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What We Gave Up to Become Suburban

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Ryan Reft (in Intersections) usefully summarizes the issues that still cling to the 60-year-old Lakewood Plan (or contract city plan) for municipal service provision. In illustrating the development of Lakewood and service contracting, Reft references my memoir of growing up in Lakewood, although he and I would agree that "Holy Land, A Suburban Memoir" isn't policy analysis.

That a memoir -- and a quirky one -- can be seen as documenting the suburban transformation of Southern California suggests to me how unrepresented in academic literature are narratives from inside the postwar suburbs. Places like Lakewood have been the subject of many academic investigations -- many of them highly critical -- but they're from the outside.

Narratives of escape from places like Lakewood are a staple of popular culture in movies and novels too, but these have other limitations.

The master narrative of American stories is departure -- even flight -- from an unsatisfactory place to another place presumed to be better. Sometimes the move was transcontinental, the one made by so many hopeful immigrants to the West Coast from 1849 on. Sometimes relocation is just around the corner. Walden Pond, after all, was a short walk from Emerson's house. Thoreau's "Life in the Woods" was in a suburb of Concord.

Translation from a settled place to a wilderness of the unknown -- whether woods or a tract house -- only seems to be easy. Longing may have driven Thoreau to his cabin by the pond and my parents to their 957-square-foot "minimal traditional" house, but their desire answers only part of the perennial American question, "How do we make a home here?"

There are further answers, although still partial ones, in what we had to give up to make a home in places like Lakewood.

Here is some of what we left behind in order to be at home:

Back there. Before we came here, some of our parents had been homeless, the result of the agricultural depression of the early 1920s or the Dust Bowl diaspora of Okies and Arkies or the Great Depression in the 1930s or the dislocations of war and its housing shortages through the end of the 1940s.

Coming to Lakewood, our parents thought they had made a home, but they hadn't. There was much more work to be done. Some of our parents stayed in Lakewood only long enough to imagine that home would be somewhere else. Home eluded them. It may elude some of them still.

The idea of home in the suburbs was sold with a superb sales pitch. When you bought a house you were buying a piece of the big newness that the 20th century was going to deliver to everyone's doorstep, even yours. A van would pull up, and tomorrow would be rolled into your living room.

Most of my Lakewood neighbors, while accepting this optimistic premise, found that some assembly of the future would be required. In surprising numbers, they took up the challenge of being new (although they were often accused later of not being new enough).

Mothers. In 1953, a reporter for Harper's magazine asked young wives living in Lakewood what they missed most. The women usually replied, "My mother."

That loss extended to both parents. Motherless moms and fatherless dads, with advice books and parenting magazines in hand, attempted to raise the first suburban generation to be better, healthier, and newer.

Their own parents, located in what everyone in Lakewood called "back East," were distant, tinny voices on a party-line telephone, nearly helpless to spoil or correct.

Some of our whiteness. So quickly had the building been that in 1950 fewer than 4,000 people lived in the Lakewood area, but in 1960 there were more than 75,000 of us. Because of the policies of federal lending agencies and the sales practices of Lakewood's developers, we were nearly all white. The Census in 1960 counted less than an dozen people in Lakewood who admitted they were African American.

Nevertheless, our whiteness wasn't pure. Coming to Southern California, whatever else it meant, introduced you to a tinge of otherness. There were Jews, after all, living in surprisingly large numbers throughout Lakewood (whose Jewish developers, unlike Bill Levitt, ignored covenants that restricted ownership to Christians).

Jews were only provisionally white in 1950, but they could buy a house in Lakewood. Mexican Americans weren't white in 1950 (even if they were), but they also lived here. Lakewood's whiteness had holes through which even a few Filipinos and Japanese Americans slipped.

The injustice of this is real. The partial victories are real enough, too.

Our parents. The children of my youth were a newly made tribe. A typical block with 46 houses might 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 it 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 (dungarees my neighbors from New Jersey called them). We made rough accommodations with divergent folkways, adopting a few, and abandoning most of the cultural baggage our parents carried.

For us, the gridded streets were unbounded by class or place of origin.

My tribe's lawgivers were Sheriff John and Engineer Bill and the "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 were Poles or Lithuanians or Irish or Dutch or Swedish or something else with old grievances and a history of brokenness. We, their children, weren't anything at all except suburban. We were the homogenous, the band-name, the nationally advertised, the Californian, and we were unbroken then.

What was familiar. When Lakewood was brand new, no one knew what would happen 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. They had no instruction manual.

Mostly, they found enough space to reinvent themselves. Later, some of them learned that the work of reinvention had gone badly. Some of them, the men particularly, gave up what little adolescence they had left. That loss made them seem remote to their sons and daughters, for whom everything new and disorienting was perfectly ordinary.

My neighbors gradually made up for what Lakewood lacked, being ordinary people who had taken up the protracted burdens of living together. And most of them came to understand what they had gained and lost by in owning a small house on a small lot in a neighborhood connected to more square miles of exactly the same.

Perhaps they were duped by forces over which they had no control. Perhaps their home was a crass scheme designed to make them efficient consumers of American stuff. Perhaps the local politics by which they assumed to take some control of their lives had been cynically manipulated and is unjustly maintained. Perhaps they -- and I -- would have been better off in someone else's idea of home.

All of these objections have been raised against Lakewood (as Reft's essay notes), as well as against suburban places generally. Perhaps the critics -- 60 years ago and today -- are right.

But only perhaps.

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