With campus expansion in full swing, the UCSC trailer park lives out its years as the quintessential banana slug community
Most of the student body considers it a rumor based in truth, but the UC Santa Cruz trailer park is more than just a myth. A seldom-visited oasis of old-fashioned Santa Cruz quirk, the mysterious campus community is tucked amidst towering trees in the university’s back corner. The park is a landscape of playfulness. Along the lone, paved road that wraps its way around the 48 trailers that rest here, parkies, as the residents have dubbed themselves, spill out of their trailers to talk over tea and do yoga together before class. One neighbor juggles while another is absorbed in painting a mural. Parkies soar beneath the forest canopy on the resident tree swing, and rinse out wetsuits as they reminisce about the morning’s waves. Music drifts out of the campers, mingling with the aromas of the meals being cooked inside of them. A sense of harmony permeates the entire park.
A few weeks before the frosty December air and gravity of final exams set in, a handful of the park’s residents were gathered in the common room for one of its bi-weekly potlucks. Located in “midtown,” and adjacent to the shared kitchen, bathrooms and laundry room, the common room is a comfy lounge space where the parkies partake in many of the shared activities of a family. Tonight, the coffee table holds a spread of home-cooked, mostly vegetarian dishes. Psychedelic paintings of the forest, old protest signs and a giant outline of Bob Dylan line the walls that surround the friends. Dinner-table talk bounces from the election to the upcoming trailer park ski trip before splitting into several, smaller conversations.
Having said his hellos for the evening, Peter Reynolds, a park tenant, ducks out of the potluck to meet a member of his flesh-and-blood family back at his trailer. He has plans to have tea with his younger sister, who also attends UCSC.
Stepping up into his trailer, and then, instantaneously in his kitchen, Reynolds pauses. He’s puzzled. Someone has used all of his food and condiments to erect peculiar structures along his kitchen counter. He shrugs. “Those guys. No wonder they kept asking me if I had been back to my trailer yet.”
Reynolds, a fifth-year UCSC student or “super-senior,” is counting the days until he graduates after finals this month. He guestimates that his home, which he sublet for the fall, is about eight feet wide and 24 feet long. The place is surprisingly spacious and shabby chic for a tin box built in 1975: hardwood floors, a big bed in the far corner, and a giant, billowy tapestry on the ceiling, which, although a pleasant decoration, is actually there to cover up hate messages scrawled on the ceiling by a previous tenant with “bad energy.” Reynolds, who claims to love the wooded upper-campus more than anyone, says that living at the trailer park has been a poignant end to his five-year love affair with the land. Becoming a part of the family, he says, has done even more to bring his college days “full circle.”
As the university carries on with expansion plans, this community remains one of the last reminders of UCSC’s moniker from yesteryear, Uncle Charlie’s Summer Camp, a school where professors didn’t give grades, and cars weren’t allowed on campus; an academic haven for left-leaning students who reveled in foraging for mushrooms, kissing banana slugs and gathering in wood-wrapped meadows to dance beneath the full moon. Although many students still cling to this uniquely Santa Cruz college experience, there is no denying that times have changed.
“The trailer park doesn’t represent what Santa Cruz is,” says Reynolds. “It represents what Santa Cruz maybe once was.” He notes that the park has inevitably changed along with the school and the town. Personally, Reynolds was drawn to the trailer park for its unbeatable access to the forest and comparatively low rent for student housing. He says that, although past parkies will tell you the trailer park has changed dramatically, it remains UCSC’s hub of counterculture energy.
“It’s still a bubble of an alternative lifestyle,” he adds. “It’s a mix of people who are attracted to living on this campus and the hippies and anarchists, or whatever you want to call them.”
Seated next to Reynolds at his fold-down dining room table, his sister, Julia, rolls a cigarette with ring-clad hands. Her long blonde hair is harnessed by a blue and white bandana. She lives in the dorms on the lower-East side of campus, where she claims to be one of the only students who knows the park exists. Desiring to join a more discreet student community, she says she put herself on the long list of students waiting for one of the 48 spots at the trailer park. Although both are Slug habitats, she says the two places are lightyears apart. “Whenever I come up here I feel like I have to wear ripped jeans and tie-dye,” she says, looking down at her holey blue jeans and pale, tie-dyed T-shirt. “Which is what I wear anyway, but you know what I mean.”
Although very few of the school’s 15,000 students know or care about the area, there is a distinctive crowd that seeks it out. “A lot of people call it the ass crack of campus, but it’s really the gem,” Reynolds says of the park. Where else can you camp year-round, be a homeowner, have a garden, and pay between $380 and $428 a month for rent? he asks, adding, “It’s funky. Something is attractive about funky stuff.”
Unlike the dorms, trailer park residents are indeed homeowners. They purchase their trailer from the previous tenant, and sell it to another when they leave. According to trailer park history, owners used to sell their trailers for five bucks or pass them along for free. Now they average $3,000.
“As things got more competitive on this campus for housing, kids realized they could make easy money off selling their trailer for a little more,” Reynolds says. “Which is funny, because it goes against the anti-establishment attitude here.” Still, most parkies sell their trailer for the same amount they paid.
Around the corner from Reynolds’ trailer, at Number 18, is Alissa Lund’s pink, purple and gold-painted 1986 Komfort 25 camper (she has plans to paint the word “YES” in giant letters across the front). Lund paid more than most for her trailer, but, as a result, she is one of three trailers on site with a bathroom. In addition to the $4,000 she put down for her “apartment in a box,” as she calls it, she pays extra per month for the water hook-ups. It’s worth it, she says, to have the bathroom—not only can she refrain from trekking to the communal bathrooms in the middle of the night, but her retro bathtub serves as handy closet space.
Lund loves her trailer almost as much as she loves the trailer park. Crystal prisms hang from the skylight, casting rainbows across her warm home. Posters and paintings are plastered on the ceiling. Seated on one of three carpeted steps leading up to her bed, Lund counts the reasons she is grateful to be a part of the trailer park community. As a theater major, she feels creatively comfortable and nurtured. She is able to run and hike in the surrounding forest, and bike to all of her classes. Plus, she feels she has found the reservoir of campus tradition. “I wanted to come somewhere with tradition, somewhere I can be myself,” she says. “That is why I came here.”
The most important benefit of living in the trailer park, however, is the education it offers. The student residents are schooled in what it means to be a community. They learn to cook in bulk, share common space, exercise tradition and the meaning of “a solid connection,” according to Lund. Each resident is expected to be an active part of the park family, which enjoys annual trips, the Trailer Park Olympics, and a monthly newsletter. As a community that lives close to the land, they learn to harvest food, compost, and create a more sustainable lifestyle. Having grown up in the suburbs of Marin County, Lund’s entire frame of reference has shifted since becoming a parky. “I didn’t even know that tea doesn’t always come in bags,” she says, sipping from a cup. “I’m figuring all this stuff out.”
Lund’s entire outfit—dark green pants, sneakers and a baggy white and yellow tank top—came from the “free bin,” a permanent pile of freebies in the common room. Now she knows that even clothes can be recycled.
“We live in this consumerist society where everything is marketed and packaged, where you go to Safeway and get what you need versus going down to the Kresge garden and harvesting arugula and making a salad,” she says. “That’s what I want to learn here. I’m going to school to educate my mind and pursue my passions, but also to learn how to live as an independent human connected to the Earth.”
Reynolds agrees. In addition to a strong academic education, he feels living at the trailer park provides an invaluable student experience. “It is an incredibly healthy, educational experience for kids to have in college and be able to bring to the real world,” he says.
And, while the trailer park may get labeled as a home for decade-ambiguous tree-huggers, Lund doesn’t see a problem with that reputation. She refers to the school’s fading Uncle Charlie’s Summer Camp alias. “Who says you can’t learn at camp?” she asks.
But most of the campus has, for the most part, shed the camp image. With the university’s latest Long Range Development Plan (LRDP) in place, many are worried that it won’t be long before the trailer park is also done away with.
Like many of her neighbors, Lund frets over rumors that it will close. “Do I stay here for my senior year or do I try and sell my trailer and get out so I won’t be stuck with the trailer if they close the park down?” she wonders. “Do I want to even think like that?”
Lund’s concern is emblematic of the trailer park’s attitude toward the future. Although there are no concrete construction plans that place the park in the immediate extinction zone, the residents feel that the rapid changes taking place on campus constantly threaten their community.
The Master Plan
With nicknames like the “Long Range Destruction Plan” and “Lifetime of Regret, Death and Pain,” the LRDP has certainly become a four-letter word for many student, faculty and community critics. But, contrary to many of their beliefs that the LRDP will effectively destroy the campus they love, university officials say it is merely a road map for potential growth.
“The LRDP is like a city and county general plan,” explains Jim Burns, UCSC spokesperson. “It designates areas for certain types of use or open space, but in and of itself, it does not mandate growth. It plans for growth if it’s needed and if it’s funded.”
The LRDP is as old as the school itself—there have been several issued throughout the last four decades to accommodate enrollment increases. The current plan, the 2005 LRDP, does not include any timetables for site development and construction projects, and Burns stresses that it definitely does not mention anything about the future of the Camper Park.
It does, however, provide accommodation plans for an additional 4,500 students by the year 2020, which would bring the total number of students at UCSC to 19,500. That number was originally 21,000, but was lowered as one of several mitigations during a settlement earlier this year between the university and Santa Cruz City, County, the Coalition to Limit University Expansion (CLUE), the Rural Bonny Doon Association, and 11 private citizens—all of whom joined efforts to take legal action against the plan. Their concerns over the consequences of the expansion on the city indicates that students aren’t the only ones worried.
“We know that, under current models, at around 18,000 students, the city runs out of water and many of the key intersections move to an F rating,” says Ryan Coonerty, Santa Cruz city councilmember and UCSC lecturer.
And although the current LRDP prepares for 19,500, Coonerty is not worried about the possible traffic and water nightmares. He says that the university has actually lowered its traffic impact significantly since 1998, despite having raised enrollment by 50 percent. Also of comfort to Coonerty, and others watching out for the city, is the university’s agreement to house 68 percent of its new students on campus. Having denser housing on campus will alleviate many of the water usage concerns, which Coonerty says will allow UCSC to grow more responsibly. “If you can grow and use less water, it is much more sustainable,” he says. “Water, traffic and housing are the biggest issues from the city’s perspective, and [campus] housing solves all three.”
According to the LRDP’s Environmental Impact Report, 120 acres of redwood and mixed evergreen forest (about 13 percent of the campus’ redwood forest) will be destroyed, including 50 acres of sensitive habitat, to make room for the additional housing and the variety of other projects.
There are currently 10 residential colleges on the UCSC campus; two more were proposed in the original draft of the 2005 LRDP. All discussion of a College 12 has dissipated since this summer’s settlement lowered the projected enrollment. College 11, however, is still in the works, although no specifics on where or when it will be built are available, except for the fact that it will be somewhere on upper campus. “The north campus area has been designated for growth ever since the 1963 LRDP,” explains Burns. But many LRDP-savvy students and activists seem fairly certain about where this new student housing will appear.
Jenn Charles, spokesperson for LRDP Resistance and an alumna of UCSC, says that the trailer park site is the most logical location for new student housing because of its proximity to major roads and academic buildings, and pre-existing pavement, sewage and electricity. “It’s the easiest place to build because there is already the infrastructure,” she says. “That is what we’ll see, but they won’t comment.”
She suspects that the university is avoiding public acknowledgement of plans that concern the Camper Park because of the reaction it may incur. “More than anywhere else on campus there is a really strong community at the trailer park, and they are the people who are closest to the forest,” she says. “If they actually announced plans to build there, there would be a lot of uproar.”
Charles is talking over a cup of coffee, just a few days before the 13-month anniversary of the anti-LRDP tree-sit on campus that brought more attention to the issue. The treesitters recently came to a “peaceful end” to the year-plus protest. Charles has stayed on solid ground throughout the tree-sit, but has been leading forest walks to parties interested in getting acquainted with the endangered upper campus woods. She teaches the hikers about the land’s endemic plant and animal species, and of the forest’s legendary eccentricity. To this day, a walk through UCSC upper-campus includes surprise encounters with forts, mazes, caves, totem polls and a myriad of other enchanting creations. Charles recalls Elf Land, a small woodland community that stood where Colleges 9 and 10 currently house hundreds of students. A sign hanging above the entrance read, “You are entering a magical place.” She worries that if the trailer park goes, the campus will lose the last of this magic.
“When UCSC says it wants to shut down its reputation as Uncle Charlie’s Summer Camp, they are talking about places like the trailer park,” she says. “It’s amazing, because it’s the only place left on campus that embodies the founding ideals of UCSC. Without it, the school will lose what people come to Santa Cruz for.”
Charles points to Dean E. McHenry, Thomas Church and Clark Kerr—some of the school’s first leaders—and what they had envisioned for the school.
“They wanted this to be a place where education would happen not just in classrooms, a place that was in harmony with the surrounding environment,” she says. “Where there were deep connections with people, and student, staff and faculty all interacted and learned from one another. They wanted it to be a really different environment than you see at the other UCs.”
UC Santa Cruz was meant to be the closest thing the UC system had to a small, liberal arts college. Its emphasis on intimate residential colleges, small classes, and interpersonal faculty/student relations soon disintegrated, however, as the school molded itself into a larger university.
Mulberry Gregory, a fifth-year environmental studies major, has been a parky for two years and has studied the LRDP closely from an ecological perspective.
In regard to the plans, Gregory is a trailer park anomaly—he many not love it, but he sees its purpose. He champions the expansion of the university and even feels that the place he calls home could be utilized more efficiently.
“I believe strongly in the University of California system—they should expand, they should build,” he says. “Even though there is a lot of demand for [the trailer park] amongst 50 students, they could instead house 2,000 students here.” He says the site is an appropriate place to build.
He was, however, active in the LRDP resistance movement, but feels his biggest contribution to creating change has been hosting the World Café, a weekly forum with a shifting theme that is open to anyone. He hosted LRDP discussion at a meeting in November, exactly one year after over 500 student protestors took to the campus’ streets for an anti-LRDP rally. He hopes to help resistors of the plan gain a more realistic perspective on growth.
“It’s the institution saying ‘we’ve planned to do this from the beginning,’ versus a bunch of young people saying ‘oh man, we love these trees.’ But they are the UC, not a family farm,” he says. “Thomas Jefferson said, ‘When people fear the government, it’s tyranny. When the government fears the people, it’s liberty.’ With the LRDP, we fear the university, and that is tyranny. So I want to empower people to speak up, get educated and meet collectively to become a mass of collective thought.”
While the students at the trailer park fear the park’s closure, they are a breed born of rebellion. Gregory is certain they will not go without a fight.
“In the grand scheme of things, cutting down 100 acres of forest is nothing,” he says. “What is really happening here is that they are cutting down things that people have held sacred for a long time.”
Seated on a plump brown couch back in the community room, the gentle buzz of the nearby washing machine hovering in the air, he shares the story of the park’s formation.
The ’70s had just ended, and UCSC was already on- the path of rapid transformation. A group of students who could not afford housing on or off-campus parked their RVs in the East Remote Parking Lot, figuring that the administration could not remove them. Legend has it that when police finally arrived to extract them, the students said they couldn’t afford anywhere else, that they needed a trailer park on campus, and the police were empathetic. The proposal was brought to the administration, which soon built the official camper park where it remains today.
“That is how it started—because the chancellor was responsive to the students’ needs,” Gregory adds.
While he doubts that today’s administration would be as quick to meet the students’ needs, he hopes that spaces like the World Café and the tree-sit will inspire students to present their concerns to the university as development progresses. And, if the trailer park does disappear someday, perhaps the administration that once granted the park with a giving spirit will do the same for students who ask for a new form of alternative student housing.
Gregory heard the story from an original parky who returned to poke around after several decades. History, and the passing of stories, is incredibly important to the trailer park community. Old parkies often return to share treasured campus lore. And the process of buying and selling a trailer, most of which have been in the same spot for decades, allows everyone to know who was there before them. It spurs a continually strong historical sense of the community. For these reasons and more, the small fraction of the school’s students who live at the trailer park continue to be the gatekeepers of UCSC tradition.
“In the UC system, whenever a change happens, they move forward. That is why it is so efficient. But in that sense, a lot of things are left behind in the wake of moving forward,” Gregory says. “The trailer park, by remaining here for so long, has kept alive stories of old professors, the way things were before grades, before there were cars, people going to class naked, stories of Elf Land …”
He trails off. There is a lot to lose if these stories are forgotten.
Through the window behind him, the land-of-uncertain-future stands unusually still. Prayer flags ripple in the soft wind, garden patches guard silent trailers, laundry is hanging to dry. A message painted on the side of a nearby trailer is visible through the trees: “Let the old times roll.”
Gregory returns from his lake of trailer park memories, those handed down as well as his own.
“Let’s say all this gets taken out, the trees are cut down and they start construction up here,” he says. “That doesn’t leave a whole lot of people that are going to keep the stories alive.”