Neither Paradise Nor Hell: One Suburb's Story

Lakewood's story of itself went online on Monday afternoon following the mayor's annual State of the City address. The history of the city is something I've worked on over the past several years.

As every history is, Lakewood's story is an "imposition" on the wrack of stuff that carelessness and forgetting have washed up on the shore of remembrance. As the introduction to Lakewood's story says, "These pages do not pretend to tell all the stories that can be told about Lakewood. No single book could. The stories of Lakewood are so varied that many more books could -- and should -- be written to tell them."

Every one of them would look at Lakewood and tell something different about the city's past, those who peopled it, and what became of them. Bias about them and their place should be expected. We expect the past to suit the "ideas" we use to fix the transience of our experience.

The Lakewood Story online isn't any different, except to be more inclusive of the stories Lakewood residents tell about themselves. Even these personal histories aren't full enough to be complete. Every history is partial.

What is often left out of the history of the suburban places that were built in the shadow of World War II is the consensus that made those post-war places possible.

Post-War Housing
Post-War Housing| GI Roundtable Discussion Guide

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As American soldiers fought their way across France in 1944, they carried War Department booklets that knowledgeably discussed postwar housing needs and how new communities could avoid the defects that had characterized housing for industrial workers in the first half of the 20th century. By the war's end, more Americans were more informed about national housing needs than at any time in the nation's history.

Average Americans by 1945 had formed a rough consensus on what that housing should look like. It was partly based on the hopes of men and women who had gone through the harsh years of the Depression and who had few illusions about daily life. The consensus also was partly the result of the decisions made by government and business leaders who rejected large-scale public housing projects and the non-traditional housing designs favored by some architects.

What federal agencies, banks, and the construction industry favored -- modest, single-family homes, somewhat unoriginal -- looked exactly like Lakewood in 1950. The moral dimensions of all these choices have been debated ever since.

The incorporation of the city of Lakewood in 1954 offered reassuring signs that the dignity of an ordinary life was possible with the help of like-minded neighbors, if they were able to work together despite their very real cultural and ethnic differences. The scope of those differences was not as wide as it should have been because of racial discrimination.

We were guinea pigs
We were guinea pigs| City of Lakewood photo 

Lakewood residents had hoped to benefit from the better future that the mid-20th century would create, but the shock of the Soviet Union's acquisition of its own thermonuclear arsenal and the many crises of the Cold War that followed made even these modest aspirations seem unlikely.

The ups and downs of the regional economy also unsettled Lakewood lives after 1954, periodically bringing hard times to Lakewood families. In recent years, Lakewood has taken hard blows delivered by the closures of the Long Beach Naval Station, the Long Beach shipyard, and the Naval Hospital, as well as the end of aerospace manufacturing and the deep recession of 2007-2009.

Despite these shocks, Lakewood has so far accommodated vast economic, social, and demographic changes that are still transforming Los Angeles County.

Lakewood residents and city officials know that Lakewood's future is open ended. While certain aspects of the community are not likely to change, other aspects of Lakewood are destined for reinterpretation and reinvention. The tomorrow of "tomorrow's city" remains a collaborative effort.

The stories we tell ourselves are part of that collaborative work. The stories are as imperfect as we who tell them. Communities tell stories, too, in order that they might live past the tellers' lives, their longings, and their imperfections.

Lakewood Youth Sports opening day, 2013
Lakewood Youth Sports opening day, 2013| City of Lakewood photo

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