D.J. Waldie is the author of Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, Where Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles, and other books about Southern California. He also is the author—with Diane Keaton—of two architectural studies: California Romantica and House.
Jennifer McCharen: What are you working on right now?
D.J. Waldie: For some years I’ve been writing a blog twice a week for KCET public television. I write about some political subjects, some cultural commentary, a little bit of history, a little bit of memoir. In addition to that I am waiting to hear from editors at Design who are putting together a book series on issues of place, which they hope to have published by Princeton University Press. My book would be about suburban places in Southern California.
JM: You’ve said that your writing, “might be a guidebook to civic romance: how to fall in love with the place in which you are.” Why do you think it’s important for people, and especially for writers, to fall in love with the place in which they are?
DJW: I generally speak in those terms about civic identity and civic engagement, and the capacity for places to become fit places for people to live through the prolonged and deep engagement people might have with their place, rather than just being a sojourner or a tourist. They become possessed of their place, and possessed by their place. But speaking specifically of writers it strikes me that a grounding in a particular place, its character and history, gives a writer a degree of substance that they might not otherwise have. And so I often think of the regionalist writers of the twentieth century. Writers that I find valuable are unwilling to be place-less. They are best when they are place-connected. That’s not altogether easy because of just the character of our lives today. Connection to place might seem like a burden or a useless bit of baggage that one needn’t carry around. But for me place is invested with so much emotional, spiritual, and psychological presence that it almost seems impossible to be without a sense of place. I think a sense of place is as essential to a person’s existence as a sense of self.
JM: When you talk about a sense of place, what is that made of for you? What does a sense of place involve specifically, tangibly?
DJW: I’m no philosopher of a sense of place. I’m more of a preacher than a theologian. But it seems to me a sense of place has several dimensions. One dimension is history: an understanding of where the place has come through time. A sense of place has a tangible dimension: sights and smells and touches and tastes and all of the sensory input that one might get by being intimately in a place. So that, just peripherally, it’s difficult to develop a sense of place from driving through it. It’s better to walk. Another dimension of a sense of place is what one might call the capacity for connecting to a community. A hermit might have a sense of place through the first two dimensions, but it seems to me that a full sense of place requires intercourse, commerce, conversation, interchange with a purpose—the purpose being the formation of some kind of viable community that persists through time. Another dimension of place is one Gaston Bachelard would agree with: that a sense of place comes from what might loosely be called daydreaming. A sense of place arrives from conscious dreaming so that a place is not simply a collection of data, or a list of facts in the past, or even a well-functioning organization like a community. A sense of place requires that imaginative faculty which I call a moral imagination—the ability to conceive of the elements of a place in a way that evokes one’s sympathy. So those are at least four dimensions of what I might consider a sense of place.
JM: My next question is about your book Holy Land. The book ends with lines from a Catholic hymn that are directed to the cross itself, “Sweet the wood, sweet the nails, sweet the weight it bears.” This image relates directly back to the detailed descriptions of the frames of the houses of Lakewood being nailed together one after another and the effect is very poignant. At what point in your writing did you know that image would be the end?
DJW: Fairly early on I understood that the book would end the way it does. I had indiscriminately collected lots and lots of phrases, sentences, incidents, bits of history, and some reflections. But when I began seriously reforming those materials and had maybe thirty or forty or so bits, I understood it was going to end where it ended—it was going to end with those words. It was going to not end in a place of triumph. It was going to be somewhat open-ended in the sense that it sort of ends in the middle of things as opposed to ending at the end of things. And that was the direction toward which the writing went naturally. In other words, I don’t think the writing is controlled by that ending. It just gets the reader there.
JM: Following up from that, because it’s such a clearly faith-bound image, how does faith play into your life as a writer?
DJW: I’m very hesitant to make any sorts of claims at all. Let me only say that the question of faith, a question of attempting to engage in a life that has a particular religious faith more or less at its center does shape my work as a writer. I would hesitate to say that it’s anything at all like Flannery O’Connor, but that might be an easy analogy—although it’s sort of like comparing a paper airplane with a 747. But my work as a writer and as a public official has centered on the notion that faithfulness is a meaningful component of lives. That faithfulness has a power to shape the viability and success of communities. And that faithfulness between individuals, and faithfulness between an individual and his or her place is a value that I understand, and have embraced although I might not be able to defend it rigorously. It’s more of a choice of the heart than a choice of the head. But I would argue that faithful communities work, and that they’re not an illusion imposed upon incoherent circumstances. My work as a public official for Lakewood has always been trying to show residents of Lakewood why loyalty (that’s Josiah Royce’s word) to a place like Lakewood is something they might want to acquire.
Faithfulness can also be a collection of habits, things that become so ingrained in one’s behavior that one does not have to puzzle out what should I do next? I have a tendency to believe that although habits have a bad rap, because there’s a prejudice in western thought to examining everything always all the time, it seems to me that everyday life is habitual in many of its forms, and that faithfulness can be a habit too.
JM: That makes me think of writing, and how one has to keep the faith with your writing.
DJW: That’s precisely the case.
JM: Definitely. That leads into my next question: this idea of “suburbia.” Very smart and insightful people still use that word as an epithet—as if it describes a homogenous substance. Why do you think this happens? What do you think it is about suburbia that disturbs certain people?
DJW: First let me just say that I’ve tried to scrub that word from my language and generally don’t use it, although sometimes editors and reporters and headline writers throw it into the text because that’s what comes immediately to mind.
There are lots and lots of reasons why places that are various and diverse and beloved by the people living there get turned into this thing called suburbia. And at the risk of just raking over old arguments, suburbia comes out of a resistance to the ordinary, a resistance to the everyday. Suburbia comes out of complaints about the making of working class housing in the immediate postwar period that disappointed so many architectural activists who were also social activists. Turning these nondescript places into the thing called suburbia is also a reflection of what some cultural critics have called aesthetic privilege. That is, in order for one class to frame its stature above another class, one way is to focus on the aesthetic values of the upper class and denigrate the aesthetic values of the underclass. And so I think for political reasons and cultural reasons suburbia gets to be the thing that is spoken about as a substitute for actual suburbs.
I’ve written on many occasions that it seems to me that the mass-produced suburbs like Lakewood of the period 1946-1960 disappointed so many architects and social critics and advocates of social planning because it didn’t look good. It didn’t look like the gleaming Modernist superblocks of Le Corbusier or the gleaming concrete and steel constructions of the Bauhaus. It just looked like…Lakewood. And it was very disappointing to them.
JM: Because it was this massive physical building project. And yet it wasn’t Corbusier.
DJW: Or even Neutra or Schindler. It was a little house on a little lot.
JM: I guess they expected utopia to produce something shinier.
DJW: Or grander. I think their expectations were that the postwar period would be marked by a sort of grandiose aesthetic achievement, and it wasn’t.
JM: That is so interesting because something else was built and that thing was: a place where real people could live.
DJW: Exactly. You’ve hit the nail on the head. That’s exactly what did get built, and wasn’t that a grand achievement.
JM: Wasn’t it? I wonder why our culture has such a hard time holding that up as our grand achievement. I think the class question might be part of it.
DJW: There has been a tension in American culture between everyday-ness and the need for exception and idealization. And part of the whole cultural trend from the late 19th Century onward in which intellectuals in America abandoned the straight-laced and burdensome everydayness of small towns in the Midwest and moved into the great cities with their great energy and also their physical appearance, the intellectual class in America got trained to be unsympathetic to the little places that are very ordinary.
JM: That’s a good segue to another thing I wanted to ask you. It’s something that comes up in the book Real City. In that book you talk about longing and how this feeling has shaped the city of Los Angeles. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about that.
DJW: Los Angeles is a particular example of how desire created a place.
Bear in mind that L.A. was nothing more than a typical southwestern cowtown when it became American in 1860—when it became more firmly within the orbit of the nation. It was a wide spot in the road with just a few rather rough buildings and a very heterogeneous population that didn’t get along with each other very well. The anglos hated the Mexicans and the Chinese, the Mexicans hated the Chinese, and everyone hated the African Americans. And everyone was exploiting everyone else. But the people who arrived in the period between 1860 and 1880 had powerful ambitions. All across the west great fortunes were being made, great cities were being built. And they wanted L.A. to be one of those places. There was an economic rivalry with San Francisco, which was the economic capital of the entire west. And L.A. was under the thumb of San Francisco finance. If you wanted money to build something big in Southern California you had to borrow the money from San Francisco bankers, and they set the tune. So this first generation of entrepreneurial types in L.A. desired to change their little wide spot in the road into something much more significant and they went about it with the determination of a military campaign—and they were largely successful. Their greatest success however was to look around them and see that though there wasn’t very much to market there was something: sunshine, the air, and the dirt under their feet. And romance. You could spin sunshine and air and dirt into something else if you put enough romance into it. So they quite deliberately framed L.A. as a place where aspirations—however incoherent they might be—could be fulfilled. And from the mid-1880s onward L.A. became the most successfully advertised lifestyle product in the history of the country. It was marketed in every possible medium of the time from lantern slideshows in church halls to novels. L.A. and Southern California were boomed by the weaving of romance into desire.
There’s a wonderful book by Alexander McClung called Landscapes of Desire: Anglo Mythologies of Los Angeles (from which I steal all these ideas), and he makes a very interesting case for how that process of selling romance to the rest of the country worked. So Los Angeles is burdened by that history. Everywhere we turn there are suggestions that we should be delighted by where we are because it is the summit of our desires satisfied. And yet of course it isn’t, and so it becomes unsatisfying. And so we have this bizarre tension between the city we want to live in, which we think we’ve been sold, and the city we do live in. And this leads to all sorts of problems with governance and how we relate to one another because we’re always trying to live in a different city. A city of the imagination. A city of prolonged daydream, not the city we actually have.
JM: Not the city of Bachelard’s conscious daydreaming in place. Los Angeles is a strange place.
DJW: That’s right, but the strangeness has a history. It’s not something weird about L.A. that you can’t put your finger on. You can put your finger on it rather firmly: these are the things that led us to where we are today.
JM: Writers at Antioch think a lot about social justice and what it means for us. What are your thoughts about that? What does social justice mean for a writer?
DJW: Well we have been talking about that in reference to me. I don’t necessarily use the phrase social justice, but if we are to imagine social justice to include the concept that we sustain one another in our community and that we value the ordinariness of our lives to the extent that we resist disrupting that ordinariness for no good reason, then all my work is about that kind of social justice.
It’s sort of counter-revolutionary in some ways in that it suggests that a careful appraisal of ordinary lives might suggest a reluctance to disrupt those lives. Whereas I suppose that for most of us social justice might imply righting wrongs. Well, there are a great many wrongs everywhere, and a great many wrongs in Lakewood, too, and they should be righted, and lives made better. I seem to spend more of my energy on the lives made better side of that equation. But this is to suggest to your readers that there are many different ways to advance the condition of the lives around you. And I have chosen (maybe wrongly, or delusionally) the route that leads me through engagement with people as they are right now. That leads me through consideration of their past as a reality, not something to be ignored. And it leads me to the conviction that the partial victories in the past should not be regarded as total failures. And there’s a certain tendency amongst social and cultural critics to do that: to think that the partial victories of the past because they were necessarily partial are somehow failures.
JM: What specifically are you thinking of when you say that, what victories?
DJW: Well it’s often brought up when talking about Lakewood (and) the racial demographics. Because of federal policy, bank policy, lending policy, and the behavior of builders and the sales agents for places like Lakewood, there were only seven African American families in Lakewood in 1960. That is a failure, a very obvious failure, and one that I have been more than once reminded acutely of. On the other hand, you had 17,500 houses settled by all sorts of people from all kinds of places with markedly differing cultural expectations and habits, even language and foodways and all sorts of ways. And yet they successfully got together and built a working community out of that and indeed built a working city out of that. So that’s a partial victory, but it shouldn’t be understood to be a failure. At all.
But I’ve had conversations with African American men and women my age and a bit older who are quite bitter—justifiably so—that they weren’t able to buy into the kind of successful community and ultimately successful city that Lakewood became after the homes were sold.
I’ll give you a further example of partial victory: although the developers of Lakewood, due to federal lending policy, bank policy, et cetera, didn’t sell houses to African Americans they did sell them to Jews, which was progressive at the time. So in the very early days of Lakewood it was one of the few communities in Southern California where working class Jewish families could afford to buy a house. Lakewood immediately became a destination for Jewish families who wanted to buy their own home. And so Lakewood had a very large Jewish population when it opened for business in 1954.
JM: As writers we have to make all kinds of choices but I suppose that in looking at those partial victories there’s something to be said for just telling it like it is.
DJW: Precisely. So as a writer my job has been to dispel mythologies, to question received wisdom and common knowledge, and to suggest that we should have a more nuanced understanding. That’s my task as a fifth rate popularizer of local history. But my larger purpose, my larger social purpose, as you said at the very beginning of this conversation, is to find ways to encourage people to fall in love with where they are. Because I think there is a strong social purpose in that.