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

April 14, 1990|DANNY SULLIVAN | 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.

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