What we lost

Miss FrancesThe American Institute of Architects California Council, in the current edition of ArcCA, tries to find a place for both loss and faith. Within that wide context are contemporary cathedrals, a Native American church, an artifact of Burning Man, and some other places that faith or loss has rendered sacred.

Tim Culvahouse edits ArcCA. He's an architect specializing in the public communication of design ideas. He asked me to contribute, focusing on loss and Lakewood.

Here's part of what we gained and lost by coming here, adapted for these webpages:

Some of our whiteness

So quickly had the building been that in 1950 almost no one lived here, but in 1960 there were nearly 70,000 of us. Of course, we were nearly all Caucasian (as we were called then). The Census that year counted seven people in Lakewood who admitted they were black.

Nevertheless, our whiteness wasn't pure. Coming to southern California, whatever else it meant, introduced a tinge of otherness, something that might lead to greater complexity. There were Jews, after all, living in surprisingly large numbers throughout Lakewood (whose Jewish developers, unlike Bill Levitt, omitted the covenant that restricted homeownership to Christians). Jews had become white only recently and provisionally, as had Mexican Americans. They lived here, too (but they had always been indigenous, in the background). Our whiteness had holes through which even Filipinos and Japanese Americans slipped.

Our roots

The children of my youth were a newly made tribe. A typical block with 36 houses in a tract suburb like mine would have as many as 80 boys and girls under the age of 15. Out of necessity, we shared the task of civilizing each other, stepwise from oldest to youngest.

Perhaps we could have done better.

We ate the same store-bought food (as my neighbors from Oklahoma called it). Boys wore the same after-school uniform of tee shirts and denim jeans (my neighbors from New Jersey called them dungarees). We made rough accommodations with our divergent folkways, adopting a few of them, abandoning most of the baggage our parents still carried. For us, the gridded streets were unbounded by class or place of origin. Lakewood then (and now) was one block of houses repeated 500 times.

The tribe's lawgivers were Sheriff John, Engineer Bill and Miss Frances of Ding Dong School. Our epic poets were the journeymen directors of the previous decade's B pictures shown on local television. From them, we made up endless games involving cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, and the army and Germans (because the war still lingered in Lakewood; it still lingers).

Our parents and their parents had been Poles or Lithuanians or Irish or Hungarians or Dutch or something else with old grievances and older faiths and a long history of brokenness.

Their children weren't anything. We were the homogenous, the brand name, the nationally advertised, the Californian, and we were unbroken then.

The image on this page was adapted from a photograph taken by flickr user Joelk75. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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