Where I live is where most Californians live - in a tract house on a block of more houses in a neighborhood hardly distinguishable from the next, and all of them extending as far as the Jeffersonian grid allows. My exact place is at the extreme southeast corner of Los Angeles County, but that's mostly by accident (the ambitions of imperial Japan and the collapse of the sugar beet industry in Los Alamitos). I reside in Lakewood, but my home might as well be almost anywhere in L.A.I've lived here my whole life, in the 957-square-foot house my parents bought in 1946 when the idea of this kind of place (our kind of place) was brand new, No one knew what would happen next when tens of thousands of working-class husbands and wives - so young and inexperienced - were thrown together and expected to make a fit place to live. What happened was the usual redemptive mix of joy and tragedy. (In my neighborhood, the songs of Hank Williams and the country music coming out of Bakersfield were consolation.) My parents and their neighbors were grateful for the comforts of their not-quite-middle-class life. Their aspiration wasn't for more. Only for enough.
It’s a little less than sixty since an idling road grader began the building of Lakewood, the start of a very long line of machines that eventually scraped the rest of Los Angeles County into what some dismiss as “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 here gave them a life made whole and habits that did not make them feel ashamed. They knew what they found and lost.
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 . . . like I said . . . it’s been enough.Where we are isn’t all of a piece, of course. There are plenty of toxic places to live in Los Angeles. Specifically, places that 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 20 feet of lawn in front of unassuming houses set close enough together that their density is about seven units per acre. With neighbors just 15 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 these circumstances, but you have to love enough of them.
Lakewood’s modesty keeps me here. When I stand at the head of my block, 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 to the ordinary parts of our lives, and I wish that I had acquired all the resistance that my neighborhood offers.
My neighborhood was a place where California stories were mass-produced for the hopeful millions of the mid-20th century in flight from the agricultural depression of the 1920s, the industrial depression of the 1930s, the years of World War II, and the bitter months of the Korean Conflict. They were stories then 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 until quite recently were many tens of thousands of others - people of color, whose exclusion was designed, too. And today, suburban stories still begin where I live, except the anxious, hopeful people who tell them now are as mixed in their colors and ethnicities as they can be. I continue to live in here because I want to find out what happens next to new narrators of suburban stories. I live here because Lakewood is still adequate to the demands of my desire, although I know there’s a price to pay.
A Puritan strain is repelled by desires like mine, and has been since a young photographer named William A. Garnett, working for the Lakewood Park Corporation, took a series of aerial photographs that look down on the vulnerable wood frames of the houses the company was putting up at the rate of 500 a week in 1950. Even now, those photographs are used to indict Los Angeles. Except you can’t see the intersection of character and place from an altitude of 1000 feet, and Garnett never came back to experience everyday life on the ground.
The writer and environmentalist Barry Lopez asked a question in the “LA Weekly” some years ago about the need to acquire a sense of place. He was remembering the San Fernando Valley, his boyhood home. Lopez asked: How can we become vulnerable to a place?
He answered that vulnerability comes with a deeper and wider imagination.
Image credit: "Kitchen cabinets," Lakewood Park development promotional
photo, 1950 (author's collection); "Linen closet," Lakewood Park development promotional photo, 1950 (author's collection)