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Commentary | JOHN BALZAR

A Landscape of Optimism Thrives in the Tracts

July 20, 2001|JOHN BALZAR

Almost half a century back, a sour newspaper columnist named Westbrook Pegler gazed at the future. He saw the future. He came upon a housing subdivision.

He groaned, "How could they make the same mistake so many times?"

Pegler could have been speaking of my housing tract, bulldozed out of a bean field 47 years ago in Long Beach, Calif.

I just moved in. This is my fifth return to Southern California after assignments away. It's the only time I've settled in a tract house.

Always before, I shared Pegler's alarm about housing that was planned and fabricated and squeezed together for investors' quick gain. But I'm thinking Pegler and I were wrong. We didn't look deep enough.

The story of my neighborhood is the story of the California dream. For countless thousands of Americans, World War II divided tomorrow from yesterday. GI loans in hand, young men and women took leave of their pasts for this fair frontier of sun and jobs and promise. My subdivision, Rancho Estates, was among many that flew up, assembly-line fashion to satisfy the dream. These were starter homes.

They also started an epoch. True, Levittown on Long Island got a head start in the postwar subdivision revolution in 1946. But Southern California is where the phenomenon gained the momentum to shape not a community or a city but a region of 100 cities. Ceaselessly, the geometric order of individual subdivisions grew by magnitudes into the disorder we now call sprawl.

But inside my tract, I find order intact. The California dream survives. Not as caricature but as conceived. No one here is surprised to hear me say it, except me.

This subdivision was designed by architect Cliff May, combining ultra-modernism with Spanish tradition. Houses with glass walls were placed within courtyards. Inside and outside become one. Fences created the illusion of domain on lots 50 feet wide. Houses were sold in six compact floor plans. The original sales brochure emphasized bedrooms "designed for twin beds."

The poet-bureaucrat D.J. Waldie wrote an achingly beautiful memoir, "Holy Land," about subdivisions in this part of Southern California. I ended up not far from where he lives. To my newcomer's eyes, this flat landscape is a tangible connection to a heritage of optimism.

Things are different here from what I have encountered elsewhere in Southern California. For one, people tend to stay put.

The original owners didn't move on and buy a bigger house when they got a promotion. A friend says that this part of Long Beach is a little like Iowa. People settled and this became home and there was little thought of leaving again.

Today, the original war veterans who bought these homes are growing old. They are dying or being moved off to retirement facilities. The reluctance of their partings can be measured in the rarity of "for sale" signs. We found our house by word of mouth, approaching strangers on the street.

They are strangers no longer. Neighbors drop over unannounced to see how our unpacking is coming. We have the feeling that we're being vetted. We find ourselves eager to send reassuring signals: Yes, we understand our obligations as citizens of these blocks.

In our comings and goings, we are tested for our willingness to chew the fat with anyone and everyone. This adds time to our chores but pleasure to our days. We have been invited over for leftovers and presented with gifts. We trail along to the park for free band concerts on Friday nights.

I think that's what the planners had in mind when they laid out this grid of right-angle streets lined with shade trees, protected from busy boulevards by frontage roads, sheltered from the intruding vibrations of progress by the dense buffer of houses.

I misjudged these developers and what they created. The instant neighborhood of 1954 is a real neighborhood.

I laugh at myself for my sudden, and unearned, nostalgia: I worry whether this tract can remain true to its purpose for another generation.

Old friends from my past life in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest write me sympathy letters. They pity me swallowed up in what they think is the featureless dread of Southern California. I didn't know how to answer them. This is my answer.

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