Reading L.A.: D.J. Waldie’s spare, poetic ‘Holy Land’
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‘If Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo had collaborated on a study of an archetypal American postwar suburb, the result would be D.J. Waldie’s visionary history and memoir of Lakewood, California.’
Waldie’s book, published in 1996, is unlike any other book in our series -- and, for that matter, unlike any ever written on the architectural and civic makeup of Southern California. In 316 brief, numbered entries, some just a sentence or two long, some written in the first person and others in third, Waldie relates the history of Lakewood’s first major post-war suburban housing development, and of his own family’s history there, in the modest house where his father died and where Waldie still lives.
From the beginning, Waldie makes an evident effort to give his story an element of the generic, even the universal. ‘I live where a majority of Americans live: a tract house on a block of other tract houses in a neighborhood of even more,’ he writes. In tracing the history of the suburb, built by the real-estate developers Louis Bayer, Mark Taper and Ben Weingart in part to house returning GIs, many of them employees of the nearby Douglas Aircraft plant in Long Beach, Waldie aims to explore the appeal of a way of life that became increasingly commonplace by the 1950s and 1960s across the American landscape.
He is also defending suburban living and its architecture against the familiar charge that it is fundamentally about escapism and materialism. ‘The critics later said that all suburban places were about excess,’ he writes. ‘But they were wrong.’ The houses in Lakewood -- most around 1,100 square feet -- instead gave their owners just ‘enough space to reinvent themselves.’ Waldie’s house, which predates most of those in Lakewood, is even smaller, at 957 square feet.
And later: ‘The grid limited our choices, exactly as urban planners said it would. But the limits weren’t paralyzing. The design of this suburb compelled a conviviality that people got used to and made into a substitute for choices, including not choosing at all.’
In other ways the book and Waldie’s personal story cut against the grain of typical suburban history. If the suburbs -- and Los Angeles in a larger sense -- have been defined by restlessness and reinvention, and by a willingness to scrub the past clean when it’s convenient, Waldie is deeply reflective and unusually settled; there is a rooted constancy to his life and to his writing.
The book is also shadowed by several varieties of anxiety, from the personal to the religious to the political. Waldie notes that the ‘first Soviet atomic bomb had been tested in August 1949.’
The format of ‘Holy Land’ is an ingenious way to go about making these arguments and telling this particular story. Each entry becomes a numbered parcel or an address, each page a street of identically sized houses. The structure becomes a grid, and the grid both limits and liberates the story. When Waldie calls the grid ‘a compass of possibilities,’ he is referring both to Lakewood and the book itself.
The tone, too, is careful as well as flexible: Generally tight-lipped, even opaque, the prose in ‘Holy Land’ borrows techniques from poetry and fiction to produce an elegant, efficient story that is as much social and architectural history as family memoir. There is a little -- but only a little -- about Waldie’s life as an adult in Lakewood, where he worked until recently for the city, walking every morning to City Hall through flat, perfectly straight streets.
We see glimpses of Waldie’s relationship with his parents and his neighbors, as well as a careful, subtle examination of what it means to build a city -- and then a massive metropolitan region -- out of streets like these. The most experimental, daring thing about Los Angeles, after all, was this effort to piece together a new, freer kind of urbanism, subdivision by subdivision, a nearly endless medium-density fabric laced first by avenues and trolley cars and then by freeways.
In that sense ‘Holy Land’ is the whole Reading L.A. project writ small. Packed into every one of those small Lakewood houses, and into every one of the book’s brief entries, is the story of water, oil, negotiation between private and shared space, transportation, boosterism and -- perhaps most of all -- real-estate speculation.
I am less convinced by the afterword -- called ‘Holy Land: A Conversation’ -- that Waldie added to the 2005 paperback edition. It provides a good deal of helpful information about Waldie’s goals in writing ‘Holy Land’ in the first place, but in so doing it strips away some of the mystery and restraint that are at the heart of the book’s appeal. The tacked-on section is an answer key; I like ‘Holy Land’ better as nothing more -- and less -- than a puzzle.
Finally, a bit of Reading L.A. housekeeping: To give our next title, Norman Klein’s ‘A History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory,’ a little space from the surrounding books in the series, we’re going to push it into August. Look out for a post on it in the next couple of weeks.
-- Christopher Hawthorne
Photo (top): A model home in Lakewood. Credit: Courtesy D.J. Waldie.
Photo (middle): The cover of the 2005 edition of ‘Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir.’ Credit: W.W. Norton.
Photo (bottom): At the center of Lakewood was a May Co. department store designed by Albert C. Martin and Partners. Credit: Courtesy D.J. Waldie.