Suburbs, Holy Land

This story from New Geography is by D. J. Waldie, the author of the absolutely must read classic, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir.

An excerpt from the article.

“Where I live is where most Californians live: in a tract house on a block of more tract houses in a neighborhood hardly distinguishable from the next, and all of these houses extending as far as the street grid allows.

“My exact place on the grid is at the southeast corner of Los Angeles County, between the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers. But my place could be almost anywhere in the suburbs of Los Angeles and Orange counties.

My suburb may seem characterless, but it has a complex history of working class aspiration, of assumptions about social hygiene, of urban politics, and the decisions of many who imposed their imagination on the landscape.

“Where I live is a tract of wood-framed houses on a 5,000-square-foot lot at a density of about seven units per acre, where houses are set back 20 feet from the sidewalk and a street tree the city trims, and where neighborhood businesses are clustered at intersections so that anyone can walk to the store or a bar or to a fast food place.

“It’s also a place with 10 parks of 20 or more acres each so that everyone is about a mile from supervised open space with playgrounds, ball diamonds, picnic tables, and bar-b-cues.

“There is a persistent belief that suburban places like mine must be awful places they must be inhuman and soul-destroying places. That belief persists partly because of these photographs, taken by a brilliant young aerial photographer named William Garnett who worked for the developers of Lakewood between 1950 and 1952.

“The historian and social critic Lewis Mumford used Garnett’s photographs in 1961 to indict the post-war suburbs which, he said, had become “A multitude of uniform unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly at uniform distances on uniform roads, in a treeless command waste inhabited by people of the same class, the same incomes, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless prefabricated foods, from the same freezers … .Thus the ultimate effect of the suburban escape in our time is, ironically, a low grade uniform environment from which escape is impossible.”

“The architectural historian Peter Blake used these photographs in 1964 to define the post-war suburbs as “God’s own junkyard.”

“In 1969, Garnett’s photographs were part of Nathaniel Owings’s The American Aesthetic, a passionate critique of 20th century urban planning.

“Today, you can go to the Getty Museum in Brentwood and the Autry National Center in Los Angeles and see these photographs used as defining images of the suburbs of Los Angeles.

“They are beautiful and terrible photographs.

“With no little irony, these images of Lakewood became emblematic of the suburbs at the moment when Lakewood no longer was the eerie and empty place Garnett had photographed only a few months before. Between 1950 and 1953 – in less than 33 months – 17,000 houses had been built, sold, and made someone’s home. Nearly 100,000 people lived there, including my parents. In 1954, Lakewood had even become a city in the political sense, having completed the first municipal incorporation in California since 1939.”

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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