Authors Note: I’m taking a bit of a hiatus for January to get ahead on my researching and writing, as well as my classwork, but I didn’t want to leave nothing for a month. Here’s a little something about a book that I read last semester.
D.J. Waldie’s Holy Land describes a city that may not be of the future, per se, but was certainly a utopia to some. Waldie grew up and still lives in a tract home in Lakewood, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. Built in the years after World War II, Lakewood was the second “new” suburb in the United States, following in the footsteps of Levittown, New York. The book itself is a lyrical examination of a life in a place, and a place through the lives in it.
Holy Land is told through a series of 316 sections, ranging from a single sentence to a full page. The sections are in some semblance of order, but read as nearly independent verses. Often, the book alternates between two or three stories at different points in history. This structure does not lend itself to building a concrete narrative, but rather creates a sense of timelessness and disjointedness. The text itself is exceptionally matter of fact, although lyrical. In all, reflecting its title, it seems almost biblical. Holy Landis ostensibly a memoir, but more than anything it is a memoir of a place, and through that place it tells the story of suburban America as a whole.
Lakewood started with a Douglas Aircraft factory, on the ever-expanding outskirts of Los Angeles. Subdivisions had been built in the area before, but most had been absorbed by nearby Long Beach. Southern California was already running out of water, but the climate continued to draw people. The new town was based in the thought of urban planners going back to the 1850s, who promoted setting working people’s homes in lawns and gardens. At the center of the development was a shopping center, anchored by a May Co. department store. Much of the subdivision was built using federal funds, garnered through falsified neighborhood associations.
Homes were built mechanically and rapidly, hardly ever stopping for 3 years. The homes were not quite identical: there were 14 floor plans and several exterior designs. No two homes next to each other were the same, but the same assembly line process built them all. Each was advertised as containing all the conveniences of modern life: oak floors, a tree in every yard, stainless steel counters, and an electric garbage disposal–advertised as “the only garbage-free city in the world.” Lakewood was also advertised as “the city as new as tomorrow.”
Much like the suburbs across the rest of the nation, Lakewood was built on a strict grid. The grid was structured as an extension of Los Angeles, and designed by one of its developers, Louis Boyar, with the advice of his wife. Her advice led to the expansion of roads so that children could safely play in their residential streets. This admittedly careful and precise design was described, probably inaccurately, as “scientifically planned” by the Los Angeles Daily News. The city was, however, one of the first to include streetlights, parks, shopping centers, and a separation of residential and cross town traffic.
In 1951, the sales manager of Lakewood claimed, “We sell happiness in homes.” In 2005, nine years after the publication of Holy Land, D.J. Waldie proclaimed, “My suburb isn’t perfect. It isn’t a paradise or a utopia.” The style that Lakewood helped form, however, became the norm across the nation in the years to follow. It may not have been a city of the future, but the future was certainly made of it.