My town: Ain't it America?

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Ever since I moved to this small town on the edge of the Rocky Mountains seven years ago, a "for sale" sign has stood on the vacant lot next to the railroad tracks on 2nd Street.

It isn't much of a lot, just a triangle of gravel-covered, weed-infested land squeezed by an alley and the tracks. Often, I have stood next to it, waiting for a 100-car train to rumble past with a load of coal from the mountains. The ground shakes. The air shatters with the sharp blasts of the train's horn.

And every time I think, "Who would ever want to live here?"

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Apparently someone. A few months ago, the sign came down and workers began building a shallow, cement-block foundation. Soon, two trucks backed up to the lot and slid off the two halves of a manufactured home. Within a couple of weeks the "Mendozas," as the wooden sign on their double-wide manufactured home proudly proclaimed, moved in and began seeding a lawn and building a fence between the home and the railroad tracks.

As John Cougar Mellencamp once sang, "Ain't that America."

The significance of this modern homestead didn't hit until I sat through a long meeting where town leaders debated housing regulations. It was a discussion similar to those being held in many western communities where residential growth is colliding with rural culture. Several leaders felt that mobile and manufactured homes should be relegated to separate subdivisions and that only stick-built houses should be allowed within town limits.

Their reason? Stick builts look better.

"How would you like it if someone plunked a manufactured home right next to your house?" asked one trustee. "The value of your property would immediately go down."

"We don't want to be in a situation where the areas surrounding the town have nice, new homes, but the main town area starts looking like a slum," said another.

Funny, our 100-year-old town has always looked a bit like a slum. There are nice older homes that might fit into a well-kept urban neighborhood, but they're few and far between. Mostly, we have an odd array of trailer homes, manufactured homes, 1940s bungalows, 1960s split-levels, and newer ranch-style homes.

Some people take care of their properties and others don't. More than a few house roofs sway like the back of an old pack mule, victims of years of snowfall and no gutters. Pedestrians can usually find a sidewalk, but there are inexplicable gaps where they must take to the streets. That's not a problem, because, save for the 4th of July Cherry Days parade, there isn't any traffic. On warm summer days, kids play in the streetside irrigation ditches that most town dwellers tap to keep their grass from turning brown.

The people match the houses: coal miners, service workers, truck drivers, artists, small business owners, and a lot of fixed income retirees. The more affluent newcomers have bought large, one-acre parcels outside of town for their dream homes with mountain views. But even they must coexist with dwellers of mobile homes and plywood abodes stuck to the sides of sagebrush-covered hills and surrounded by rusted appliances, cars, barbed wire, and bald tires.

Not long ago, I would have called my town ugly. My sense of what a place should look like was developed in suburbs where a community was judged by the spaciousness of its lots, the size of its houses, and the grace of its landscaping. Now I see my town as a place of rare economic beauty.

I even get a little puffed up whenever I venture to the nearby resort towns, with their spreading fields of townhomes and gated monster homes. Those people must have a long list of ordinances they must comply with: No junk in the front yard, no compost piles, no grass over an inch long. My town feels more like America.

Fortunately, most of the town council agrees with me. As the meeting dragged on that night, the sentiment turned against restrictions on housing.

"I just can't see telling someone what kind of house they have to live in," said one trustee.

"What we're talking about here is affordable housing and giving people a chance to get started," said the mayor, who lives in a manufactured home and whose day job is selling manufactured homes.

Conflict of interest runs thick through my town's body politic. Not only does the mayor have a problem, but so does the trustee who most wants the restriction on mobile and manufactured homes: He owns the lumberyard that provides materials for stick-built houses.

But that's another story. On this one, I think the mayor is right.

There are fewer and fewer places in the country where the economic classes can mix with as much ease as my town. If the price for that is a few rough edges, I'll gladly pay.

The other day I walked past the Mendoza's place. They've put out a birdbath and planted a couple of small trees. On top of the rocky soil, I thought I saw the gauzy green of new grass. Come spring, their place will be looking pretty good.

* Paul Larmer is the senior editor of High Country News.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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