Is Holy Land a memoir?
It doesn’t look much like one. And it doesn’t have some of things memoirs are supposed to have. Holy Land is a memoir of a place more than an account of a life.
You write intimately about your childhood, for instance, and almost nothing about your adult life.
Holy Land reconciles what is personal and what is public in an unremarkable life. More of the personal or the public would have made a different book. The gaps in the story are filled, however. Readers fill them with memories of the intimacy they once had with the things they grew up with.
Why does Holy Land look the way it does?
It’s these 316 short bits, some only a sentence or two in length. No section is longer than a single, double-spaced, typed sheet of paper. That was my grid – the boundaries of an eight-and-a-half-by-eleven-inch rectangle of white.
The formal structure of Holy Land isn’t all that abstract, however, because it also reflects a physical reality. I don’t drive. I have a boring collection of vision problems that prevents me from getting a license or owning a car. I live about a mile from my office at city hall where I work as a division manager. It takes me about half an hour to walk to city hall in the morning and another half-hour in the evening returning home. Holy Land took shape as I took this daily, hour-long walk through my neighborhood and across the grid of its streets.
You avoided the temptation to sentimentalize. Why?
I resisted being contemptuous, too. Too many accounts of a suburban life fall into the trap of sentimentality or contempt. I have no desire to romanticize my past or set fire to it. This suburb hasn’t any barriers to tragedy. It’s a place that’s just as mortal as me.
To what do you attribute the popularity of Holy Land? How do you explain its appeal?
Readers – not all readers – have told me that Holy Land touched them. Maybe there are some readers who think the book is a kind of puzzle: How do all these small parts go together? Some readers tell me that they’ve bought a copy and almost immediately began reading parts of it aloud to a companion. Maybe a few think Holy Land is beautiful; I’d like to think that some of it is.
My intention was to speak as plainly as possible to my neighbors of what they had made of themselves by living here. Their habits, raised on the framework of their city, did not shame them. Perhaps other readers want to see their habits that way, too.
The work of every generation includes reconciliation with its past. Holy Land has some of that character.
What does the picture of the past in your book tell us about who we are today? Does Holy Land provide us with something more than a nostalgic view of a disappearing world?
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. Holy Land isn’t about a “disappearing world,” in that sense. Not just the houses, but the hopes and losses of sixty years ago, materialized in the patterns of the street grid, are around me every day. The intersections of place and character persist, too, muted by new circumstances, but still grounded in the habits that grow out of a life in a particular place.
The experience of a 1950s childhood can’t be recreated for new homeowners, however, even if the landscape of that childhood hasn’t changed much. But nostalgia for a lost time isn’t the subject of Holy Land. The word “nostalgia” originally meant longing for a place, not dreaming of a lost past. I don’t have to be homesick about my place; I’ve never left it.
I don’t think of Holy Land as an admonition or a lesson either, but it does describe how a “sense of place” was assembled from the elements of an apparently unpromising suburban housing tract. I believe that a “sense of place,” like a “sense of self,” is part of the equipment of a conscious mind.
I suppose it’s a book about falling in love. It’s about the obligations that falling in love brings, too. It’s about longing for what you already have.
Holy Land was first published in 1996. How has your life been changed by the experience of writing the book? What have you learned from the book since?
Writing Holy Land taught me how to write this book. I’m not sure, however, that it did anything else.
That isn’t exactly true. The afterlife of Holy Land for me has been prayer.
But you’ve continued to write about Los Angeles and the suburban condition.
Holy Land gave me the opportunity to take my writing in a different direction. I’m interested in the intersection of the personal and the public, how the stuff of everyday life influences the choices we make – or fail to make – together. Because Los Angeles is a place I know, I’ve continued to write about that struggle here.
I’m settled, and that’s supposed to be uncharacteristic of Americans generally and of Californians specifically. I’m not regretful, at least, not in ways that matter. I remain afraid, but that’s the influence of parents who endured the Depression and fought a terrible war. And it’s the residue of a childhood lived under the daily threat of thermonuclear war. That’s another reason not to be nostalgic about a 1950s boyhood.
What has changed in Lakewood since 1996?
I see the distance between the past and present in my town widening more, and more of the claims of the past resisted. The original residents of the 1950s are now the city’s “frail elderly.” As their role in my town diminishes, something tangible in our lives together is passing away.
My suburb isn’t perfect. It isn’t a paradise or a utopia. Its failures as a place are corrected by those living here, and some of that persistence is harder to find. Life is more distracting now and coarser in some ways and less convivial. Making up what my town lacks takes even more effort than it did in the 1950s. But a large number of people still make the attempt.
Those who do are increasingly men and women of color, just as the members of my parish church are. My community today is about as diverse as all of southern California is, meaning my suburb is one of the more ethnically and racially diverse places in the nation.
My neighborhood has become somewhat younger. Many of its retired residents have left to return “home” to the Midwest and Border South communities they gave up to make a life in southern California. Some have moved to the new suburbs of Los Angeles, which are now Las Vegas and Phoenix.
If I were writing Holy Land today, these changes would be essential to the story, but I’d also note that ethnic and generational differences haven’t screened my new neighbors from the influences of the past. They seem to have acquired enough of the habits built into this suburb that make a dignified life possible.
Can you describe your daily life today?
I can’t think of anything more ordinary. It’s exactly as described in Holy Land. The pedestrian and the sacred are all there. I still live alone.
Critics – and they are many – describe lives of forced conformity and anonymity in the suburbs. Doesn’t conformity and anonymity dishonor the value of individuals and create a society that is neither healthy nor particularly creative?
Everyday life is mostly anonymous and unremembered wherever it’s lived.
We’re always looking for a human-scale solution to an American problem: reconciling the autonomy of individuals and the shared obligations of a community. American places – from urban high-rises to “off the grid” rural escapes – offer a range of solutions, none of them completely satisfying and each requiring something that might be called conformity. Some of these American places are more benign than others, and some of them are suburban.
Those critics have called suburban life “stratified, anesthetized, and standardized.” How do you understand that criticism?
Americans are always anxious about the ways we house ourselves. In the 1890s, America’s big cities were said to be divided by class conflict and deadened by the rapid pace of life. In the 1920s, America’s rural towns were ridiculed as culturally blighted and narrow-minded. In the 1960s, America’s new suburbs were vilified by Lewis Mumford in The City in History as “A multitude of uniform unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly at uniform distances on uniform roads, in a treeless command waste inhabited by people of the same class, the same incomes, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless prefabricated foods, from the same freezers, conforming in every outward and inward respect to a common mold manufactured in the same central metropolis.”
The targets change, but the language of doubt stays much the same. An American place is never just neutral ground. It’s always a moral sign.
Why demonize the suburban experience?
The harsh, judgmental line in American thought that stretches from Mumford, through Peter Blake in God’s Own Junkyard, to James Howard Kunstler in Geography of Nowhere, to Andres Duany in Suburban Nation defines all post-World War II, mass-produced housing as a failure, not just a failure of design but of the spirit, too. Kunstler, at the 1999 Congress of New Urbanism, dismissed post-war suburbs as “the place where evil dwells.”
That’s been reflected in the critical response to Holy Land, some of which has been strongly negative and some indifferent to the book’s implications about the capacity of places like mine to inspire loyalty or be redemptive.
As far as I could tell by their lives together, my parents did not escape to their suburb. They didn’t imagine it to be a bunker in which they could avoid the demands of living with other people. My parents and their neighbors in the 1950s understood, more generously than Mumford, what they had gained and lost by becoming suburban.
You write about the suburbs with a certain religiosity. You use words like “redemption” and “grace.” What do these words mean to you?
Wes Jackson, the founder of the Land Institute, insisted that Americans had not yet become “native” to their country. His concern was rural America, but the difference between a prairie town and my place is only a difference of degree. Because I don’t have any other words, I pin the word “redemptive” on the conscious vulnerability to a place that makes me more native to it. I use the word “grace” to describe what someone else might experience as the unbidden, unstoppable inrush of feeling that comes from being in the company of a place to which one hopes to be native.
We all live on land we’ve wounded by our living on it. Yet we must be here or be nowhere and have nothing with which to make our lives together. How should one act knowing that making a home requires this? How should I regard my neighbors?
It’s possible to answer with fury or neglect. It’s possible to be so assured of privilege that contempt for a place like mine is the only answer. It’s possible to be so rootless that the questions are merely ironic.
You once said that you wrote Holy Land to counterbalance the willful ignorance some prefer to have about suburban life. Do you think that we’re ready to reconsider that bias?
I want the day to come when writers deal honestly with the divided heart that’s in every story of every American place. We hunger for a home but doubt its worth when we have it. We long to acquire a sense of place but dislike its claims on us.
This essential American contradiction isn’t going to change. No place is immune from the peculiarly American certainty that something better is just beyond the next bend in the road or waiting to be realized in the next utopia.
How can a home – four walls, a ceiling, and a floor – affect our values? And if it can, doesn’t this leave room for a certain amount of manipulation? And is that necessarily bad?
Holy Land is, in part, a meditation on the fate of the things we touch and the corresponding effects of their touch on us. Manipulation is precisely what happens, but it works both ways. I can’t call this either good or bad, but only inevitable.
What we hope for, I think, is tenderness in this encounter.
Holy Land is the story of growth as a reflection of optimism. In Southern California today, growth is the prime source for pessimism. Can we conclude that the suburban experiment has failed?
The builders of my suburb turned lima bean fields into housing tracts with an astonishing degree of good luck and wisdom. Some of the good luck has run out of suburban development, and much of the wisdom in the building of Lakewood has been ignored. Have suburbs failed as a result? In Los Angeles, suburbs like mine are all we have. They’d better not fail, or 13 million of us will be homeless.
Of course, new suburbs can be made better and what we value in older suburbs can be preserved. The preference of a majority of people for neighborhoods that look remarkably like mine won’t go away, however, even though the suburban frontier has grown harsher. Optimism still makes bearable the risks of our lives together.
Los Angeles is often described as an increasingly polarized community from which people “in the middle” are being squeezed out, leaving a great many working poor and the few who are relatively wealthy. If that’s so, what is in store for the kind of homeowner Holy Land describes?
The suburb described in Holy Land depended then – and depends now – on jobs that let men and women with ordinary skills make a living. Once those jobs were riveting jets together at Douglas and cracking crude oil into gasoline at Shell and Texaco.
Today, it takes two jobs in an insecure economy to make the mortgage payment, feed and clothe a family, and keep up a fifty-four-year-old tract house. Often in my town, those jobs are held by the second generation of immigrant families – like the Latino, Filipino, and Chinese families in my neighborhood. They bring a different dynamic to the suburban experience, more like the urban immigrants of the first half of the twentieth century.
My neighborhood struggles economically, but I’m not sure that its struggles are worse than what they were in the past. Some families still live paycheck to paycheck. Maybe more are only a family crisis away from falling out of the not-quite-middle-class into something less secure.
These anxieties affect this suburb. But the loyalty of these diverse residents remains strong enough to bring out 400 volunteer park coaches in the fall and 600 to clean up the weedy yards of the disabled on Volunteer Day and over 2,000 to sprawl on lawn chairs and blankets to listen to concerts in the park every summer.
Is southern California still the “future?”
In some ways, it is. As metropolitan regions reach their limits, either geographically (like Los Angeles) or because of growth boundaries set by voters, more places will become more like Los Angeles. A moderately dense assemblage of continuous suburban landscape is the future of many metropolitan regions. Los Angeles just got there first.
But is that the future that anyone wants? Paradoxically, some places consciously chose the fate of Los Angeles. In the mid-1990s, the growth management agency for Portland, Oregon set out to replicate some of the features of southern California, and they’re succeeding. Portland, by design, is becoming more like Los Angeles.
Can you compare the suburban residents of the 1950s with those of today? Have we become more resentful of our neighbors than we once were?
Mass-produced suburbs were still new then. No one knew what would happen when tens of thousands of working-class husbands and wives were thrown together in a suburb and expected to make a fit place to live. It’s hard for us to imagine all the demands made on them. We’re unprepared to see them as uncertain but courageous actors in the making of the places in which they chose to live.
Newly made suburban places today are governed by the hard certainties of a homeowners association. The accommodations and politics built into suburban life in the 1950s have been replaced with the rigidity and authority of contract law. Citizens are being made into mere consumers. The loss is obvious.
You don’t deal with real violence in Holy Land. You stay away from the crimes that have marred your town and other suburbs
In the tabloid and nightly news versions of our lives – in stories that swing from the heartwarming to the horrific – suburban crime is the final proof that no place is safe, every comfort is an illusion, and all efforts at making a community are merely ironic. These are despairing beliefs.
Hopeful, imperfect people live in my suburb. Their hope has sometimes led them to acts of courage and generosity. Their flaws lead them sometimes to abuse and violence. Holy Land is about the effects of hope in the midst of the imperfect lives we lead in imperfect places.
Your roots are deep, but perhaps not enough to hold you in place. Will you ever move out of Lakewood?
I’m not sure. Probably.
What would you be seeking that you don’t have now? What would please you to leave behind?
I don’t think there is anything that I could erase from the story I tell myself, despite the appeal of amnesia. If I moved away, I’d go looking for a different kind of solitude.