My Blue Heaven

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Becky Nicolaides. My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working-Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920-1965. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (2002) 412 pp. ISBN 0226583007

Contents

Summary

"My Blue Heaven" uses the neighborhood of South Gate, a suburb of Los Angeles, to show how national trends played out on a local level from the 1920's through the 1960's. With a focus on demographic, economic, and political changes it tracks the creation of working class conservatism and the "silent majority." Nicolaides claims home ownership was the main factor in producing this working class conservatism.

South Gate’s story starts in the 1920's when cheap land brought white working class laborers to the area. They bought the land, built their own homes, created small subsistence gardens, and had small scale chicken coops, creating a semi-rural space in an otherwise urban environment. This pattern of subsistence meant that home ownership was the only thing separating working class residents from complete poverty. This fostered political views which called for limited government, low taxes, and created a a culture of "self-help, hard work, frugality and individualism." (p.169)

Life in South Gate began to change in the 1940's. Government investment in industry, home ownership, and the economy created a much more strongly middle class community of mixed blue and white collar workers. Throughout these improvements South Gate residents maintained their conservatism, but it was sent in new directions. Now that residents were no longer concerned with simple survival they began to protect their success through politics. Residents began of outside threats which might change the character of their neighborhood and decrease the value of their homes, their single greatest investment and the basis of their familial and social lives. The greatest threat came from the Civil Rights Movement, creating a strong anti-integration push within South Gate. Having mapped the roots of this conservatism, Nicolaides' points to economics and self identity as being the main factor for racial conflict in South Gate.

Commentary

Chuck Crum, Fall 2009

Dr. Nicolaides treats South Gates’ history as an evolution, but it seems they were different residents after the Depression than before. The views of the new, slightly wealthier residents might not have evolved from the earlier views of self-reliance but might be their own middle-class, religious, capitalistic conservative views. It can be difficult to extrapolate from one community to the nation as a whole but the three part story of South Gate (working class, middle class, and white flight) seems so familiar to so many urban/suburbs it must have significance. She sees changing voting patterns as proof the residents became more conservative, when it may be their views were relatively unchanged but the national parties had changed and such changes eventually caught up. She also makes the suspect claim that “racialized politics” of white South Gate residents had a big hand in the race riots of Watts. Interpreting residents’ desires to keep their property values and defend homes from vandalism and lives from destruction as an activism that sparked riots is an unproven proposal.

Richard Hardesty, Fall 2011

Scholarship on post-war suburbanization highlighted the class and race-based implications of suburban development. In defining the traditional definition of suburb, Becky M. Nicolaides noted that “[c]lass and racial specificity shapes the definition: a suburb is a suburb only when it is inhabited by privileged whites” (3). Nicolaides, though, found herself profoundly influenced by nineteenth century working-class studies centered in the northeast which examined worker adaptation to industrialization. So much so, she sought to create a parallel study for the twentieth century, a time when workers had already adapted to capitalism. Nicolaides centered her study away from the northeast and onto Los Angeles, focusing on the working-class suburb of South Gate. In the process, she presented a study that challenged the traditional definition of suburb as outlined in works like Crabgrass Frontier and Bourgeois Utopias, arguing that home ownership dictated the racial, political, and cultural climate of the working-class suburb (2-3, 335 n. 2).

Nicolaides struggled as she examined the interactions between the working-class and the elite, missing an opportunity to offer an in-depth, nuanced examination on class relations. In her study, she framed class divisions around issues of community development and growth. Merchants, for instance, viewed consumption as a civic duty that aligned citizens to the community. Yet, the working-class valued security and autonomy, and, with limited resources, they often responded to politicized consumerism by voting with their feet and shopping outside the suburb (128-30, 132-4). The conflict between merchants and workers only told part of the story. As Nicolaides showed later, race, xenophobia, and morality represented issues that fostered a level of inter-class solidarity, as membership in the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s included South Gate merchants and workers. Nicolaides, however, does not explore inter-class solidarity further, which could have helped strengthen her argument on the importance of the home. Given that race presented an “increasingly important aspect of community identity,” Nicolaides’s failure to further explore inter-class cohesion presented a problem, as white identity, not home ownership, appeared like a stronger force (165, 275).

Nonetheless, Nicolaides thrived when examining the multi-faceted meanings of suburban space, namely the relationship between home and political allegiance. Home ownership served as the impetus behind South Gaters’ political response. As Nicolaides noted, “[t]he identity of residents as working-class homeowners galvanized them to act politically as a means of economic self-defense” (168). Working-class suburbanites believed that home ownership espoused the values of individualism, hard work, self-help, economic security, and economic frugality. Through the values of home ownership, South Gaters developed their political ideology and response. Their anti-tax stance, for example, can best be understood through their desire to protect the economic security suburbia provided. Moreover, working-class support for Upton Sinclair and Franklin Roosevelt can be seen in the values promoted through their programs. Sinclair’s End Poverty in California program (EPIC) and Roosevelt’s New Deal promoted the values of working-class home ownership, thereby earning them the support of South Gaters (168, 169, 173-5, 176, 178-81). In essence, working-class political ideology emerged from the values of home ownership.

Nicolaides, in the process, subtly connected working-class suburbia to issues of power, thereby showing the historiographical significance of her study. As she showed, power rested with the home, not the hometown. Home ownership dictated the political ideology of working-class South Gaters, and dictated their support or opposition to political programs. Equally, if not more, important, home ownership dictated the course of working-class political support, as working-class South Gaters shifted their political allegiance between the Republican and Democratic parties during the twentieth century. Yet, in focusing on home ownership, Nicolaides’ analysis ran counter to Alexander von Hoffman’s Local Attachments and Kenneth Durr’s Behind the Backlash, where power rested with community institutions and organizations. Nicolaides’ analysis most of all showed that, as American cities became decentralized, political power became decentralized as well.

Lindsey Bestebreurtje, Fall 2012

Opening with the story of the 1965 Watts’ race riot in Los Angeles, Nicolaides successfully tracks the roots of the racial antagonism, working class conservatism, and suburban segregation which was the backdrop for the conflicts of the Civil RIghts Movement. Seeing economics and home ownership as the key factors which sparked racial antagonism, Nicolaides successfully uses a combination of statistical, first hand, and local records as sources to show the ways that national trends played out in the working class neighborhood of South Gate. These sources are analyzed through a combination of economic, political, demographic, gender, and built environment analytic frameworks. Showing the roots of the silent majority, as well as the tangible social and economic threats made the Civil Rights inclusion over ideological racial fears, “My Blue Heaven” challenges our understanding of suburbanization. It historicizes the social and political flare ups of the 1960’s and also challenges the idea that suburbia is somehow an exclusively middle class environment.

A weakness of this book is its lack of analysis of race before the 1940’s. While Nicolaides was convincing in his assertion that race did not play a dominant role in the politics of South Gate until the post war era, the neighborhood was still segregated from its creation, making race something which should have been considered from the start. Additionally, I was not always certain how Nicolaides defined class. This was particularly true in his assessment that during the 1920’s and 1930’s there were few distinctions in view point, payscale, or duties between working class, blue collar workers and middle class, white collar workers. If this is the case then why does he take the time to define them as separate classes? How do these similarities change as more of South Gate’s residents become middle class during the 1940’s? Or does it?

Despite a few minor problems, overall this book successfully tracks the roots of political conservatism and white entitlement.

Celeste Sharpe, Spring 2013

Nicolaides, concerned broadly with the "changing metalities, concerns, and political outlooks of American workers in the twentieth century" (2), examines the South Gate suburb south of Los Angeles for its shift from a working-class to what is conventionally considered a suburb today (white, middle to upper class, carefully cultivated). It is the attention to the realities of the pre-World War II working-class suburb, where property owners devoted considerable space to growing food and raising animals to derive a sense of independence and security from homeownership, where Nicolaides' analysis is strongest. Homeownership, she argues, provided a stronger identity marker for white workers than their occupations. Part of this stemmed from the fluidity between blue and white collar jobs in early twentieth century Los Angeles.

Nicolaides' study, grounded as it is in South Gate, discusses almost exclusively white Los Angeleans, with African Americans entering the analysis primarily in the postwar period as the encroaching minority group. For a study around Los Angeles, it is an interesting how race relations are basically reduced to a black/white dichotomy over the entire period of study. The Mexican American population is largely dismissed "because they often inhabited relatively segregated neighborhoods, their ethnic presence did not touch most communities composed overwhelmingly of native born whites," (62) until a brief mention of the small few Latinos who had successfully moved into the community after the war. This begs the question of how this was possible, how South Gate residents negotiated their notions of race and class differently with the Latinos than African Americans. This issue highlights some of the inconsistencies in Nicolaides' analysis, where minority groups are sidelined except for a few brief moments. This leads to a lack of coherent discussion of race relations in either LA city or suburbs, a discussion which would have greatly benefited the study.

Megan Brett, Spring 2014

In the first half of this work, Nicolaides successfully argues for the existence of interwar era working-class suburbs. These areas were characterized by the prevalence of owner-built homes and shared attitudes of its residents who saw homes as productive, economic spaces and favored a self-reliant, independent version of American identity. (5) It is worth bearing in mind that the working class residents of South Gate were not necessarily representative of national trends; they were less pro-union than the working classes of Michigan, for example.

As Mr. Crum pointed out, Nicolaides tries to argue for change within community while passing over what seems to be a significant shift in resident demographics after World War II. I was particularly intrigued by the fact that South Gate seemed to have a high number of single, divorced, and childless people; this seems to contrast with the image of a suburb as a place for (heteronormative white) families. Like Ms. Sharpe, I would have liked Nicolaides to push her analysis of race to include the other minorities in the Los Angeles region, although I understand that the close proximity of Watts makes relationships between white and black Americans a key story in the history of South Gate.

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