Title: My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working-Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920-1965
Author: Becky Nicolaides
Categories: Conservatism, Suburbanization, Class, Race, Housing
Place: Los Angeles, California
Time Period: 1920-1965
Becky Nicolaides charts the path of the working-class Los Angeles suburb of South Gate from the 1920s through the 1960s. Nicolaides describes a transition that revolved around World War II and redefines an historical understanding of a "suburb." Prior to the war, South Gate was a "rough-and-tumble" community where new migrants were mostly focused on economic survival and treated their home as a place for production and supplemental income (raising chickens, for instance). This suburb was far from the image of middle-class Levittown, and instead was a place of class diversity and class division. After World War II, Nicolaides describes how residents moved from mere survival towards economic prosperity. With this came a reorientation that discarded early class divisions in favor of a racialized white homeownership focused on protecting and safeguarding their gains from intruding, non-white outside forces.
Before the war, South Gate was a community that "stood midway between farm and city" and was divided between middle-class merchants and working-class laborers. Merchants were pro-development and often heavily involved in local institutions. The working class, on the other hand, experienced greater mobility in moving beyond South Gate for work, leisure, and consumption, which led to a fragmented and somewhat incoherent community identity. Although the working class often embraced the New Deal, they did so opportunistically: they justified enjoying the benefits of discriminatory housing policies, for instance, by pointing to their deserving hard work and self-reliance. The liberal New Deal became a vehicle for their more conservative impetus to safeguard their economic gains.
After the war, this drift towards conservatism intensified. Enjoying tremendous post-war prosperity, the working class reoriented the concept of home and property away from a unit of production and towards an element of their identity and ideology as white homeowners. In doing so, this ideology (and growing affluence) served to paper over previous class divisions between merchants and the working class - instead, divisions crystallized around race. As homeowners made gains, they increasingly turned towards protecting these gains and the value of their property from external threats: namely, the integration of non-whites. Home came to trump all else, as Nicolaides describes how workers could be liberal union members in the workplace, but then turn deeply conservative outside of the workplace in the context of home and neighborhood. By the 1950s and early 1960s, the working class of South Gate turned towards racialized politics in resisting integration and increasingly embracing a "siege mentality" that fed into white suburban conservatism.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Importance of property/home to political ideology: shift from pre-war period seeing home as economic property and place of consumption to postwar period of a middle-class white ideology
- Multiple and changing meanings/functions of suburban space
- Redefines "suburb" towards working-class white suburbs rather than standard middle-class narrative (pre-war period)
- Division in pre-war period between merchants vs. working-class - merchants more pro-development, grounded in local community, whereas working-class more spatially mobile and less grounded in community
- Pre-war class divisions papered over into a postwar consensus of racialized white homeownership and prosperity
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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