A bohemian trailer park clings to its offbeat identity
Several years ago, when Terry Berlier was a graduate student of fine art at UC Davis and looking for a cheap place to live, her friends half-joked that she could always try the trailer park. They meant Slatter’s Court, which opened in 1920 as an early form of motel and since has become a downtrodden enclave of diminutive, low-slung cabins and trailers, quite literally across the tracks from the manicured knolls and pert, sanitary structures of the Davis train station. Berlier checked it out. “I saw some eccentric characters,” she recalled recently. “There was a man in a dress and rubber gloves; I thought, ‘This feels like home.’ It seemed a lot more real to me than the rest of Davis.” Very low rent was the clincher; after a modest tenure on the waiting list, Berlier got a space and lived in Slatter’s Court for three years.
Her experience there has inspired an art installation, Remain Human: The Slatter’s Court Project, at the university’s Richard L. Nelson Gallery through August 26. Realized through an experimental video, original maps, and found and assembled objects, Berlier’s revelatory project reflects the vicissitudes, by turns startling and tedious, of low-rent life and homes in on something increasingly elusive in modern America: a sense of place.
Appropriately for its subject, Remain Human also gives off a vibe, long cherished among Slatter’s Court denizens, of bohemian creativity: A spacious blueprint covers one section of the gallery floor, with several pieces of chalk at the ready, as Berlier explained, “for people to map in their history”; an old wooden clock is embedded with a small video screen in lieu of a face, its pendulum ceaselessly strumming a set of guitar strings.
“Almost everything was an element from a home, either gone wrong or with something quirky about it,” Berlier said of the installation’s sculptural elements. “It’s those creaky, dimly lit spaces, where you don’t know if the wiring is up to code. Mechanical things that are kind of pathetic and barely functional.”
Such a description may imply that Berlier isn’t doing Slatter’s Court any favors. But her project ultimately might serve the enclave well, by staving off encroachment from the less-real rest of Davis. Last year, in the wake of controversial developments in nearby areas along Olive Drive, the city of Davis commissioned Carol Roland-Nawi, a Sacramento historic-preservation consultant, to determine whether Slatter’s Court met the criteria for California’s Register of Historical Resources. An earlier report, mandated by the city’s own historical-resource ordinance, had deemed the area not significant, but since then, said Roland-Nawi, “there’s been quite a bit of academic literature that’s come out on roadside architecture.” There also has been Terry Berlier’s Slatter’s Court Project.
In addition to citing Berlier’s research specifically, Roland-Nawi also investigated how similar sites have received distinction as historic places in Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico—not to mention California, where, significantly, the city of Los Angeles designated a Pasadena trailer park as a Historic-Cultural Monument in 2002.
“That puts Slatter’s Court in a new light,” Roland-Nawi said. “Slatter’s is a much more complete example than the one in Pasadena. Slatter’s has all its original cabins, and they kind of show a progression of how it changed over time.”
Indeed, if Berlier’s installation makes one thing clear, it is how far Slatter’s Court has come from its inception, in the optimistic early days of the car, as a stopover spot for motorists along one of America’s first coast-to-coast highways.
“I consider it some kind of a barrio, or a slum,” said longtime resident Bruce Guttin, who appears in Berlier’s video. “It has ambience, and history, but the people are living here because they’re poor.” That presents a dilemma for the artist: Even a commemoration of the quotidian becomes, for gallery-goers, a mediated experience.
“Artists are always attracted to low rent,” Guttin said. “Young people are attracted to it. They romanticize it; poverty looks good.”
Berlier’s pieces allow a personal engagement with the place that is any artist’s prerogative, but it would be hard to make a case that she’s a romantic. “Even when I lived there, there were some days when I wanted to burn the place down,” she said. “I mean, how many sewage problems can you have?”
“It’s certainly gone downhill,” recalled Roland-Nawi. “It’s a case of deferred maintenance. But appreciation often leads to rehabilitation and people being more careful about historical resources when they realize what they have.”
And so, armed with the assessment of Roland-Nawi’s report, and perhaps with that of Berlier’s installation, the city of Davis’ Historical Resources Management Commission will decide—possibly as soon as August 15 during its monthly meeting—what sort of “historical resource” Slatter’s Court is. It also may schedule a public hearing to consider the neighborhood’s nomination for distinction to the city council.
No one doubts the land is of special value, and collective awareness of that fact routinely fuels uneasy rumors of impending development. But Ellen George, who has managed the property for eight years, insists no major changes are afoot. “To me, it’s got a lot of sentimental value as well as just being a business,” she said. “That’s why whenever people ask me if it’s going to be sold or redeveloped, I always say no.”
That should reassure those residents whose pride of place gives Slatter’s Court its character. “We’ve had an opportunity to move to other low-income developments, but we’ve declined,” said Lisa Woo, whose family of four lives in one trailer’s close quarters among an elaborate collection of PEZ dispensers and other pop-culture memorabilia, including a welcome mat expressing their hospitality to UFOs. Woo recalled her stint as assistant property manager, when she enjoyed walking through the court to read utility meters and discovering her neighbors’ ad-hoc art projects. “People would glue stuff on their door. I’m pretty sure you can’t do that in a regular apartment. It would inspire me to do things.”
The charm of the place is a matter of perspective. As Guttin put it, “Davis is the theme park. Slatter’s Court is not the theme park. It’s not as though we have bus tours here.”
What makes Slatter’s Court a perennial curiosity are its contradictions: that something owing its origins to an esteem of the auto age and forward motion has become a relic of stasis, that an inherently transient place has so tenaciously rooted itself in a shifting landscape, that a neighborhood so off the map of California’s highly inflated modern real-estate market should have a waiting list for its visibly poor lodgings. Berlier often described her project as unfinished, befitting a place whose most salient feature is the sense that it is a work in progress.
“Do I want to save the place?” she asked. “I’m an artist, so that’s not really what I do. I don’t live there anymore, and I don’t want to live there, and I don’t want to buy the place. But I do think there’s something important being lost.”