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OBITUARIES : John Sanford Todd, 1919 - 2008

His vision of Lakewood as a new kind of city created a model copied nationwide

September 04, 2008|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

In the annals of California municipal history, Lakewood of the early 1950s was David fighting the Goliath of Long Beach, a city intent on gobbling up its unincorporated neighbor parcel by parcel. The legal turf battles were exhausting Lakewood's defenders, most of whom were transplants drawn to the promise of this sleepy village-turned-postwar boomtown

Then along came John Sanford Todd, a struggling attorney and proud Lakewood resident, who dreamed up a way to preserve his community's independence without it going broke: It would become a new kind of city, one that contracted out for police protection, trash collection, firefighting -- just about every service a city provides.

That practice is commonplace today, but it was a revelation 54 years ago.

Todd's vision, dubbed the Lakewood Plan, became a model of local government that lighted incorporation drives throughout Southern California and beyond. Suburbia took shape in a rash of "contract cities," including Dairy Valley (now Cerritos), La Puente, Bellflower, Duarte, Irwindale, Norwalk and Santa Fe Springs, which sprang up in such rapid succession that some observers began proclaiming the end of big cities.

Todd was the architect of this transformation, "the first to say, 'Let's form a new city, but let's not do it the old way,' " said Charlie Martin, the longtime city attorney of Temple City, which became a contract city in 1960. "A lot of people thought it wouldn't succeed, but it did. He started a whole new trend."

The so-called father of the Lakewood Plan, Todd died Saturday at Fountain Valley Regional Medical Center of complications from surgery following a fall, according to his son, Mike. He was 89 and retired only four years ago after 50 years as Lakewood's city attorney.

His unusual legacy forms an important chapter in the history of the region, as creator of a form of city government that also was, perhaps unintentionally, a social experiment, a mechanism for reinforcing the social and cultural values that shaped community identity.

Lakewood in the late 1940s was largely a collection of bean fields and hog farms. But as servicemen returned home after World War II, it became a magnet for young families. In less than three years, Lakewood's developers -- Mark Taper, Louis Boyer and Ben Weingart -- built 17,500 nearly identical houses, laid out in a uniform grid, with all streets meeting at right angles, each block containing exactly 46 houses, and each house planted on a 50-by-100-foot lot. It was the largest subdivision in the world, offering what cultural analyst and Lakewood historian D.J. Waldie called "a compass of possibilities."

Within that grid was a community that was 95% white. Later generations of historians would take note of this homogeneity and read an exclusionary motive into the incorporation effort. "It was part and parcel of a larger rejection of big cities and urban life" and contributed to inner-city unrest in the 1960s, said UCLA professor Eric Avila, an expert on white flight who teaches urban planning, history and Chicano studies.

But Waldie, an assistant to the Lakewood city manager, says otherwise. Lakewood today is racially and ethnically diverse, with whites making up only about half of its 83,000 residents. Fifty years ago, the identity that the city's fathers wanted to preserve was related more to age and class than racial identity, he said. Most of Lakewood's residents were just starting out. When they looked at their big neighbor to the south they "saw an older city. . . . They didn't see the mirror of themselves," said Waldie, whose memoir of growing up in Lakewood, "Holy Land," was published in 1996.

Of course, when they looked at Long Beach, they also saw a big-city bureaucracy that might regard Lakewood as "a sort of hinterland" and disregard the special needs of young families like Todd's.

Born in Grand Forks, N.D., on July 27, 1919, Todd moved to Los Angeles as an infant when his father joined the psychology faculty at USC. He earned a bachelor's degree in political science at USC, then served in World War II as an Army Air Forces munitions specialist in Alaska and Guam. He married in 1943, finished law school at USC and moved to Lakewood in 1949, and by 1955 had two sons with his wife, Frances.

There was one other lawyer in town but, as Todd once noted, "the legal business wasn't exactly booming," so he and Frances began to get involved in civic affairs.

Soon Todd found himself arguing to close down Lakewood's hog farms on behalf of fellow residents, who regarded the farms as a smelly nuisance. In 1950 he was elected managing director of the Lakewood Taxpayers' Assn., the main civic organization.

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