Book Report: Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir

Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, by D.J. Waldie (Published in 1996, with a new introduction and afterward in 2005)

The author, who grew up and still resides in a tract home in Lakewood, CA, makes the ordinary fascinating, looking at the past and present of his city, one of the largest tract home developments of the post-war housing boom.

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The unique memoir consists of 316 entries, including personal thoughts, facts and figures about the development and how it was built (No sheathing! In California earthquake country!), and a fascinating look at L.A.’s water situation. It shows that even a seemingly painfully ordinary and banal place can have such a fascinating history.

The author says, “Who we are today is entangled with what we were. The past is always slipping away, nowhere more quickly than in Los Angeles, but the past isn’t always distant. Holy Land documents the material basis of a place-from its geology to the technology built into its houses-because these elements persist, despite the erasure of so much.”

Plaster and Roofing, Lakewood, California

Plaster and Roofing, Lakewood, California, 1950, William A. Garnett. Gelatin silver print. 7 11/16 x 9 9/16 in. © Estate of William A. Garnett – See more of these fascinating images here.
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“The suburb described in Holy Land  depended then-and depends now-on jobs that let men and women with ordinary skills make a living,” says the author. Elites (I am guilty of this too) decry the soul-sucking repetitive conformity of the suburbs. When we were in Europe this summer, people talked about the American suburbs with disdain and asked why they would build such cheap houses out of sticks. But, cheap houses made out of sticks allow people to have houses. Otherwise, it would be the United States of before the baby boom: the average worker could not afford a house within a reasonable distance of a metropolitan area.

This book touches on social, economic, geological and environmental factors. It’s not meant to be sentimental, but it made me long for a time I never knew and maybe never really existed, of dads home from work by 5, a rich and engaged civic life, a life of a few very appreciated material things, kids roaming free. This sentiment is almost a cliche at this point, but the cohesion of a neighborhood that existed before we were so “connected” is, I feel, one of the greatest loses of 21st century life.