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Culture Q&A

D.J. Waldie

Weight of the ordinary

Crosses and stucco in the ‘holy land’ of suburbia

Weight of the ordinary

D.J. Waldie (Handout)

Prickly social critic James Howard Kunstler once said “suburbs are the embodiment of existential evil.” Critics regularly condemn them as wastelands of cookie-cutter construction, social conformity, anomie, and racial segregation—and yet that’s where 55 percent of Americans live.

Author and historian D.J. Waldie’s home of Lakewood, Calif., a 1950s-built suburb of Los Angeles, became an early target of urbanist critique. Laid out on a grid imposed over plowed-under bean fields between Los Angeles and Long Beach, Lakewood’s modest single-family homes sprang up quickly. When the sales office opened on Palm Sunday in 1950, 30,000 people were waiting to view the seven model homes: Carpenters built 26,000 houses between 1950 and 1953.

Waldie was born into one of those stucco-over-chicken-wire houses, and he’s still there 70 years later. His 1996 book, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, is both the story of his life in Lakewood and a disarming, poetic argument for the possibilities of suburban living. He remains a soft-spoken if ardent advocate for these ordinary places. Edited excerpts of our recent conversation follow.

You don’t strike one as argumentative, yet in its own way Holy Land was a rejoinder to critics of suburbia. There’s a long tradition of regarding suburbs as lesser, diminished places. Between the 1950s and 1970s a body of screeds against suburban places damned them as soulless, dehumanizing, inhuman, and hellish. I knew the place where I lived was none of those things. So not very deeply into the process of writing Holy Land, it became an argument that these flattening and diminishing criticisms of suburban places needed to be enriched and made more nuanced for them to have any validity.

‘Not having a sense of place is a handicap. If you aren’t smelling, tasting, hearing, and seeing the stuff of the place where you are … you are hurting yourself.’

You’ve described suburbs as the “paradise of the ordinary.” That phrase contains two words that don’t seem to belong together. I’ve tried to understand how paying attention to ordinariness—ordinary things, ordinary places, everydayness—is an enriching encounter. So in other work since Holy Land I’ve emphasized the value of paying attention to wherever you are, not making distinctions between this place of privilege and that place lacking in value, but trying to make the argument that everywhere you are, if properly engaged and understood, might contain something enriching to one’s inner life.

The world has been flattened by our connectedness, both economically and digitally. Are the places where we live still important? The world is much more distracting and distracted, and being a connoisseur of a particular place seems strangely narrow or old-fashioned. People often live in a variety of places, some virtual and some real, but not all of it coheres into a sense of place. Yet the sense of place is part of the equipment of a whole person as much as a sense of self. Not having a sense of place is a handicap. If you aren’t smelling, tasting, hearing, and seeing the stuff of the place where you are, but you’re seeing something else—maybe through a screen—you are hurting yourself.

Just driving through suburb upon suburb of Southern California, it’s apparent that some places are better-tended than others. If the residents of a community don’t have a place-bound loyalty, then they are quite willing to permit all sorts of evils to rise up around them. We’ve seen it here in Southern California over the last 20 years where communities have driven themselves into the ditch because no one’s paying attention.

So what can be done to nurture a place-bound loyalty? Get outside and walk across your place. You only become fully oriented to your place, only begin to acquire a sense of where you are in your place, by literally crossing the miles of it at the human pace of a walker. When every aspect of the place you are passing through impinges upon your senses—you hear it, you smell it, you see it, you feel it—and it touches you in some way, physically touches you, then you truly know it. One should learn how to fall in love with the place where one is.

Why “holy land?” My then-cranky, slightly bitter self was saying, It’s no junkyard, it’s a holy land. After all these years, I’m less cranky. But I’m saying that every place where people have invested so much feeling, so much longing, so much life, particularly any place where one’s parents are buried, automatically becomes a sacred place. It becomes a holy place, a holy land.

Bettman/Getty Images

The Lakewood, Calif., housing development in 1951 (Bettman/Getty Images)

Yet that’s not just a human-centered notion of the holy but one rooted in your faith, isn’t it? All the things of the world can be sacralized: A sacred quality can be imparted to them and flow from them. So I’m prepared to think of the world as not a dead place but a lively place full of spiritual possibilities. I’m no pantheist, no animist: I don’t think everything has a soul. Yet I do think that stuff isn’t just dead matter but can be experienced as an aid to spiritual enrichment.

Holy Land is bookended by images of the crucifixion, by the crudity of the cross. In fact, it ends on Good Friday. I knew it would end that way early on. I live in a community that is almost entirely made out of wood nailed together by untrained carpenters in 1950, guys who had recently been GIs in the Second World War, hammering buildings together for pay. And yet from that grew so much I value, so much that is of supreme importance to me, like the nailing together of the cross and the losses and gains that led to. Even from the worst materials something of supreme value might come. So even from the not-together everydayness of a nowhere place like Lakewood, something of inestimable value might rise.

You’ve even said that living in a suburb is part of your own crucifixion. I don’t want to absolve myself of the burden I carry in living here: my lack, my incapacity to be the virtuous person I want to be. Part of what Jesus does in raising us up is to raise us up on our crosses. My crucifixion is the middle-class comforts that I have acquired. How do I get beyond that, beyond the little world that I live in, rather than just turning the ordinary and everyday into a cocoon? What I’m talking about is the humiliation of being human, but once one understands that, there is an answer. There is someone who takes and transforms our humiliation. The most humiliated man, Jesus, bears with us our humiliation. It’s not just resignation in the carrying of the burden. It’s not just because that’s what human beings are and I understand my fallen state, get the theology of redemption, and now grim-faced trudge forward yearning for the end of all this. No. It’s a burden I want to carry.

—Steve West is a World Journalism Institute mid-career course graduate