Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Lakewood houses

At present, I am visiting my 87 year old mother. She still lives in the same general neighborhood that we lived in when I was growing up in the 1950's. That area is Lakewood, California, "Tomorrow's City Today" as they originally claimed. It was a large post-WW2 tract development along the same lines as the Levittowns of the east coast.

The homes in this tract were built during the period 1951-54. They were two and three bedroom homes of 1,000 to about 1,300 square feet. Over the years, many have been added on to and in some cases quite creatively. When I was a youngster, there were practically no buildings in town over one storey. The only one I can recall is the May Company, a large department store in the show-case shopping center for the community. Over the years, many of the single-storey homes have had second stories added.

When I was a youngster in the 1950's, I knew that Lakewood was different from other, mature communities. For one thing, I often stayed with my grandmother in nearby Long Beach, an older city. There, buildings had been built mostly one-at-a-time and the mix of architectural diversity was impossible even for a child not to notice. I can recall discussing this with my childhood friends. We wondered what Lakewood might look like when the replacement of originally built homes would eventually take place. Then, diversity would ensue, we thought. Well, nearly 60 years later the original Lakewood homes are still holding up well, and the diversity has largely taken the form of remodelling.

Later, as an early teen I also recall discussing Lakewood homes with a pal of mine. Our unqualified opinion of the day was, Lakewood homes were cheaply made, thrown together quickly after WW2 to satisfy an immediate demand for housing and didn't hold up well in comparison to holder homes. This was largely untrue, as events and education have borne out. To begin with, not all homes older than those made after 1945 were necessarily all that much better. Some homes have always been cheaply made relative to what more money would buy. It is true that labor and materials used to be much less expensive, but that also meant that wages in general were lower too. There is also the natural progress of construction codification and materials improvements that had taken place between, say, 1910 and 1945, which we chose to ignore. The big fallacy in our immature view of construction quality was that we couldn't have known just how far mass-c0nsumption construction quality would fall after the Lakewood homes were built.

When I think about the construction quality of the Lakewood homes now, I think of them as being built like little fortresses compared to 1970's and 1980's construction standards. Yes, many of the homes built in the 1990's and later have been very nicely put together, but at a high unit cost that we are only recently starting to wonder about.

This morning, I took a shower in my mother's 1954 house. The tiled shower stall is like a concrete bomb shelter. The bathtub adjacent to it is made of porcelain over cast iron, not white spray paint over sheet metal (that vibrates like crazy when the shower spray hits the bottom). The final luxury was having all that water gush out by the who knows how many gallons per minute, unhindered by a low-flow shower head.

As an adult, I can now appreciate some of the features of the planned city. When Lakewood was originally laid out, there were many vacant lots left open at corners of arterial intersections. As children, we sometimes played in these "vacant lots." Later, these were developed as small shopping centers where residents could shop locally instead of making long trips to somewhere else.

Another feature I now admire (and miss having lived since then mostly in places where such luxurious streets are lacking) are the wide boulevards with paved shoulders that the developers provided. In my childhood days, these expansive streets were very lightly travelled in a day when each family typically had only one car. I'm not sure the developers could've quite imagined how much traffic their wide streets eventually would be carrying. Now, the streets are loaded with traffic and driving up and down the residential side streets, they are found to be choked with parked cars in testiment to the disappearance of the one-car family.

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