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Lakewood, CA

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Tom Johnson's galley showing of his Lakewood photographs opened on July 10. A reception for Tom filled the gallery on July 17. My neighbor was there with the dog Tom photographed peering over my neighbor's sideyard fence.Tom's steady gaze - flâneur-like in its lack of irony - fills the frame of each image.

Here are some frames - fragments really - of my own:

1. The streets of Lakewood occupy parts of three pages of the Thomas Guide to Los Angeles County. Lakewood is spread over so many pages as if to emphasize how uncentral to anything the city is or, perhaps, to show how marginal most of L.A. is.

Seen from one of the four freeways that frame Lakewood - from which you look down and off to one side at the city at seventy miles an hour - Lakewood is a generalization, part of the pattern between the points where your start and where you end.

In between, you are on Thomas Guide pages 765, 766, and 767.

2. The truth is obvious when it rains. Lakewood is flat. So flat that the difference in elevation from the northwestern edge of the city's 9.5 square miles to the opposite southern edge is less than four feet.

When it rains - or even when an inattentive gardener runs a hose too long - dark water pools in gutters where the roots of the trees the city planted decades ago have bulged under the asphalt.

If geography is destiny, then Lakewood was destined for flatness.

That isn't to say that flat is characterless. Flat is one of the reasons why it was possible to build 17,500 houses in less than thirty-three months beginning in 1950 and sell them for less than $12,000 each to regular Joes and their wives anxious to do what was expected of them, even when the expectations were not altogether clear.

The new owners in 1950 typically had a high-school education. They were white. The husbands riveted planes together at the Douglas plant in Long Beach or scaled the cracking towers at the refineries in Carson and Wilmington, next to the Los Angeles Harbor.

Flat puts everyone, literally, on the same footing. If you plan to look down on your neighbors, you have to get a ladder.

3. A lot goes on under Lakewood. Water flows in slow rivers through aquifers beneath the city, compressed between layers of rock and clay. Uplifts fold some of these layers into underground hills, although almost nothing mars the surface.

Some of these hidden folds are broken, as if cut through by an immense knife. Offshoots of the biggest of these - the Newport-Inglewood Fault - run under central Lakewood, with at least some risk of a significant earthquake.

In the northeast corner of the city, where the uppermost aquifer can be only eight or ten feet from the surface, enough shaking will lead to liquefaction. The ground will become so loose and water-saturated in an earthquake that the ground will go from a solid to a semi-liquid. In a prolonged, yet only moderate earthquake, the foundations of some larger buildings will sink into the soupy ground.

The houses probably won't. Built of stucco-over-chicken-wire nailed up to a sketchy wood frame, these houses would deform and crack, perhaps, but they're so light. They would ride on the liquefied soil, shelter even then.

4. The thousands of houses of Lakewood were built quickly and cheaply because the land was so flat. It was flat because all of it had been, over the preceding geologic era, a temporary bed of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers.

They were called "tramp" rivers in the 19th century. In a heavy rain, the rivers might shift their beds by as much as a mile. Or one river would braid a new course, loop it out to capture the flow of the other river, and take the combined flow of both to a new mouth at some indeterminate point on the coast until another season of rain rearranged the landscape.

Very little restrained these rivers from reclaiming their ghost beds until the mid-1960s, when the county flood control district completed a system of storm drains, levees, and concrete walls across the center of Los Angeles County and through the flood-prone neighborhoods of Lakewood.

Our streets still flood, but they're supposed to. To prevent storm water from topping levees and spilling into the adjacent neighborhoods, the flood control system uses gates that close off the feeder channels whenever the main channels of the two rivers threaten to fill.

When the flap gates close, the additional runoff has to be stored somewhere. To store the water, the system exploits the memory in the landscape of all its former riverbeds. The flood control system stores the threatening water on the streets of the city.

Understandably, drivers complain. As a city official, I have to explain to them that the system floods the street around their marooned car to prevent the system's catastrophic failure and the flooding of distant, downstream neighborhoods.

One definition of flat is seasonal martyrdom for someone you never met.

5. In 1961, the federal Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization published "The Family Fallout Shelter" - a homeowner's guide to atomic survival, printed on flimsy newsprint and costing 10 cents. The OCDM advised that a contractor-built shelter would cost about $1,500.

That was 10 percent of the cost of a house in my suburb. If that was too much, dad could build a less adequate shelter in the basement, using plans in the OCDM guide, for about $500.

Only no southern California tract house has a basement.

A pre-fab shelter dealer in Downey, across the street from the Rockwell Aviation plant on Lakewood Boulevard, sold fiberglass pods for burial in backyards. My parents never considered buying one, nor did any of our neighbors.

Our mission, if the Cold War flashed into atomic brilliance, was to die with a minimum of fuss. Our lives were about other forms of survival, not the kind procured with a deer rifle behind the federally recommended 16 inches of cinder block and dirt.

6. Fifty-five years have passed in a place that was supposed to be "as new as tomorrow" when it was thrown up on the lunar gray soil of 3,500 acres of former lima bean fields in a nondescript corner of Los Angeles County prone to flooding.

The tomorrows that arrived weren't exactly what the residents of "tomorrow's city" had been told to expect. By 1954, the experts all agreed what the future would look like. It would be sleek, edged in shining chrome, protectively enclosing, and traveling at supersonic speed.

How a simple grid of streets, blue-collar lives, and boxy houses like mine fit into that picture was never made clear.

Some progressive city planners presumed Lakewood's streets of single-family homes would be replaced by rows of multi-story apartment buildings by 2000. Or Lakewood would be the sunlit slum that others had predicted. Or Lakewood would be a treacherous no-man's-land revealing the hollowness of suburbia. Or Lakewood would symbolize everything that was unearned about our lives together.

Some came to believe that all the mass-produced suburbs built since 1950 are, as one bitter critic put it in 1999, "the place where evil dwells."

7. There are serious crimes in Lakewood, though less than you might think in a working-class city of 83,000 residents trying to make their way in a post-industrial economy. Hopeful, imperfect people live here. Their hope has sometimes led them to acts of courage and generosity. Their imperfections lead them sometimes to abuse and violence.

In the nightly news versions of our lives - in the stories that are only either heartwarming or horrific - their crimes are the final proof that no place is safe and every comfort is an illusion.

8. A sense of place is Lakewood's essential quality.

Some of us think we have a sense of place at certain points of our lives, perhaps as a child running in the park; perhaps later in life in the company of neighbors. And then, for some of us, that feeling evaporates into disappointment. After all, we're well-trained consumers, TV remote control in hand and ready to switch channels or affections or hometowns whenever we're distracted.

We run the risk, of course, of becoming so distracted that the connections between inner and outer landscapes break down entirely. In frustration and sorrow, some are ready to abandon the intimacy that had seemed so important. They turn away.

9. We yearn for home - at least some of us do.

I live in the 957-square-foot house my parents bought on the edge of the "great flat" of the Los Angeles plain between the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers and not far from oil refineries and next to an aerospace plant, and I actually imagine that the place I live in is the sort of place that might inspire hope and loyalty.

My older brother was born into my house. My mother died from it. My father died in it.

10. In 1950, everything in Lakewood was new and everything was incomplete.

Unfinished Lakewood was sold with a superb sales pitch. When you bought a little house you were supposed to be buying a piece of the big newness that the 20th century was going to deliver to everyone's doorstep, even yours in Lakewood.

A van would pull up, and tomorrow would be rolled into your living room.

Some in Lakewood were hoodwinked by the pitch. Some were infuriated by it. Some followed it out of Lakewood and into one new paradise of the ordinary after another until one day they just stopped in Montana or Nevada or in internal exile behind the gates of a guarded subdivision and a lawn sign promising "immediate armed response."

Most of my neighbors, while accepting the optimistic premise of tomorrow's city, understood that some assembly of the future was required.

11. The grid of streets hasn't changed after fifty years. The small houses on small lots haven't changed in ways that matter. The flat landscape hasn't changed.

What is different? Lakewood today is about as diverse as all of southern California is, meaning Lakewood is one of the more ethnically and racially diverse places in the nation.

Where once the demographic profile bulged at the bottom with so many young husbands and wives and tens of thousands of children under age 18, Lakewood residents today range from the very young to the very, very old. It's harder for community institutions to provide services across so wide a demographic - from single parent families to the frail, lonely elderly.

The demands on the social capital of the community have changed. Making up everything Lakewood lacks takes even more effort than it did in the 1950s.

Today, it takes two jobs to make the mortgage payment, feed and clothe a family, and keep intact a sixty-year-old tract house. In Lakewood, those jobs are often held by immigrant families - like my anxious Latino, Filipino, Chinese, Lao, Korean, and Vietnamese neighbors.

The experiences of my 1950s childhood can't be recreated for them, even if the landscape of my childhood hasn't changed all that much.

But nostalgia isn't the subject of Lakewood. It's about falling in love.

12. We all live on land we've wounded, land we've improved to our dissatisfaction. Yet we must be here or be nowhere and have nothing with which to make our lives together.

How should one act knowing that making a home requires this? How should I regard my neighbors?

It's possible to answer with fury or neglect. It's possible to be so assured of privilege that contempt for a place like Lakewood is an answer. It's possible to be so rootless that the questions are merely ironic. It's possible to forget.

I don't think there is anything that I could erase from the story that I tell myself, including my failures, despite the appeal of amnesia. Everything I think of as ordinary and sacred is here.

The image on this page is from the author's collection.

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