A new restaurant has opened in San Diego’s tony Gaslamp Quarter, one with an unsavory theme: Trailer Park After Dark. The underground restaurant and self-described “five star dive bar” features fashionably mismatched furniture, shopping carts for seating, wood wall paneling, actual trailers scattered around the room and dishes with names such as “Meat Tubes” (hot dogs) and “Twerkin’ Melon” (a graham cracker and watermelon confection).
If this were merely an example of 1970s nostalgia, as one might think from the wood paneling, I’d let it go. But it has the stench of classism — so I can’t.
As a kid, we were poor enough that I lived in a trailer park with my grandparents for a while. It wasn’t a hardship; I loved its compactness and our neighbors. We never had a lot of money and went through some extraordinarily lean years, but we got through them as best we could. I thought my family did a good job of it, too. However, it was eventually made clear to me, through years of subtle looks and pointed comments, that trailer parks are “trashy.” The things I loved were tacky. The way I dressed, the way I presented myself— just hopeless.
I only felt more out of place after I dropped out of high school and got into media. Since journalism jobs rarely pay well, they often attract people who already have money. (They can afford to have low salaries.) I felt like a stranger in a strange land. I made a study of those who were rich, the ones who acted, looked and even smelled expensive. I knew they could smell poverty on me. I spent a long time studying people of higher classes in order to try to emulate them. How did they speak? What did they say? How did they hold their forks? Dress? Do their hair?
As if we’d have eaten canned green beans and tater tots covered with melted government cheese if we’d had a choice.
I finally made it into the middle class in my 30s, after I made enough money to put myself through college and earn a bachelor’s degree. I am extremely lucky and I know it.
And now people with too much money will be imitating my childhood milieu, eating overpriced foods that rich white people think “trailer trash” like. As if we’d have eaten canned green beans and tater tots covered with melted government cheese if we’d had a choice. Rich people can walk down Fifth Avenue avoiding eye contact with people trying to panhandle so they can buy a meal or perhaps some booze because being homeless sucks — then go into this restaurant and buy a $10 grilled cheese sandwich.
America has a long history of treating its impoverished as entertainment. During the Gilded Age of the 1800s, rich New Yorkers would stand in line for hours to see the way people lived in the slums, sometimes posing as charity workers (in what they called “slumming parties,” eventually truncated to just “slumming”) so that they could push their way into people’s homes and get a good look around. A version of this practice appeared in the 1980s and 1990s, when Americans started traveling to places such as India and Brazil to take slum tours. Reality TV shows about poor, rural Americans made it possible for the rich to taste the pleasures of poverty without leaving the comfort of their couches.
Oliver Twist-style stories about the plucky poor — a media favorite — are another example of poverty-as-entertainment. The restaurant employee who walked to get to work because he couldn’t afford a car. The homeless man who was a radio star before addiction claimed his career.
These “inspirational” stories, like carnivals and slum tours, have a secondary purpose: reinforcing stereotypes. The helpless poor person, who is almost always not white, is saved from an untenable situation not by pluck alone, but with the assistance of a generous, rich and usually white person who just happened on the situation, with not a single thought spared for the underlying structural forces that caused it — a dearth of available healthcare or addiction treatment; ever-rising housing prices; redlining; stigma attached to mental health issues.
Perhaps Trailer Park After Dark has more of a conscience than I can perceive. Perhaps the owners are doing good works out of the spotlight. I don’t know, because multiple calls and emails to the restaurant for comment were not answered.
But even if they’re doing homeless outreach, serving people for free who can’t afford to eat, or building homeless shelters on their days off, they are still using my life, and the life of my family and childhood friends, as fodder for the rich-kid nightclub set.
Brooke Binkowski is a reporter and the managing editor for the fact-checking website Snopes.com.