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Living Black in Lakewood: rewriting the history and future of an iconic suburb [Long Read]

In the annals of American suburban history, Lakewood stands as an icon of the postwar suburb, alongside Levittown, NY, and Park Forest, Ill. Noted not only for its rapid-fire construction—17,500 homes built from 1950-1953—it was also critiqued for its architectural monotony, alarming writers at the time who feared that uniform homes would spit out uniform people.

That worry quickly faded when the demography of Lakewood began to change.

Since 1980, Lakewood moved away from its highly segregated white beginnings to a reality of ethnic and racial diversity. Along with other southeast LA suburbs like Carson, Bellflower, and Artesia, it represents one of LA’s most racially balanced towns, with a stable mix of whites, Black Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans.

Lakewood’s official history has so far emphasized its original residents, especially the “original kids.” However, the next generation also deserves a central part in that story. Their experiences reveal not just how the suburb was becoming a place of new cultural variety and richness, but also how the community was learning to live with difference. The Chase family of Lakewood illustrates how far we’ve come from the days of Ozzie and Harriet in the 1950s. The Chase’s story of living Black in white suburbia was both predictable and unexpected, and it shows how suburbia—which now houses over half of all Americans—is becoming a place of profoundly varied experiences.

Louis Chase was born and raised in Barbados in 1943, in humble circumstances. Raised by his grandmother, he had deep ties to the Methodist church from a young age. At 14, he quit school “because of poverty” and went to work. He moved to London as a teen, where he first worked in textiles and then transitioned into community organizing and social justice activism. He earned a degree at Oxford, where he studied Pan-African movements, and met his future wife Marion, a nursing student at Coventry University who hailed from Jamaica.

In 1980, the couple immigrated to the United States and landed in Lakewood, where they purchased a home and started a family. They were the only Black family on their block. At the time, Lakewood’s Black population was 1,500, just 2 percent of all residents. Although they met little resistance when moving in, they faced prejudice from time to time. Louis was racially profiled by the Lakewood sheriffs who pulled him over without provocation, their two daughters were subjected to racial name-calling at school, and the family was often tailed by security guards on trips to the Lakewood Mall.

And yet, Lakewood also showed a warmer side. Louis started attending Lakewood United Methodist Church, an all-white conservative congregation. After attending his first service, which ran from 11 to 12, he returned home, and at 12:30 a member of the church showed up at his doorstep inviting him to join the church. When Louis hesitated, explaining that he didn’t have a car, the man offered to pick him up for Sunday services and meetings of the men’s group. And so began an enduring connection to Lakewood Methodist.

That church changed Louis’ life. Louis had been struggling to land a job in human relations work in L.A. The minister at Lakewood Methodist encouraged Louis to consider pursuing the ministry. He put in a good word at the Claremont School of Theology, and thus helped set Louis on a new career path. Louis became a Methodist minister, serving a number of churches around Los Angeles including Holman United Methodist Church, where he worked closely with James Lawson and other leading figures in the Black rights and anti-apartheid movements. He became an active part of the social justice community in Los Angeles, all while living in a suburb struggling with its own racial challenges.

The Chases’ first child, Cassandra, was born at Lakewood Regional Medical Center in 1981, making her an “original kid” of Lakewood’s second generation. By her own account, Cassandra led a very sheltered childhood, in part because of her parents’ desire to shield their children from racism. She was the only Black child among mostly white children in the neighborhood, at school, at Girl Scouts, and at Park and Rec activities.

The social milieu of Lakewood during this period of diversification was a mixed bag. Lakewood experienced a fair share of racial friction over the years, as it struggled to cope with racial change. After the passage of Proposition 13 (1978) in California, many communities lost funding for the human relations work that would have otherwise helped create a civic infrastructure to ease the process of ethnic and racial change. Instead, many communities, including Lakewood, had to figure things out on their own.

Latino and Black American residents in Lakewood recounted stories of both warm receptions and racist rebuffs. Some remembered neighbors welcoming them with cookies and cakes, which offered some reassurance and a sense of acceptance. Others recalled hostile neighbors and harassment from the Lakewood Sheriffs. Over the years, a number of white residents—including city leaders—expressed open resentment about the demographic changes, blaming it for a perceived decline in the parks and schools. In the early 1990s, when several Black American families were wrongly evicted from an apartment complex on racial grounds, local officials expressed more concern about Lakewood’s tarnished image than the plight of the ousted families. (Those families won a $1.7 million settlement for housing discrimination in 1997.) More often than not, Lakewood did not consider race relations a civic priority.

That changed in 2020. In the wake of the killing of George Floyd and intensified BLM activism nationally, Lakewood held two town hall meetings on race for the first time in its history. Among the 80 or so residents who participated via Zoom, many expressed their love for Lakewood and their desire to see race relations improve. Then, stories of racism and discrimination poured out. Cassandra Chase relayed the story of her cousin who was “walking while Black” in Lakewood while knocking on doors for his job with the Census Bureau, prompting a neighbor to call the Sheriffs. Two deputies arrived to question him, one with his hand very close to his gun.

Another resident of color relayed that they constantly got the question, “why are you here? We live here, we own property.” One resident described how they hated trash day—“People I don’t know assume I’m the maid or the gardener. I put trash out early now, so I don’t have to deal with that.” A Black American resident of Lakewood for 17 years described how her son came home from his third year of law school during the Covid lockdown. On a jog, a white man followed him back onto their block, “to make sure he lives on the block. My son sat on the porch. This was at the same time as Ahmaud Arbery was killed when he was out running…we were a little panicked.”

These public meetings laid bare the prejudice experienced by some residents of color in the community. Lakewood leaders responded by forming an ad hoc task force and issuing a “Community Dialogue Action Plan” which called for the creation of a Council Committee on Race, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and quarterly meetings with community members on the subject.

Perhaps most significantly, in June 2022 Cassandra Chase won a seat on the Lakewood City Council, the first time a Black American was elected in Lakewood’s history. (Two years prior, a Black American had been appointed to the Council.) The suburb’s transition to a council district system may have helped Chase win office. She saw herself bringing to the position a diverse perspective in terms of gender, age, and race, and a commitment to increasing civic engagement and participatory democracy among residents. In terms of Lakewood leadership, her frank acknowledgment of Lakewood’s racial challenges marked a true break with the past.

Cassandra Chase, daughter of Lakewood and child of an activist minister, illustrates something significant about the future of changing suburbia. Her rise to power signals one iconic suburb’s pivot toward social and political pluralism. Chase laid claim to her hometown. To her, Lakewood “always felt like home. It’s home.” Just like legions of other new suburbanites of color, she is helping to rewrite the American suburban story.

Feature image: Lakewood Drive-In Theater, Lakewood, California 1981 by John Margolies. Public Domain via Library of Congress.

Recent Comments

  1. bob clow

    went to helen keller elementary for 6 months in 1956 before moving to japan, a navy brat. fond memories, the ditch, the diaginal, cub scouts, knotts berry,

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