As someone who studies and writes about the relationship between ordinary places and everyday life, I felt vindicated by “Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir.” Finally, a book as complicated as the suburbs themselves.
The author, D. J. Waldie, raises their interpretation to a new level of art and understanding. Snobs say, “The suburbs are disgustingly boring.” Populists respond, “This is what people want.”
Waldie insists on neither view, showing that the matter is more complicated and ambiguous than that. His book is an important corrective to most representations of the suburbs, which invariably reduce their contradictory reality to a single meaning. In 1967, the noted sociologist Herbert Gans, after conducting a series of in-depth interviews, concluded that the residents of the archetypal suburb, Levittown in Long Island, N.Y., were no different than other Americans of the same age, race and class. Nonetheless, critics continued to stereotype the suburbs and their residents, denying them the richness of experience they found in small towns and big cities.
Beginning in the 1950s, such writers as novelist John Keats (“The Crack in the Picture Window”) and songwriter Malvina Reynolds (“Little Boxes Made of Ticky Tacky”) castigated the suburb as a physical and spiritual wasteland. Attacking its conformity, they expressed a generalized societal alarm about the oppressiveness of mass culture rather than giving an accurate reading of suburban life. In the 1980s, expressing widespread longing for domestic stability and community values, popular culture inverted this image. Films like “E.T.” and reruns of “Leave It to Beaver” and “The Brady Bunch” nostalgically recast the family-centered suburb as a reassuring symbol.
The Census Bureau’s 1990 census, which showed that a majority of Americans now live in suburbs, generated new waves of hostility among architects and urban critics. They decried the banality of elaborately designed upscale subdivisions. Older suburbs, visibly aging, became icons of downward mobility and social fragmentation. This image didn’t improve with news stories about the Spur Posse, the group of predatory teenage boys who made one of the earliest postwar suburbs--Lakewood--infamous.
In a widely praised New Yorker article, Joan Didion argued that the Spur Posse, which competed on the basis of sexual conquests in the basest kinds of ways, was the inevitable outcome of a town designed for people who were “not quite middle class.” She portrayed Lakewood as a sinkhole of the American dream, a community so badly demoralized by the disappearance of aerospace employment that its values and sense of civility were deteriorating. Didion’s undisguised contempt for the perpetrators, their victims (“these feral Lakewood boys, these blank-faced Lakewood girls”) and Lakewood itself echoes the opinions of most academics and intellectuals about the suburbs.
Waldie’s approach to Lakewood couldn’t be more different. (There are, however, interesting overlaps: Didion interviewed Waldie for her article and gave “Holy Land” a rave review on the book jacket.)
The author, who grew up and still lives in Lakewood, shows us “his suburb” from inside and out, writing as both historian and denizen. He uses an innovative structure--306 short chapters, some only a sentence long--to build up a composite and multilayered portrait of Lakewood. Although, in fact, he has no illusions about Lakewood, Waldie displays the Catholic virtues of reverence, humility, compassion and forgiveness that he learned as a boy to uncover the redemptive potential that exists there or, for that matter, any place. Waldie does not romanticize Lakewood’s origins but relishes their multiple ironies.
Mark Taper, Louis Boyer and Ben Weingart, Lakewood’s developers, intent on building quickly, cheaply and profitably, ignored the government’s advice to curve streets slightly in order to lessen monotony. Instead, they laid out a grid of mind-numbing uniformity over 3,000 acres of plowed-over bean fields. All streets met at right angles, each block had exactly 46 houses and each house was centered on its 50-by-100-foot lot.
Planners distributed schools, churches, shopping center--even trees--following a relentlessly regular pattern. Using assembly-line methods, the three partners constructed 17,500 nearly identical houses in less than three years. In spite of their questionable motives, Waldie redeems them by insisting on their humanity, however imperfect.
Seen from above, in a series of aerial photographs that document its transformation from bare earth to the largest subdivision in the world, Lakewood appears terrifyingly abstract, a stark and monotonous landscape stretching for 10 square miles. But for the young families that lined up to buy houses there, it was less confining, “a compass of possibilities” rather than a blueprint for living. Neighbors worked out the subtle adjustments of living in houses only 15 feet apart.
The grid, it turned out, even encouraged social interaction. Its evenness and regularity blurred the religious, occupational and cultural differences that separated residents. (Racial boundaries rarely appeared because black home buyers were actively discouraged from settling in Lakewood.) As the town aged, its spindly trees matured, softening the grid’s harsh outline. Now almost half a century old, Lakewood has achieved, Waldie suggests, its own state of grace.
The town has its share of oddities. There are eccentric residents, like Mrs. A., who complains that atomic waste has killed her lawn; Mr. H., an incorrigible junk collector; and Waldie himself, living alone in the house his parents bought in 1946. To some, the oddest fact of all is that many people are happy living there. Based on information I gathered a few years ago, in comparison to other areas of Los Angeles County, a very high proportion of Lakewood’s original residents have chosen, like Waldie, to remain there, an unexpected outcome for a place that began life as a blank slate.
But Lakewood’s surface was not as blank as it seemed. Looking beyond its uniformity, Waldie discovers a deeply rooted sense of place. He traces its history back to Filipe de Neve’s 1781 Spanish land grant and its geology across the Newport-Inglewood fault and down through the series of aquifers that sit two miles below his house. Only one year older than he, Waldie’s house is filled with memories of the lives and deaths in his family. Framed on shallow foundations with pine 2-by-4s, its hollow walls covered with layers of stucco over chicken wire, it also appears insubstantial. Yet, the night his father collapsed with a heart attack, the bathroom door’s solid panels, made of seasoned Douglas fir, were so sturdy that Waldie could not break in to reach him in time.
What does Waldie make of all this? The book ends on Good Friday, with the final verse of a hymn addressed to the cross: “Sweet the wood / Sweet the nails / Sweet the weight you bear.” This underlines a contradiction built into the American dream: For Lakewood’s “not quite middle class,” success should mean rejecting the place you come from--the concept of upward mobility. Instead, Waldie argues for commitment to that place, through daily acts of faith as simple as mowing the lawn or as conscious as honoring the dead. He reminds us that Lakewood or anywhere else can never be defined by its merely physical outlines.
Like the grid, “Holy Land” resists closure, suggesting other lives and other suburbs. Waldie’s story is compelling, but his experience, understandably, is that of a man. Suburbs like Lakewood were highly gendered environments (women stayed home, men went to work), and the women’s stories remain to be told. I found myself wondering, for example, about Waldie’s mother. He hints at her isolation and dissatisfaction, but what did a woman raised in Manhattan think about life in Lakewood?
This is not meant to diminish Waldie’s brilliant achievement. “Holy Land’s” hybrid mixture of fact and emotion, memory and history engages the reader like poetry, producing images that remain long after you finish reading.