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Neighborhoods of LA

By D.J. Waldie

WHERE I LIVE is where most Californians live – in a tract house on a block of more tract houses in a neighborhood hardly distinguishable from the next and all of them extending as far as the street grid allows. My exact place on the grid is at the extreme southeast corner of Los Angeles County, but that’s mostly by accident. While I reside in Lakewood, I live in suburbia, where my home might almost be anywhere.

I’ve lived here my whole life, in the 957-square-foot house my parents bought in 1946 when the idea of suburbia was brand new, and no one knew what would happen when 35,000 working-class husbands and wives – young and so inexperienced – were thrown together without any instruction manual and expected to make a fit place to live. What happened after was the usual redemptive mix of joy and tragedy.
At least their suburbia wasn’t an oil company camp in Oklahoma, a walk up tenement in a crabbed Midwestern town, or a shack at the end of a dirt road somewhere in the border South. There are Californians who don’t regard tract houses as places of pilgrimage, but my parents and their friends in Lakewood did. They weren’t ironists. They were grateful for the comforts of their not-quite-middle-class life. For those who came to Lakewood, the aspiration wasn’t for more but only for enough.

It’s slightly more than fifty years since an idling road grader waited while the last harvesters worked in the fields before it dug into the empty ground. That was the start of a long line of machines that scraped the truck farms, chicken ranches, and orange groves of Los Angeles County into suburbia. Despite everything that was ignored or squandered in its making, I believe a kind of dignity was gained. More men than just my father have said to me that living in the suburbs gave them a life made whole and habits that did not make them feel ashamed. They knew what they found and lost.

Mostly, they found enough space in suburbia to reinvent themselves, although some of them found that reinvention went badly, that in making their place they had left parts of their life unfinished. Some of them, the men particularly, gave up what little adolescence they retained after the Depression and the Second World War. That loss made them seem remote to their sons and daughters.

In 1960 in Lakewood, almost 40 percent of the population was under 14. An ordinary block of 42 houses might have a hundred children, and in the summer, they would spend the daylight and early evening hours outdoors in loose, happy packs.

Urban planners tell me that my neighborhood was supposed to have been bulldozed away years ago to make room for a better paradise of the ordinary, and yet these little houses on little lots stubbornly resist, loyal to an idea of how a working-class neighborhood should be made. It’s an incomplete idea, but it’s still enough to bring out four hundred park sports coaches in the fall and six hundred to clean up the weedy yards of the frail and disabled on Volunteer Day in April and more than two thousand to sprawl on lawn chairs and blankets to listen to the summer concerts at José del Valle Park. I don’t live in a tear down neighborhood, but one that makes some effort to build itself up.
Suburbia isn’t all of a piece, of course, and there are plenty of toxic places to live in gated enclaves and the McMansion wastelands of Los Angeles. Places like that have too much – isolation in one and mere square footage in the other – but, paradoxically, not enough. Specifically, they don’t have enough of the play between life in public and life in private that I see choreographed by the design of Lakewood. There’s an education in narrow streets when they are bordered by sidewalks and a shallow setback of twenty feet of lawn in front of unassuming houses set close enough together that their density is about seven units per acre.

With neighbors just fifteen feet apart, we’re easily in each other’s lives in Lakewood – across fences, in front yards, and even through the thin, stucco-over-chicken-wire of house walls. You don’t have to love all of the possibilities for civility handed to us roughly by the close circumstances of working-class suburbia, but you have to love enough of them, or you live, as some do, numbly or in a state of permanent, mild fury.

I once thought my suburban education was an extended lesson in how to get along with other people. Now, I think the lesson isn’t neighborliness; it’s humility. Growing up in Lakewood, the only sign of a man’s success I can remember was the frequency with which a new car appeared in a neighbor’s driveway. Even today, it’s hard to claim status in Lakewood through personal gain (in our peculiar American way) because this is a suburb where life is still pretty much the same for everybody, no matter how much you think you’re worth.
Lakewood’s modesty keeps me here. When I stand at the head of my block and look north, I see a pattern of sidewalk, driveway, and lawn, set between parallel low walls of house fronts that aspires to be no more than harmless. We are living in a time of great harm now, and I wish that I had acquired all the graces my neighborhood gives.
My neighborhood was the place where suburban stories were first mass-produced for the hopeful millions of mid-twentieth century Los Angeles. Then, they were stories for displaced Okies and Arkies, Jews who knew the pain of exclusion, Catholics who thought they did, and anyone white with a steady job. Left out, of course, were many thousands of others.

Today, suburban stories still begin here, except the anxious, hopeful people who tell them are as mixed in their colors and ethnicities as our whole, mongrel California. The Public Policy Institute of California reported recently that Lakewood had one of the highest rates of ethnic diversification among California cities. I continue to live here with anticipation because I want to find out what happens next to these new narrators of suburban stories.

Loyalty is the last habit that anyone would impute to those of us who live in suburbia; we’re supposed to be so dissatisfied. But I’m not unusual in living in Lakewood for all the years I have. Nearly twenty-seven percent of the city’s residents have lived here thirty years or more. Perhaps, like me, they’ve found a place that permits restless people to be still. The primal mythmakers of Los Angeles are its real estate agents, and one of them told me that Lakewood attracted aspirant homebuyers because "it’s in the heart of the metroplex." Or, maybe, it’s just in the heart. I live here because Lakewood is adequate to the demands of my desire, although I know there’s a price to pay.
A Puritan strain in American culture is repelled by desires like mine, and has been since a brilliant young photographer named William A. Garnett, working for the Lakewood Park corporation, took a series of aerial photographs in 1950 that look down on the vulnerable wood frames of the houses the company was putting up at the rate of five hundred a week. Even after fifty years, those beautiful and terrible photographs are used to indict suburbia. Except you can’t see the intersection of character and place from an altitude of five hundred feet, and Garnett never came back to experience everyday life on the ground.

The everyday isn’t perfect. It confines some and leads some astray into contempt or nostalgia, but it saves others. I live where I live in California because the weight of my everyday life here is a burden I want to carry.

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