In order to visit a beach community, one must wear ugly sunglasses, so I snatch my chrome Elvis reproduction shades that I purchased in Las Vegas last summer and hit the door. From the 8 West I take the 5 North and get off at Mission Bay Drive. Just off the ramp is one of San Diego’s great outdoor spaces: De Anza Cove. Lush lawns meet the bay’s beach. Full shade trees cast big shadows for the picnickers dragging baby carriages and barbecues. Down a little path that runs next to the water, joggers in bright shiny shirts and chunky shoes bounce along. Oh, it’s pretty. This treasured outdoor space also offers a scenic view of a dumpy trailer park and its dilapidated mobile homes.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve looked across the water and wondered how in the hell a trailer park is still standing in the middle of a beach community, even more so, right on the bay. It’s 2011, and by now nearly every bit of prime real estate has been built up into a skyscraper condominium complex or a ritzy hotel with polished brass dolphin statues in the courtyard. (Why so many damn dolphin statues, San Diego?) Anytime I see a throwback to good taste like this mobile home park, my eyebrows make a V, my head cocks to the side, and my face registers a decidedly “What in the…?” expression, as if I’d just seen a man riding an ostrich. How could this thing escape redevelopment for so long?
Driving through the mobile home park, I see touches of a nice community intermingled with signs of complete decay. The bulletin board out front reads “Church Service Sunday 10:30 am Bay Club” and has posted “Lilies for sale” and “Come grow your own vegetables. Plots available.” Just beyond the bulletin board are trailers that appear to have only tattered blue tarps for major sections of roofing, and their foundations seem to be made up of shopping carts and bottles. The mobile home park looks like It’s a Wonderful Life before Clarence the angel shows up.
It probably won’t shock you to know that a trailer park in such a prime location has provoked the ire of its neighbors as well as the greedy eye of the City. I’d like to tell you that the City can’t touch it, that this ugly-ass trailer park, thumbing its nose at the superficial beauty and outlandish expense of Pacific Beach, is a permanent fixture, but that’s not true. There has been a fight for this plot of land for decades, and the City of San Diego has been scheming to develop it into a hotel since at least the 1980s. And the City can do it, too. The land belongs to the City. Sort of. It actually belongs to the State, but the State gave it to the City. But not to put mobile homes on. So the State wants it back, but the City… Hang on. Let’s start at the beginning.
Way back between 1939 and 1945, the State of California gave this marshy land to the City “to be held in trust for the use of all citizens of the state.” Isn’t that nice? Of course it is, and of course the City didn’t do that; it did the exact opposite. In 1953, the City leased the land to a developer (you know, like San Diego does) with the provision that the developer put in a tourist area and a trailer park. The original lease calls for “accompanying facilities, businesses and concessions with the written approval of the City Manager.” That sounds wonderful. You can imagine a wide-open park, a little ice cream stand, a boat rental, and Annette Funicello hopping from beach blanket to beach blanket. Yeah, that didn’t happen.
What happened was the developer put in a “trailer park” as requested. But it wasn’t a “trailer park” like you could motor up in your Studebaker towing an Airstream trailer and camp here for a week. It was a “trailer park,” you know, like a mobile home park that contained around 680 units, and about 80 percent of those were made permanent residences. They took this public land and turned it over to developers to use as a private source of income on these mobile home rents, of which the developer would kick back a percentage to the City. It’s an interesting idea to use land as a mobile home park, especially this plot. All you have to do is suck out the marshy muck (birds and fish, right up the tube!), make a peninsula out of sand, pave it, add utility lines, and you’re done with “developing.” No major buildings to construct; just let people roll their houses in and start collecting rent. The City didn’t mind that this wasn’t exactly a “tourist” area anymore, that they had essentially done the exact opposite of what the State mandated for these parcels, because they were scraping a bit of the rent off the top — starting out at 5 percent of the rent that residents paid to the developer/management company. Money rolls in, and everybody keeps quiet that this isn’t “for the use of all citizens of the state.” (Sacramento’s not going to come down here!)
People moved in, set up their homes, and settled down to a quiet life on the bay. They bought and sold the trailers on the land just as anyone does with regular houses. Laundry rooms, a clubhouse, and a pool were put in, the little roads paved and repaved. The people went to work, paid their rent, and in the evenings sat down in front of large console televisions and sucked Hamm’s beer from cans.
And without much notice, in 1978 a bill was passed in California called the Mobile Home Residency Law. We’ll get to that in a minute. What’s far more interesting is just a little skip ahead two years to 1980.
Yeah! The Go-Go ’80s! The greed-is-good era saw Ronald Reagan hand over the economy to the banking industry and stockbrokers take off their nerdy glasses and those green visors and swap their hand-crank calculating machines for shoulder-padded white suits, hair gel, and cocaine. That’s when people started looking at De Anza Cove and going, “What in the hell are mobile homes doing here?”