Las Vegas and Lakewood (Redeemed?)

The Authenticity of Place: Reading Resonances between Hickey’s Las Vegas and Waldie’s Lakewood

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Las Vegas. Robert Venturi and members of the Learning from Las Vegas studio.

At first blush, Las Vegas and Lakewood, California might appear to be so completely different that they could hardly even fall on the same spectrum. They are worlds apart: one a “theme park,” a “resort,” “an American fantasy,” a “saturnalia,” a city of lights and action, in a constant process of self-reinvention, a city whose buzzword is “new” and whose goal is surprise; the other a subdivision of “1,100 square foot tract houses on streets meeting at right angles” (Waldie 1) and “garbage disposal[s] in every kitchen” (Waldie 92), of four foot sidewalks and “compelled conviviality” (Waldie 116), of patterns, of predictability, and “the calling of a mourning dove, and others answering from yard to yard” (Waldie 13). And yet, in reading D.J. Waldie’s Holy Land and David Hickey’s Dialectal Utopias, similarities between the two cities emerge and with them a larger philosophy of the authenticity of place as relying on something more than physical form, which unites the two cities, different as they are, in finding in their inauthenticities an authenticity dismissed a priori by both the public and scores of critics. 

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Rejected. Lakewood Park, 1950. William Garnett.

Though perhaps not immediately obvious, similarities abound between the postwar subdivision where Waldie has lived all his life and the city where Hickey chose to make his home. Both Las Vegas and Lakewood are, to borrow Hickey’s phrase, “invented communities.” They were built up from nothing (a whistlestop and the site of former bean fields, respectively) over a relatively short period of time, fueled by dreams and desires, and they are virtually history-less. Their environments are entirely constructed—“every square foot of my city has been tilled or built on and fitted into the grid” (Waldie 101), Waldie says of Lakewood—testaments to humanity’s dominion over nature. Both, too, were (and are, in the case of Las Vegas) heavily marketed, sold to the American public as “the heart’s destination” (Las Vegas, Hickey 8) and “happiness in homes” (Lakewood, Waldie 49), exploiting two facets of the American dream: one, the dream of owning one’s own property, a dream that dates back to Jefferson; and the other, a dream of social revolution, where “slaves [take] the role of masters” (Hickey 8). In Hickey’s Las Vegas, one is perpetually lost in the newness; one might say the same thing for Lakewood’s sameness. Both cities, too, engage in the creation of a certain democracy, though in entirely opposite ways: Las Vegas’ celebration of eclecticism and difference in its built environment sends the message that we are all “different but equal” (Hickey 11), while in Lakewood because “every house. . . looked much the same” “there was no obvious way to tell a factory worker from a business owner or a professional man” (112). There are less obvious resonances as well: while Las Vegas fills itself with the imagery of other countries and climes—the Eiffel Tower, the Great Pyramids, the Rialto Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, Lakewood mandates that “every house must have a city tree planted in front of it,” none of which are native to California, but rather to the Amazon or Australia. Their surfaces, their built environments, though near opposites, are both artificial and invented, in a word: inauthentic.

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Las Vegas, 1978. Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates.

Thus Las Vegas and Lakewood are linked in many ways by their histories and forms, but in reading Hickey and Waldie one is struck by a different sort of connection: the way in which these two authors reinterpret their cities and the many criticisms of them, finding in both an authenticity overlooked by the rest of the world. In response to the criticism that suburbanites live narrow lives, Waldie responds “I agree. . . From one perspective or another, all our lives are narrow. Only when lives are placed side by side do they seem larger” (94), taking the criticism and turing it on its head. This is one of Waldie’s most insistent points about Lakewood: that its tight grid of houses, separated by a mere 15 feet from their neighbors, rather than limiting lives, brings them together and makes them full. For him and for Lakewood, the grid “is a compass of possibility” (4). Growing up on Lakewood’s streets in a period where a “two-block area might have more than 150 [children]” (151), Waldie’s life was so full that “a suburban childhood seem[ed] like an entire life” (129). With vignettes of neighbors and friends, stories of individual tragedies and triumphs, Waldie reminds us that these little boxes are inhabited by real people leading real, true, full lives and that lives lived in proximity can be wonderful. There is nothing inauthentic or small about the lives of Billy C, who plays beneath the rose bushes with Waldie,  or Mrs. A with her paranoia, or the short life of the boy smothered by a mound of sand at a construction site. Neither are the lives of Waldie’s parents diminished because they “were grateful that they lived among strangers who made about as much money as they did, and who could be counted on, out of friendliness, to help rig a television antenna” (174). These houses, though there are rows upon rows of them, are just as much homes as any other sort. The view that they are impersonal, conformist, and thus inauthentic is that of the outsider, the passer through. To him all the houses look the same: they are the repetitive squares in the aerial photographs which Waldie provides in counterpoint to the bright, living squares of text his book takes as its form. But when one grows up there, lives there, owns a home there, Lakewood is so much more than those grid squares.

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Skeletal. Lakewood Park, 1951. William Garnett.

While the authenticity at stake for Waldie is the authenticity of the lives and souls living in his city (Waldie pokes fun at Lakewood’s surface inauthenticity throughout, as with his observations about the non-native trees or the homes contest which comes down to particulars like rust stains on a drive way, since there is so little to differentiate houses), Hickey concerns himself with the authenticity of his city itself—its soul rather than those of its inhabitants. Can a place meant as an escape from reality, predicated on glitz, glamour, and surface, which constantly seeks to reinvents itself, be capable of authenticity? Hickey’s surprising answer is that there is an authenticity to bald-faced inauthenticity. Going even further than Waldie in accepting the criticisms of his city, Hickey essentially says “yes, that’s all true, but did anyone ever tell you it was going to be anything else?” Whatever else it may do, Las Vegas doesn’t try to hide what it is, or what it’s doing, or pretend it’s something it isn’t. Hickey’s article compares Las Vegas favorably with Santa Fe, a city which he believes to be engaged in a constant creation of a “fake reality,” lying to itself and those who come to it about what it is. Las Vegas on the other hand is a city of “real fakery,” a “genuine rhinestone” which Hickey will always prefer to the imitation pearl (Hickey 8). Las Vegas, unlike Sartre’s waiter, is not in bad faith, because it does not believe it is anything it isn’t, nor does it represent itself as anything but what it is.

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May & Co., Lakewood, California. D.J. Waldie.

Thus, authenticity, and particularly the authenticity of place, is not necessarily predicated upon the absence of inauthenticity. Both Waldie and Hickey admit to and embrace the inauthenticities of their built environments, but instead of dismissing their cities because of them, they come to a philosophy of the authenticity of place which is not limited to physical outline, but rather considers the city itself, its self-representation, and the lives within it. No place can or should be defined or dismissed solely based on its built environment. The human element, literally in the inhabitants and figuratively in the city itself, must be considered.

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The Strip, Las Vegas. Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates.

David Hickey: Dialectical Utopias

D.J. Waldie: Holy Land

And a photograph that I really wanted to open with, because I like it, from the Hickey article. But it’s a photo of Santa Fe, and my essay has nothing to do with Santa Fe —

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Outdoor Gallery, Santa Fe, 1996. Chip Simmons.
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