Like Jeremy and some other of the scatterbrains, I grew up with a very deep and specific sense of place, although a very different place from his rural Iowa. My mother still lives in the north Torrance house I grew up in, and I’ve been out here visiting. It has been 41 years since I left for college in 1967, although I’ve been back periodically. The area has evolved, although much is the same. Walking yesterday, I realized how small a section of land feels like home – about a square mile. I walked everywhere when I was young, and have never lived in the community as a car-owing adult. This is a neighborhood of one-story tract houses near the corner of Yukon and West 182nd Street. (Map) Many of the houses on my street look pretty much the same as they did 40 years ago, although some are even more run down now than they were then. Others have been substantially remodeled, in some cases into quite upscale dwellings. The vegetable farm that was across Yukon when I was growing up is gone now, replaced by development of 3000 sq ft homes.
My mom’s house is about 100 yards from the San Diego Freeway ( I-405) and about ½ mile from a major Exxon-Mobil Oil refinery . When I was a child, there was a nasty sulphurous smell from the refinery whenever the wind was blowing the wrong way. Tougher environmental regulations have largely eliminated the smell, although you can still see the smoke billowing out when you drive down Crenshaw. The freeway was built when I was in grade school. This took many years, and for a long time it was dirt and a great place for playing. I remember taking wild rides on our bikes through the dirt ruts in what became the underpass. The freeway had been long planned and most of its route was never developed, but the two corner houses on our street were taken in the re-routing of streets around the under pass. The sound of freeway traffic was an omnipresent part of my environment from about age 12 on, and I’m listening to it now, although it has been muffled some by the sound wall that was built after I left home.
Just on the other side of the freeway from us down Yukon is a Southern California Edison electrical substation. My mother says the electrical plant was “always” there, but it is a lot bigger now than it was when we were young, taking over land that used to be farm. For the first time today, using the satellite view in Google maps, I was able to see the pattern of how the swaths of what we always called the high tension wires (also called high-voltage transmission towers) radiate out from it, and understand now why I can see them in three of the four directions from my home. The land under the high tension wires does not have houses. It was agricultural when I was young and is now all filled with nurseries for landscapers. The farms when I was young were the remnants of the Japanese-owned vegetable farms that my mother remembered biking to from South Los Angeles. When I was a child, all the nurseries in our area were run by Japanese families; I don’t know whether the ethnicity of the niche ownership has changed, but the workers look more Mexican now.
There are two elementary schools within a block of my home. I started school at one farther away, shifted to Edison in the second grade and Yukon in the fourth. From kindergarten through half of fourth grade (when we moved into Yukon), my schools were on half-day sessions due to overcrowding. (Some kids went to school in the morning, and some in the afternoon.) They were building schools as fast as they could and moving us into them mid-year, as soon as they were built, hiring some often-incompetent teachers, and processing us in classes of 30-40 students. It was pretty regimented. Both schools look about the same today, except they have additions of mobile classrooms. They have six-foot fences around them that are locked during the school day, the same as 40 years ago when I attended them. There was a baby bust for a while, but the schools look pretty full again. There were dozens of parents of many ethnicities standing by the elementary school gates today when I walked by, waiting for the children to get out so they could be walked or driven home.
My mother was one of the strictest in the neighborhood – we were not allowed out of the yard until we were school age. But after a few days of orientation, we walked ourselves to and from school. Once I was old enough to go to school, I was considered capable of negotiating the local terrain on my own. My boundaries were 174th Street (now Artesia) to the north, Prairie Avenue to the west, 190th Street to the south, and Crenshaw to the east. I could walk to the library at Artesia and Yukon, and come home carrying 10 books, or play with the other kids at the park adjoining the library. My mother sometimes sent me to the liquor store at 182nd and Crenshaw for milk or bread. (Liquor stores filled the mini-mart sector in California in those days. We called it the liquor store.) I could visit friends, although if I went indoors, I had to call home to say where I was. When I got older, the western boundary was extended to Hawthorne, so I could go to the South Bay Shopping Center (which was remodeled later into the Galleria, a three-story atrium-style mall). When I was about 12, a friend and I used to take penny hikes, where we’d flip a coin to see which way to walk. Once we got to Hawthorne (the city, not the street), about five miles away, before turning back home. The neighborhood kids played baseball in the street and hide and seek in the neighborhood yards. Even an unpopular child like me was allowed to play in the neighborhood games.
It wasn’t that there was no crime. There were fights at school fairly often, and there were periodic rashes of burglaries, generally by neighborhood kids, but those had nothing to do with me. There was the occasional more serious crime. A girl was kidnapped and murdered in this part of town (but not my neighborhood), some girls I knew were molested in a vacant house, and I heard someone was knifed in the underpass when I was in high school. But I felt safe walking around and negotiating my neighborhood. A group of boys threw rocks at me once, and that made me feel scared, but it was kids I knew and the rock-throwing had started because a boy was being teased for having agreed to dance with me (an unpopular girl) at a grade school dance. It did not make me feel afraid of strangers. Parents hover much more over their children now, although I’m not persuaded that the objective risks have gone up.
My alma mater, North High School, looked and was run pretty much like a prison camp, with the major emphasis on control. We honor society kids were treated more leniently, but only if we did not do anything to incite rebellion among the masses. We were not allowed to celebrate UN Day because it was “too controversial.” The school administrators reacted in panic to an underground newspaper, pulling in all the honor society kids for interrogation to find out who had done it. The editorial content was tapioca: the most inflammatory article panned the school play; other articles supported the clean campus drive and editorialized that the service club should be allowed to have a party at the beach. Nevertheless, the kids who did it were stripped of their senior honors. I was threatened with having my trip to the national debate tournament taken away. I had nothing to do with the newspaper, but am embarrassed that I did not rally to support the kids who did it, as I knew at the time their punishment was an outrage. I don’t know what school policies are today. The high school landscaping is better now, with lots more bushes and trees, although the fences are still there and nothing can fix the squat rectangular stucco buildings laid out in rows. (This is California – every classroom exits to the outside.) At most a dozen kids in my high school graduating class of 600 went straight to four-year colleges, although a lot more graduated from college after starting at the junior college. We had the auto shop and the industrial arts program. South High, built about the same time but costing twice as much to build, was more attractive and had the enrichment programs in Russian and Asian history. The really upscale kids went to Palos Verdes High and Rolling Hills High, up on the mountain.
North Torrance is a middle-scale area: not poor, not upscale. Mixed, really. Some lower-end yuppies mixed in with working class folks. Torrance built up rapidly in the post-war baby boom of the 1950s and used to be written up in urban planning textbooks as an example of the mixed-class new communities typical of Southern California. When I was a child, my dad was an aerospace engineer, and my friends’ parents were a mixture of professional (aerospace engineers, nurses) and working class (milkman, aerospace factory worker). My friends parents were disproportionately professionals (mostly engineers), but in the area as a whole, the professionals were in a minority and most of the families were upper working class. Hard to tell for sure from clues like automobile and landscape preferences, but I’d guess the mix is pretty much about the same now. The husband of the neighbor who helps my mother (he also helps my mother) is a Torrance police officer who probably has a college education. Most of the garages face an alley, and a number of the men have big televisions and comfortable chairs in their garages, mixed in with the clutter of tools and car stuff – the garage doors are open and you can see them as you drive by. Other homes exude more of the air yuppie tastes and money in their professional landscaping, remodeled facades, new SUVs, and security fences and doors.
When I was young, the population was majority but not exclusively White. The land had been primarily Japanese-owned vegetable gardens and nurseries in the 1940s, and there were a lot of Japanese-American kids in my schools, although the predominantly-Japanese area was Gardena, the next city over to the north and east. There were a lot of Mexican-American kids too. One of my debate partners was Chinese. But there were no Blacks. Torrance was explicitly keeping Blacks out when I lived here. As my brother reminded me the other day, a bi-racial family moved into the neighborhood at one point (the White parent had bought the house), but the family did not last the year. We would hear the teachers gossiping and complaining about them, and in retrospect I imagine they experienced a great deal of harassment. There were civil rights marches in south Torrance (the more expensive part of town) about the time I graduated high school and moved away to college; nobody marched about buying houses in our area that I know of. Today the proportion White among the children in the schools is much smaller and there are Black kids as well as South and East Asian and Middle-Eastern people (judging by the hajibs) and various shades of Latinos. Latinos are probably the largest group.
Despite being covered up with asphalt and houses, there are still primal differences in the land under the built environment. This is a desert. I grew up knowing that fire is always a hazard and still feel compelled to dump a full bucket of water on a campfire before considering it “out.” In this part of the world, if you neglect a plot of land, it turns into dry dust. In the Midwest, if you neglect a plot of land, it turns into waist-high weeds in the first year, and will be a thicket of bushes and small trees within a few years. Although it did not get much beach front when city boundaries were being laid out, Torrance is near the ocean and my mother’s house is four miles from the beach. The ocean moderates the climate. Midday can get hot, but an ocean breeze generally comes up in the afternoon, as it gets hotter inland. There are few mosquitoes and you can sit in your yard in the shade of the roofed patio feeling the breeze and hearing the regular rhythms of the freeway traffic without risking serious blood loss.
When I was young, the kids all talked about the surfers and the hodads, and the beach culture was central to the popular crowd. Kids put lemon in their hair to sun-bleach it and talked a lot about surfing. I don’t know if they actually surfed, or just hung out at the beach. Different beaches attracted different crowds, and there was a whole system of identifying yourself by which beach you went to. I was as out of it then as I am now, never understood the system, and never went to the beach as a teenager, except for organized group functions. As a child, I went with my family to the uncool family beaches, Cabrillo and Torrance. We also went to tide pools a lot as a family. There were great tide pools at Cabrillo when I was little, and when I was older sometimes we’d go up into Palos Verdes (this was before it was all turned into gated communities), park at a cliff edge, and walk down a switchback trail to the tide pools. It was fascinating to just putz around. My favorite thing was pulling mussels or abalone off the rocks and feeding them to the sea anemones. The mussels were already polluted and poisonous: there were signs posted everywhere warning you of this. We also watched crabs and picked up star fish.
The Los Angeles Basin is surrounded by mountains. When I was in grade school, you could see the mountains from my front yard and tell whether there was snow on them or not. But as I got older, the mountains just disappeared into the smog and we forgot they were there. One day when I was home from college after a rainstorm, there were the mountains! It brought back all those memories. I have not seen the mountains at all on this trip, but my mother says she still sees them from her kitchen window fairly often. LA air has been substantially cleaned up over the years. It is easy to forget that.
Writing this has made me reflect that a sense of place may be strongest when our parents stay where we grew up so we can come back and reflect on our origins from the vantage of where we’ve gone since. It was only after moving away and living in more upscale areas that I came back and realized I’d grown up in an industrial area. Although it jars my sensibilities now, after so many years in university environs, I took it for granted and did not see it as ugly when I was young. My awareness of the full range of class hierarchies came from the transition from being on the high end of the class distribution in my neighborhood to the lower middle end of the distribution at the elite private college I went to. It was meeting younger people who have grown up in all-White small towns or suburbs after the 1970s that made me conscious of the extent of ethnic difference in my own background. Growing up in an ethnically and religiously diverse area made me fairly comfortable with difference and aware of the specificity of my own cultural background, while the overt exclusion of Blacks from my city and the turmoil of the 1960s – we could see the flames from the 1965 Watts riot from my house, and my grandparents were living then in the middle of the riot area, at 110th and Main – followed by the time I spent in the South in the early 1970s gave me an indelible impression of racial hierarchy and racial conflict.
When I was young, I was always aware that the California I lived in was very different from the image in movies and on TV. I still am.