Desert Trailer Park Owner Promises a Cleanup

David Kelly, Los Angeles Times, November 12, 2007

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Those chasing [Harvey Duro], the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. attorney’s office, say Duro is running a dangerous slum disguised as a business that imperils the lives and health of more than 4,000 tenants. Though the park isn’t far from Palm Springs, it seems an utterly different world.

The government calls it “indecent,” “offensive” and “intolerable.” Officials are asking a federal judge to force Duro, a former chairman of the Torres Martinez tribe, to make immediate repairs or be shut down. A hearing is scheduled in December.

The publicity-shy Duro agreed to an interview because after years of threats, he thinks the government might be serious this time.

“He has been given many, many chances, and he ignored them,” said James Fletcher, superintendent for the Bureau of Indian Affairs for Southern California.

“We offered him technical assistance and help through a guaranteed Indian loan program. We have given him three years to pull it together, and he blew us off. Now that he sees the writing on the wall, he is interested in talking.”

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After other park owners on the reservation assured him the business was a gold mine, he flung open the gates and thousands of low-wage, mostly Latino, farmworkers flooded in, dilapidated trailers in tow.

He christened it Desert Mobile Home Park but it became better known as Duroville. All the dirt roads were named for his family members.

But Duro had no experience running a trailer park, and now scores of desperate people were sitting on his land without services or infrastructure. Electricity, water and trash pickup were sporadic or nonexistent.

“I was a little overwhelmed at first,” he said. “No one ever came forward to tell me what to do or how to do it; otherwise I wouldn’t be in the spot I’m in today.”

There have been improvements, but the BIA says many of the old problems persist, compounded by illegal dumping and fires spewing toxic fumes from a closed but still menacing dump next door.

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“If the BIA thought this place was so dangerous they would be in here tomorrow with an order to shut it down,” said Duro, who sports a black headband, black shirt and has two cellphones dangling from a cord around his neck.

Presented with the litany of health and safety issues cited in a recent BIA report—including poor water quality, trailers too close together, jury-rigged electrical systems, raw sewage under trailers, fire hazards and possible disease-carrying rodents—Duro dismissed them.

The trailers aren’t too close, he said. The sewage on the ground is simply water from evaporative coolers. And the water is perfectly safe to drink.

Rodents and flies, he said, are part of life in the desert.

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The BIA said Duro delays making repairs until absolutely necessary. In 2003 he was ordered by a federal court to make improvements to water, sewage and electricity—improvements the BIA said he never made.

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After a fire in May torched six trailers and caused the evacuation of 120 families, the park has tried to spread out the mobile homes and decrease their numbers. Bulldozers are removing three junkyards close to the trailers. Park manager Jack Gradias said the space was to be filled with grass and trees.

Park streets are being made one-way. Parking regulations will be enforced to allow room for firetrucks. Rodent traps are being set out, and dozens of stray dogs will be rounded up to be returned to owners or taken to the pound. Tenants have been told to maintain trailers so they are not eyesores.

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Rumors of an imminent shutdown have unsettled park residents, causing many to stop paying rent, which is about $275 a month. Duro said his tenants owed him $300,000 in rent.

Many tenants are Purepecha Indians from the Mexican state of Michoacan. Many speak neither Spanish nor English and are often poorer and more isolated than other Mexican immigrants.

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