Becky Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920-1965

Identities serve as catalysts in numerous epochs of American history. The twentieth century illustrates this phenomena as much if not more than any other century in United States history. Becky M. Nicolaides locates the birth and growth of the white taxpaying working class and middle class homeowner in Los Angeles’ burgeoning working class suburbs. Building on the work or traditional urban historians such as Mike Davis, Kenneth Jackson, and Gregory Hise, Nicolaides also utilizes the work of newer histories that investigate “informal networks” and leisure spaces as sources of identity and community such as works by Kathy Peiss, Joanne Meyerwitz, and Eric Avila.

My Blue Heaven explores the changing politics and identity of Los Angeles suburb South Gate from its earliest inceptions in 1920 to the Watts Riots of 1965. Nicolaides uncovers a history that illustrates fluctuations in residents ideas of themselves and the suburb itself, “Only recently have historians turned their attention to suburbs of working class and people of color, revealing a much more variegated picture of suburban life.” (3) One fundamental difference between working class suburbs and their middle or upper class counterparts lay in how homes are valued. South Gates' shift from a wage earning town to its post WWII middle class aspirations, illuminates the effect of national policies in local identity. As Nicolaides points out, many working class suburbs placed value in the land use or productivity of their home rather than its worth as a commodity in speculative real estate markets. Predominantly wage earning, most of South Gates early citizenry constructed their own homesteads while utilizing backyard gardens or domestic industries to make ends meet. This frugal approach also emphasized lower taxes and reduced infrastructure. From its beginnings, class divisions developed between wage earners and the “merchant class”. Though the town tolerated all classes, non-whites could not find housing. Wage earners attached less importance in a place specific community traveling outside South Gate for work, leisure,and consumption. The merchant classes oppositely thought of community strictly in place bound terms, emphasizing patronage as a civic duty. Moreover, merchants figured prominently in the various associations emerging in South Gate prior to WWII. Thus, many gained footholds in the local political community. This merchant class consistently pushed for infrastructure and development, inciting vigorous resistance from their wage earning counterparts who fell victims to higher taxes and assessments. Churches and other organizations failed to bridge class divisions as the town population split between evangelical (that shunned secular activities, therefore reducing potential for interaction) and non-evangelical religious communities. Non evangelical tended to be populated by the “merchant class” more often than not. In this way, religious institutions served to reinforce identities within South Gate prior to World War II. In this prewar era, taxes and development emerged as the most divisive issues. Working class residents felt so consumed by the tax issue that most chose to send their children to interracial schools rather than increase taxation to ensure racial purity in education. Importantly, Nicolaides identifies the construction of white working class homeowner identity in this period as it revolved around “plain folk Americanism” (an ideal brought by many migrants who inhabited South Gate from the South and Southwest which privileged individualism the like), low taxes, anti-communism, and white rights, “political sensibilities that revealed the importance of class based political concerns and the centrality of homeownership to political identities. These political experiences ultimately sowed the seeds that matured into blue collar conservatism in the post war era. In South Gate the politics of neighborhood pitted wage earners against merchants, whose divergent goals translated into conflicting visions for the suburb’s future.” (121) [though of note post WWII, race eclipsed such concerns since working class industrial prosperity diminished class differentiation, and both groups coalesced around a language of “white rights” to protect property values of their homes which had become for many their primary investment] Ironically, the efforts of the New Deal reinforced the feelings of entitlement as the HOLC and FHA established structures that valued white suburbs and communities over integrated or non-white neighborhoods.[though as Nicolaides points out, the support given to New Deal programs by South Gates residents rested on such programs that helped them economically and often reserved aid or access to loans to white families] This along with the GI Bill [after WWII, veterans became a key constituency in South Gates civil society] established a sense of entitlement among working and middle class homeowners that when challenged by civil rights protesters brought a vociferous response.

America’s entrance into World War II and the post war suburbanization boom enabled South Gate to overcome its lack of community [Nicolaides argues that the lack of ethnic ties that other urban/metropolitan area exhibited, inhibited early attempts at cohesive community development]. Industry abandoning eastern cities like Detroit and New York relocated in the sunbelt and Southern California. Suburbs like South Gate [or Mike Davis’ Kaiser example] benefited as wage earners embraced industrial work and more pragmatically unions [though later they did not support the “progressive” political agenda regarding race]. Women entered the workforce in higher numbers and stayed there post war, leading to higher levels of consumption. Consumption itself became a goal and the provisioning that dominated early South Gate withered away. South Gates’ housing stock expanded, but few residents built their own homes anymore, rather large scale house production took over, including multi family structures and apartments. Tenancy which had been discouraged prior to World War II established itself within the community. Infrastructure expanded rapidly and property ownership changed in meaning, jettisoning the land use ideal in exchange for its value as a commodity. Volunteerism during the war and the mixed class nature of veterans and veteran’s associations also aided in reducing previous class divisions. However, as the 1950s progressed South Gate ignored tax based concerns for those involving the negative effects of local industry, pollution and juvenile delinquency. Many wished to promote South Gate as a middle class suburb, moving away from its working class heritage. [here you see some differences between the South Gate example and others i.e. Gregory in Black Corona locates resistance to industry and other issues to Civic Associations and HA’s in Corona-Elmhurst Queens during the 1980s-90, similarly Mike Davis discusses the growth of NIMBYism and the slow growth movement in and around LA during the same period. Sugrue as well points to the importance of similar organizations but Nicolaides argues South Gate had little of this, she suggests these organizations were not the primary force in terms of resistance]

The onslaught of the civil rights movements furthered developing shifts and crystallized the white working/middle class homeowner/taxpayer identity. If prior to WWII, class trumped race, following the 1950s, the opposite had become true. South Gate earned a reputation for hostility toward civil rights demands such as integrated schools. Interestingly, Nicolaides argues [in many ways like Sugrue] that the anxieties and hostilities surfacing were driven by fears over dropping housing values which the civil rights movement threatened since the federal government had established a structure that devalued homes near minority populations. [not to say racism didn’t play a role, it did just not the only role] Moreover, tracing their resistance to integration, Nicolaides argues that South Gate residents often couched their arguments in pro-white rights rhetoric rather than anti black polemics. As Nancy MacLean’s work illustrated the appropriation of civil rights anti-racism language by conservative ideologues, so to did South Gate residents appropriate the civil rights language in their own cause [this is similar to the Davis example regarding the appropriation of environmental language for slow growth advocates who really just wanted to maintain property values and keep out minorities, or the discussion Gregory has in terms of the appropriation and reappropriation of publics and counterpublics in Corona-Elmhurst Queens regarding the city’s attempts to place a light rail transit to LGA and JFK in the 1990s] Whites failed to see the connection between housing and education, viewing them as separate issues, whereas, blacks saw the two as hopelessly intertwined. Such observations, correlate with similar developments in historical circles that view whiteness and the relation other groups had to it. For example, Luis Alvarez’s final chapter in The Power of the Zoot assigns an almost equal level of understanding regarding white urban riots of the 1940s suggesting that whites in Detroit and other places rioted as expression of loss of dignity [i.e. they wanted to maintain overrepresentation in the workforce and felt it their right, when minorities begin to integrate they viewed this as an affront, Nicolaides South Gate residents operate in a similar way.] The passage of Prop 14, which ran roughshod over the Rumford Fair Housing Act illustrates the political mobilization of this white homeowning constituency. This movement laid the groundwork for the tax revolts of the 1970s that helped establish an American conservatism based on low taxes, weak federal government, individualism, and anti-communism. [Robert O. Self’s book American Babylon explores this topic in greater depth]


— the book begins and ends with the Watts Riots … as Robert Self pointed out in a book review this has the effect in some ways of presenting the histories of the adjoining suburbs as isolated from one another… Blacks appear as peripheral characters in the work though to be fair its not the intent of the work

— chapters are too long … the book is very very good but in moments some brevity would be beneficial

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