Death, disease, gambling, and government -- these are the compass points of San Pablo's Circle S trailer park. The Wilson and Kratzer mortuary lies across the street on San Pablo Avenue, to the northeast. Just south of the park, Brookside Hospital towers over the skyline, its pinkish monolith visible from every mobile home. The cash registers of Casino San Pablo ring night and day to the east, and just a few blocks west, at the corner of San Pablo and Church Lane, bureaucrats inside City Hall mull over plans to wipe this park off the face of the earth.
The Circle S park has the unfortunate distinction of being located on prime real estate in the heart of the city, an area coveted by market-rate housing developers. Much of the city may consist of working-class bungalows and carnicerías, but this particular stretch of hillside, with its malls, gated apartments, and a flush card club, is the closest thing San Pablo has to a boomtown. For years, city employees have flirted with the idea of replacing the park with something more commensurate with their ambitions; now, the city's Community Development Department has formally submitted a plan to buy the park and a few other parcels of land, relocate the approximately 260 families, and build a mix of market-rate townhouses and single-family homes.
In accordance with state law, the San Pablo City Council scheduled a "public" hearing on the subject for January 10, where a few citizens, furious that the park's residents hadn't been notified of their impending fate, vented their anger at embarrassed councilmembers, who agreed to reschedule the hearing for this week. "We did a big mistake in not informing residents of the meeting," says City Councilwoman Genoveva Calloway. "Staff promised they would be informed. When they weren't, residents felt betrayed, and rightly so."
The Potemkin feel of the last public hearing may have just reinforced the sense that the fix is in, and it's only a matter of time before these homes are gone. That sense of resignation was evident among the Circle S residents last weekend, as shadows from the late afternoon sun fell upon the pickup trucks and oversize satellite dishes parked next to trailers flying American flags. The pioneer spirit of the new exurbs may inspire giddy praise from David Brooks, but the citizens of Circle S have developed their own ingenuity at colonizing space. While the exurbs stab out into the wilderness, these families have found new ways to make the most use of a small parcel of concrete and pavement; potted succulents perch upon makeshift shelves, and ancient Barcaloungers squat under the lips of old Winnebagos.
A gaggle of Mexican teenagers swigged from Corona bottles and stared down at an engine block, trading Spanish insults and punching each other in the shoulder. They didn't like the idea of Anglo strangers asking nosy questions and asking their names, but shrugged off their proposed evictions. "I like it here, except for the cops," said one kid, bundled in a jacket two sizes too big. "They always messin' with you." Then, pointing at one of his friends, he joked, "They mess with this guy here, 'cause he's ugly!"
"Aw, fuck you, nigga."
But most of his friends were too uncomfortable to talk and drifted back to the backyard, where they could drink in peace. When asked what he might do if forced to move out of the park, the teenager shrugged, "Go someplace else," and followed them.
Perhaps it's kids like these who first attracted the city's attention. A police representative was unavailable at press time, but code enforcement officer Rick White told the West County Times that crime and drugs are rampant at the Circle S park. And according to Kelsey Worthy, the city's community services director, blight is such a problem that the state government identified it as one of the worst-run mobile-home parks in Northern California. "The problem was first addressed in the mid-'90s," Worthy says. "The park has been going downhill for a period of time, and the owner hasn't been very responsible." The owner of the Circle S was unavailable at press time.
Last summer, Worthy says, responsibility for enforcing trailer-park codes was transferred from Sacramento to the city, and San Pablo officials began looking for a way to deal with Circle S's persistent problems once and for all. Although other options are still on the table, Worthy claims that the plan to gut the place in favor of market-rate housing seems most likely. Under the plan, he says, the city would buy the land from its current owner and partner with a housing developer. State law requires that the city provide relocation assistance to evicted residents; Worthy claims it has set aside $2.9 million in land and construction funds to build replacement housing. If residents find that the new rents are considerably higher, he adds, the city typically makes up the difference for the first 42 months.
But for many people, the Circle S park is home, whatever its problems. Many of the residents are Mexican immigrants with little command of English; they let their children serve as ambassadors to the outside world. According to Maira Chavez, an eighteen-year-old senior at Richmond High, her family moved to the park from Richmond to get away from the crime and street noise. Here, she says, they live next to her grandparents and have a backyard of their own, for bargain-basement rent. Her father works at the Wonder Bread company in San Francisco, and the commute already is a drag. But since they expect to be evicted eventually, she says, they plan to move to Vacaville, adding more hours onto her father's time on the road. "Everything is cheaper over there," she says. But if she had her druthers, Chavez says she'd prefer to stay where she grew up: "It's farther, and we know a lot of people around here."
"Most of the people who live here are, like, senior citizens," says Edward, who wouldn't give his last name and lives around the corner from the Chavez family. "They don't have any place to live. You know, their income is, like, set. I mean, if the city kicked us out, then you can't do anything about it. But I feel bad for the senior citizens. It's gonna be hard for them."
Edward's dad works for the post office, and his mom works at a nursing care facility. But despite their combined income, he said, they still couldn't afford a home in the Bay Area. They wanted to move away from the noise and grit of their apartment complex -- they wanted the suburbs, in short -- so when they found the Circle S park, they realized they could have the quiet life they sought. Here, you can spot the cul-de-sacs and traffic calmers of any subdivision -- except the homes are propped up on blocks instead of concrete foundations. But if the city puts an end to their makeshift suburban life, he said, they'll find a way to make sure they never return to the cramped life of the tenement. "You have your own parking space, you have your own privacy here," he says. "But you're not paying two or three thousand a month to get it."
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