From the Dust Bowl to the L.A. Suburbs

Outside Bakersfield, November 1935
Outside Bakersfield, November 1935 | Photo: Courtesy Dorothea Lang/U.S. Farm Security Administration

Writing about Susan Straight's novels and short stories the other day set me to thinking about the diversity that characterized my childhood.

Straight knows the amalgam of races and ethnicities of working-class Riverside and that city's blend of African-American, Latino, Asian, and Anglo families (sometimes in the same family). I lived a boy's life among white, working-class kids whose accents and habits were largely colored by the border South from which their parents and grandparents had come not long before.

It seems naïve now to describe as diverse the families that had come West in flight from the Dust Bowl or had arrived looking for jobs in the defense plants that ringed Los Angeles after 1940. But those immigrants weren't precisely like my Catholic or Jewish neighbors or my own parents, who had something of Manhattan about them still. My father had grown up there; my mother lived and worked there in the 1930s.

In 1942, between thirty and fifty percent of new employees at Southern California aircraft plants came originally from the states of the border South. By the end of the war, 600,000 border Southerners had migrated to Southern California to work in defense industries.

Wartime columnist Ernie Pyle called them "Aviation Okies." Pyle said the new migrants were already filling the cities of Torrance and El Monte, as well as Bell Gardens, one of several blue-collar communities between the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers.

By 1950, Pyle's "Aviation Okies" had begun buying houses in my neighborhood with the money they had saved working at Douglas, North American, or Consolidated.

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Some of the men and women in my neighborhood had lived part of their childhood on the outskirts of cotton towns in tents provided by the federal Farm Security Administration. Some had lived in tarpaper shacks among the oil fields outside of Bakersfield. The shacks didn't have indoor plumbing.

Some had been the first of their family to graduate from high school.

Those who grew up in California learned to hide their border state twang. Sometimes, it would reappear after a few drinks among the couples my parents invited over to watch television or play cards.

Some of them gave up their Pentecostal religion for milder forms of faith.

They never lost their appreciation for the climate, however. It expressed itself in the fruit trees that are still in the backyards in my neighborhood. Plums, apricots, oranges, nectarines, and pomegranates were shared over fences in paper bags saved from the grocery store.

There was very little that distinguished the Southerners in my neighborhood from my father or my mother in the 1950s. There was very little that distinguished any of us living here. We lived in what we were told was a good neighborhood. Our eleven-hundred-square-foot houses were nearly the same. We shopped at the same stores. We watched the same television programs.

From September to June, my brother and I wore Catholic grade school uniforms of dark gray, corduroy pants, and light gray, short-sleeve shirts. In summer, we wore white cotton T-shirts, denim pants, and high-top tennis shoes. Every boy in my neighborhood did.

Parents were anxious to do what was expected of them, even when the expectation was not altogether clear.

Lakewood, 1952
Lakewood, 1952 | Photo: Rothschild Studios/Lakewood Park Corporation/City of Lakewood


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