An Afternoon in Lakewood

by ursavoice

Jenn Henry
J.D. Candidate 2013, UCI Law

    On a hot and sunny afternoon at the beginning of March, a group of UCI students and friends toured Lakewood, California with D.J. Waldie, author of Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir.*
His book is an unromantic account of Lakewood, a suburb built after World War II near Long Beach and the Douglas Aircraft Plant on land owned by the Montana Land Company. Mr. Waldie, who still lives in the house he grew up in, recently retired from his job as the Public Information Officer for the City of Lakewood. He began the tour by answering questions over coffee at Lakewood City Hall.
    “Why the name Holy Land?” asked one student, part of a group of ten students from Law, Anthropology, and Visual Studies. After going through a series of working titles, Mr. Waldie and his editor finally settled on Holy Land, in response to the widely held view that suburbs are “The Place Where Evil Dwells” (as New Urbanist James Howard Kunstler might describe them).
    Mr. Waldie offered a more nuanced and positive view of Lakewood, highlighting a city that one might otherwise pass on the freeway without noticing. Despite incredulity from some of our friends born in Lakewood who wondered what we could possibly spend time looking at in their hometown, Mr. Waldie argued convincingly that not all suburbs are the same and that Lakewood has its own stories to tell. The form of Holy Land itself seemed to fit Mr. Waldie’s overall message that a grid, though limited in some ways, offers many possibilities. The book is organized like Lakewood, with numbered short sections lined up on pages like the tract houses on a street. Mr. Waldie limited himself to an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper while writing each numbered section, but each section is different from the next: some in third person, some in first, some a history of water in the area, some accounts of Mr. Waldie’s life and family.
    We caravanned in three cars, stopping in several neighborhoods to ask questions and hear stories about architecture, urban planning, city governance, and the lives of Lakewood residents past and present. We stopped at the country club—called “country club” although it is owned by the city—then at a park with a preserved fighter jet and memorial to Lakewood residents killed in the Vietnam War. “Almost all of those names are spelled right!” joked Mr. Waldie. Next, we stopped at McDonald’s so Mr. Waldie could rest for a moment, since we had unknowingly scheduled the tour during an 80-degree afternoon, and he was dressed all in black. But even the McDonald’s seemed to be part of the tour, with homey blue curtains lining the windows and a player piano surrounded by stools in the center. We continued through several more stops, catching glimpses of Taco Bells, gas stations, and drive-through milk stands—a phenomenon I am still not sure I understand. After the tour ended, a few of us took Mr. Waldie for lunch to thank him for his time. He knew the servers by name and greeted them warmly.
    I could not help but compare Lakewood to Irvine, and asked Mr. Waldie what he thought of Irvine. He had been a graduate student in comparative literature at UCI. “There was not much to do there then,” he said. “But that has all changed now, right?”

* The tour was offered through the Jurisdiction, Power, and the Frontiers of Empty Space Reading Group, which has been generously supported by the Center in Law, Society, and Culture since the reading group started meeting in 2011.