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A Little Piece of Heaven in Lakewood

Books: With its straight-arrow streets and neighborliness, the city is Suburbia, U.S.A. In 'Holy Land,' Donald Waldie writes fondly of the place postwar builders built.

July 15, 1996|THOMAS CURWEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On most Saturday mornings, Donald Waldie is out weeding his frontyard, which he will say desperately needs it, but don't be deceived. The azaleas are a little burned out, but the lawn is green and well-manicured.

Waldie lives in Lakewood, and his home is one of the hundreds of homes that make up the nearly anonymous patchwork of suburbs in southeast Los Angeles County. Little distinguishes Lakewood--unless you recall the brief notoriety of the Spur Posse, the group of teenagers who a few years back made it a cruel sport to have sex with as many girls as possible.

Today Lakewood's tree-lined streets and well-maintained homes are quiet and almost defy attention, unless of course you're interested in the almost mystically simple qualities of everyday life in a classic American suburb. Waldie is, and has lovingly rendered his perceptions in "Holy Land" (Norton), a memoir of growing up--and still living--in one of the largest postwar housing developments in the country.

Beginning in 1950 and continuing for almost three years, Lakewood was a flurry of building. As many as 100 homes were started each day, more than 500 a week, and by the end--33 months later--17,500 had been raised.

When considering this astonishing boom, Waldie breaks ranks with critics who disparage sprawl. He paints instead a picture of a community of simple and practical values that worked 50 years ago and still works today. A recent survey of homeowners in Los Angeles County backs him up. The average Lakewood resident lives here 15.6 years--the longest length of stay of any municipality in the county.

As the public information officer for Lakewood, Waldie, 47, makes his living explaining the city to its residents and the press. That he defends the place might not be surprising, but unlike the boosters who sold homes here in the 1950s on the benefits of a regional shopping center (the Lakewood Center Mall was one of the first and largest in the country) and a garbage disposal in every kitchen, he focuses on the spiritual benefits of life here.

"These are not perfect places, and the people who live in them are not perfect," admits Waldie, a soft-spoken man who picks his words carefully. "But my book is about the possibility of leading a redeemed life in this kind of suburban place--a life that has some value to others and a life in which one gets saved."

Welcome to the first church of the suburb. Let "Holy Land" be your bible.

Comprising more than 300 mini-chapters, ranging from a single sentence to a page and written much like an extended prose poem, "Holy Land" is the story of Waldie's faith and his notion that a kind of salvation takes place within the context of a suburb like Lakewood. Responsibility and obligation, he will tell you, are the linchpins of this faith, holding neighbors and communities together to make this a real holy land.

If you look carefully behind a scrim of materialism--these homes and these yards--you will see that the simple upkeep of a frontyard is symbolic of a complicated social contract between neighbors.

Waldie--whom Buzz magazine described in its list of 100 notables as having "a passion and eloquence worthy of Joan Didion"--composed the chapters of "Holy Land" during the half-hour it takes him to walk to or from work. Poor eyesight keeps him from driving. He lives alone, almost like a monk, in the house his parents bought in 1946. He attends Catholic church.

The homes in his neighborhood would probably sell in the high $150,000s; most have three bedrooms, one bath and a detached two-car garage. Windows look into neighbors' windows. Cars, trucks and campers are parked in driveways and in the street. Some lawns are scruffy; some are immaculate. It is, in Waldie's words, a place for the "not-quite middle class."

These straight-arrow streets and single-family homes are as much a part of the American landscape as shopping malls and 7-Elevens and from here to Levittown, Long Island, have been easy targets. Writer Ron Rosenbaum described his 1956 screenplay for "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers" as "about the horror of being in the 'burbs." In his influential 1964 book "God's Own Junkyard" (Holt, Rinehart & Winston), architect Peter Blake wrote: "The kind of stratified, anesthetized and standardized society being bred in America's present-day Suburbia is not one to look forward to with pleasure."

Nowadays critics are no less unkind. Robert Bellah, principal author of "Habits of the Heart: Individualism & Commitment in American Life" (University of California Press), a 1985 diagnosis of what ails American communities, today sees suburbs as "a catastrophe for this country." First, their population density is low, leading to a wasteful use of land; second, they cater to the automobile, which is expensive and polluting; and third, they represent a closed door to what's happening in urban centers.

"People [in Lakewood] may be able to look out for themselves," Bellah says. "But what about the rest of society?"

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