The Struggle to Find Common Ground

Will the Camper Park be able to accommodate a new community?

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Through the past three years, the Camper Park at UC Santa Cruz has quickly changed from the lost sculptures, murals and rainbows which have been removed and the replacement of old trailers with new university-owned ones. Beyond what the eye can see, the dynamic of the community is beginning to change as well — opening up more opportunities for new parkies and people of color.

A giant redwood tree covered by fog welcomes a parkie walking through a row of trailers. Trailers at the trailer park are often decorated with art created by parkies. Photo by Dustin Choto.

Many of these changes have been in an effort to improve living conditions and accessibility.  However, they are not complete, nor have they been smooth.    

Since the 1984 those who live or have lived in the community have had different reasons for wanting to reside in the park, but all enjoyed the unique camper experience. Still, many new parkies and people of color are having a difficult time making themselves heard through the deeply rooted camper culture.

Third-year and residential assistant (RA) of the Camper Park Michelle Xua is the first RA to have not lived in the Camper Park prior to becoming a RA there. They expressed the difficulty they have mediating between the new and old parkies and increased university involvement.

“Right now, admin and old parkies have the main voice, whereas new parkies and people of color in the park don’t have a voice at all,” Xua said. “Especially being an RA of color, it is very hard. […] At the last meeting no person of color spoke up.”

This new dynamic in the park followed administrative changes enacted in summer 2016.

Before these changes, a student had to know someone living in the Camper Park to secure a spot the following year. Current new parkies had to apply through a waitlist process, but starting next academic year, students will apply the same way they would for a dorm or an apartment on campus. This made it possible to expand the park community that’s been kept within a homogeneous friend group. It also allowed for more diversity in residents, including a wide range of interests, socioeconomic standing and ethnicity.

New resident of the park Denise Smith*, who moved there in fall 2017, said she supports the university-driven housing allocation process because it made the park available to more low-income students, like herself.

Additionally, Smith said while she enjoys the economic benefits of the park, she has had difficulty adopting some of the cultural aspects and odd traditions.

“As far as being a community member, I am not someone who is really like the old parkies to begin with,” Smith said. “And then on top of that, being someone of color and seeing so little of people who look like me is really intimidating.”

This intimidation faced by newcomers, she said, is what prevented her from participating in the camper community. Heeding advice from her mother, Smith is all too aware that speaking out as a person of color is often met with hostility.

“At first I was open to the idea of the whole community aspect, but I see that the more I live here the more I didn’t feel like I was very included into the community,” Smith said. “[…] Some of them are nice people, some of them give off vibes that aren’t very accepting. And I don’t feel safe or want to be part of a community like that.”

Many old parkies, however, had a different understanding as to why there was a lack of participation from new members of the park.

“The biggest thing is the [new] people who move here are not exposed to the expectations of community involvement like the old parkies are,” said old parkie Daniel “Dandelion” Schmelter who’s lived in the park since January 2015.

The university has little knowledge of these tensions in the camper park, said director of housing services Dave Keller.

“I hadn’t heard about this issue of students of color and that is very concerning,” Keller said.  “What I can tell you is that I will be engaging with the CRE [Coordinator of Residential Education] and she will get to talking to students to find more out about that, and certainly whatever we need to do to address that.”

Keller said the campus initiated changes to the camper housing application process to address issues of housing accessibility and the physical degradation of the old trailers — many of which were manufactured in the 70s and 80s.

The university felt it was imperative to step in because of the damp forest environment, which leads to eventual structural decay of the trailers, Keller said. Park residents also expressed concerns over sanitary issues such as rats and spiders.

“It is not realistic to think that the students can be specialists in maintaining their trailer,” Keller said. “We wanted to ensure that the trailers had all of the kinds of things that you would expect in university housing and also that the assignment process was more fair.”

The Camper Park is an icon at UCSC, but this multitude of perspectives and the lack of mediated transition has led to deep tensions between new and old park residents.

“I can see both sides, but how do you have those two spaces at the same time?“ said Camper Park RA Michelle Xua.

*Name changed to protect anonymity.