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The '$2 Tour' of Lakewood: How History Shaped the City, How the City Shaped the People

Because she had asked when we met at the Getty more than a year ago, last week Professor Gwendolyn Wright of Columbia got the $2 tour of Lakewood, the town where I still live and where I used to be the Deputy City Manager.

I call it the "$2 tour" because of a movie tag line so obscure I've completely forgotten its source (and Googling for it hasn't helped).

I give the tour two or three times a year, mostly to students in graduate programs in urban planning and American history. Last year, students attending the UCI law school got the tour after their Jurisdiction, Power, and the Frontiers of Empty Space reading group had finished Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir.

The tour is, by necessity, an argument with illustrations. It's an argument about the place of everydayness and about the purpose of the habits of ordinariness that are built into any human-made landscape. Inescapably, the built molds the personal. It works even in inattentiveness, engraving patterns of the familiar.

Walkers, perhaps, have a better appreciation of this faculty. Walkers see modest (even humble) vistas opening at a pace that lets contemplation occur unbidden. You can be woefully distracted by daydreams or sorrow while walking a suburban sidewalk, but then a birdcall, the rattle of the wind in the leafless trees, the unconscious expectation fulfilled in seeing again some sight will momentarily lighten the darkness of self-absorption. A sense of place is made.

It's not possible to walk the "$2 tour," however. My town is relatively dense but not very compact, and we have to drive to its places of memory.

The tour begins with a sample of the kind of place my town didn't become: an upper-middle-class suburb of large houses on large lots surrounding a golf course (the Depression ended that idea, although the golf course was built) or a tract of semi-self-sustaining homesteads where householders could raise chickens and at least some of their food (the construction of Douglas Aircraft in 1940 ended that suburban-agrarian fantasy).

The tour swings through a neighborhood of mass produced tract houses that supplanted those earlier suburban concepts in 1950, passing a place of memory -- the mall and its iconic May Company building, designed by Albert C. Martin & Associates in 1950.

It only seems ironic that a department store might be worthy of memory if you assume that the May Company is a diminished form of something else worthier and not, as it actually is, wholly itself. I imagine that the challenge of the everyday lies in this, that you should not waste your time in comparisons with what isn't present.

The tour goes by a more sentimental place of memory at a park nearby. It's a Korean-War-era jet fighter, decommissioned in the late 1950s, donated to the city by the Marine Corps, and now the city's war memorial and around which have gathered other memorials to other wars. The jet mingles optimism and loss in equal parts.

I stop the tour at some point. Exactly where isn't important, because my town is fractal-like. Any part replicates nearly every part, although that's not a flaw. The tourists are invited to walk down a street, to see at eye level the evenly distributed repetition of forms: parkway strip, sidewalk, 20 feet of setback, and house front. Some of these forms are always the same. Others -- lawns, gardens, the details of the façade -- are constantly different. The "minimal traditional" tract houses of my town are small and, in their way, humane.

Professor Wright got the full tour. And she got my argument about the capacity of so much ordinariness to create the setting for a dignified life. I hope (because the tour is largely about hope) that her students might understand the argument, too.

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