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Birthplace of the 'Burbs

Thousands of Lakewood homes were built assembly-line style in the 1950s, and residents have appreciated the feeling of community ever since.

April 11, 1999|SUE McALLISTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Mike and Darlene Neilsen decided to move from their longtime home in north Long Beach, they had a specific goal:

They hoped to find a community where neighbors took pride in maintaining their property, and they didn't want to live on a through street.

They found the right fit in Lakewood, a city of 78,000 in southeast Los Angeles County that is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year.

Mike Neilsen, 49, an electrician for Los Angeles Unified School District, and his wife, an education consultant, felt their old neighborhood was becoming less safe.

They sought out a quiet street in Lakewood and moved into their three-bedroom house in February 1998 with two of their four children.

The home, purchased with the help of Long Beach ReMax agent Joe DiTore for $168,000, still has the original 1950s metal kitchen cabinets and Formica counters, which Darlene said her kids appreciate for their retro chic.

And the neighbors seem to share the Neilsens' energy for sprucing up their homes and yards.

"It's a place where I feel like my property values are increasing, not decreasing," said Darlene, 48.

Lakewood, California's first major mass-produced subdivision, sprang to life in the early 1950s, when thousands of young families flocked to buy into the American dream in a booming postwar economy.

Using assembly-line methods, workers built as many as 100 homes a day between 1950 and 1953, according to city spokesman Don Waldie, author of "Holy Land," a book based in part on the city's history.

On 3,500 acres of what was once farmland, developers Louis Boyar, Mark Taper and Ben Weingart built more than 17,000 homes, each on lots of 50 by 100 feet.

When the homes went on sale in April 1950, as many as 25,000 people visited the sales office in one weekend. Seven models were available, all compact, one story houses with

two or three bedrooms.

Jacqueline Rynerson, 78, remembers touring the model homes and studying the wall map of soon-to-be-built tract homes.

"[You] put a pin on the map and there's where you were going to be," Rynerson said.

She was pregnant with her third child when she and her husband, Dewain "Bud" Rynerson, bought their three-bedroom Lakewood home for $10,750 and moved in on Labor Day 1952.

The couple still live in the home, although they added a second story in the 1960s to make room for more children.

Over the years, many Lakewood residents have customized their houses with additions and landscaping, giving street scapes considerably more character than is revealed in 1950s-era photos of look-alike homes on a grid of brand new roadways.

Rynerson, who went on to serve as a commissioner, councilwoman and mayor of this mostly middle-class city, was one of many residents who fought efforts by Long Beach to annex Lakewood in the early '50s. Lakewood incorporated in 1954 and, after some annexation of its own, is now 9 1/2 square miles and includes 10 major parks, including one named in Rynerson's honor.

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On the south and west, Lakewood is bordered by Long Beach. Bellflower and Cerritos are to the north, and Cypress and Hawaiian Gardens ring the city's eastern edge, which lies across the San Gabriel River from the civic center.

The city is about 64% white and 20% Latino, with Asian American and African American residents making up 12% and 4% of the population, respectively, according to data from the Southern California Assn. of Governments.

Rynerson said she and her husband have stayed in Lakewood through the years in part because of the city's small-town feel and the spirit of volunteerism and civic pride that have flourished since the days of the cityhood movement.

This year, the city celebrated its past and present by naming 45 "everyday heroes" who contribute to Lakewood's civic life in various ways. City officials also sponsored a "1954 Night at the Movies" event at the new multiscreen theater complex in Lakewood Center Mall, the state's oldest regional shopping mall and still one of Lakewood's only commercial centers.

Linda Borza and her husband, Paul, remember exactly when the spirit of community was born on their street. One night in 1991, an explosion badly injured the three residents of a home down the street from the Borzas. A leak had filled the home with gas, which ignited a fiery blast, blowing the roof off the house.

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Neighbors ran to help the injured residents, Paul Borza said, and the tragedy eventually brought them closer together. A Neighborhood Watch effort began, along with the formation of community groups and social events.

"All of a sudden, we knew everybody's names," said Paul Borza, 49, a computer specialist for a South Bay newspaper.

The Borzas moved to Lakewood nearly 13 years ago and have a 10-year-old son, Will. Linda Borza, 43, a part-time aide at Will's school, was named an Everyday Hero for her involvement with Neighborhood Watch, community emergency preparedness and Sheriff's Department crime-prevention programs.

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