us more time.”

Duroville took shape 11 years ago when Riverside County began cracking down on hundreds of illegal trailer parks dotting the Coachella Valley.

Harvey Duro, a member of the Torres Martinez Indian tribe, invited farm workers to move their trailers onto 40 acres of his land. Because it was Indian land, state and local regulations did not apply.

Soon there were thousands of people — and the place was in growing disrepair. There were pools of raw sewage in the streets, tangled electrical lines overhead, fire hazards everywhere. A huge illegal dump, which Larson eventually closed, sat next door, burning tires, paint cans and toxic chemicals day and night.

The U.S. government filed a complaint against Duro and sought to close the park. But after a long trial, Larson — who once held court there and made several unannounced visits —decided that its closure would cause “a major humanitarian crisis.”

“The government wanted to shut down what was essentially a small town,” Larson said in a recent interview. “We have a history of the government displacing large groups of people in this country, and to do it in this day and age really gave me pause.”

He said he realized the scope of the problem when he first set foot in the park.

“It felt like you were leaving the U.S. and entering a Third World country. It was pretty dramatic,” he said.

Still, he said, “as dire as the conditions were, this was a place where people had come to voluntarily, and that spoke loudly to me.”

Keeping it open was risky. With trailers so close together, catastrophic fire was his greatest fear.

“There was never a day that went by or goes by now that I am not concerned about the issue of fire,” he said. “That’s why I issued the order to take down those wooden overhangs.”

It was an unpopular decision because overhangs offered needed shade — but they also could make it easy for fire to leap from trailer to trailer.

Larson, who left the bench in November to enter private practice, said he still makes anonymous visits to Duroville.

“Much has been done and much remains to be done,” he said. “The saga is not over.”

Before stepping down, he appointed Tom Flynn as park receiver.

A towering bear of a man, Flynn manages to balance the need to enforce the rules with an understanding of the poverty around him. Most tenants, he said, earn less than $10,000 a year picking fruit and vegetables.

Recently he drove around the park, rapidly ticking off improvements.

“All the illegal businesses are gone. We have 18 fewer units than a year ago. Everyone has a garbage can with a lid on it,” he said. “Propane tanks are set aside from the trailer. We spayed and neutered 400 dogs, and 150 dogs have been adopted.”

There has been plenty of outside help.

Father Howard Lincoln, pastor at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church in Palm Desert, said his parish is donating $100,000 a year in food.

“We do 600 boxes a month, and each box weighs about 45 pounds each,” he said. “I think the feeling of the Catholic Church is that if our neighbor is not OK, then we are not OK.”

Dr. Alberto Manetta, professor of medicine at UC Irvine, has received $216,000 to start a children’s health initiative at Duroville and to train residents how to do diabetes and hypertension assessments.

“By organizing the prevention part of it, the park becomes more attractive to local healthcare organizations who might want to step in and help,” he said.

Manetta recently arranged the painting of a bare-bones old building used for meetings. He asked residents what color it should be inside and out.

“They said green and green,” he said.

The emerald building now glows like a brilliant Christmas light in dun-colored Duroville.

Manetta felt it needed a name so he painted “Central Communatario El Refugio” on the side.

“I thought ‘The Refuge’ fit,” he said.

With all the aid flowing into Duroville, it’s easy to forget about the many other parks — hidden in date and orange groves — with poor drinking water, faulty electricity and raw sewage on the ground.

Sister Gabriella Williams, a nun who works in them, said there are at least 121 illegal and 168 legal parks, and very often conditions in both are equally poor.

“The need is still great,” she said.