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Suburban Graceland : HOLY LAND: A Suburban Memoir. By D. J. Waldie (W. W. Norton: $24, 180 pp.)

August 25, 1996|Margaret Crawford | Margaret Crawford is an architectural historian and chair of the history and theory of architecture program at the Southern California Institute of Architecture. Her most recent book is "Building the Workman's Paradise: The Design of Working Towns."

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.

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