A side. Memories of my childhood homes.

28 Jan

An old professor friend of mine is writing a book on living in the suburbs in the 1950s.  She’s a real New Yorker, and though an extremely good historian on European architecture, had NO understanding of life in California and how West Coast suburban life worked.  Below are my answers to her questions.

You moved to 18321 Falda Ave in 1954, is that right? And then later to 17805 Glenburn Ave.: when was that? You yourself were born in 1949? So you have memories of both places?

Yes, I was born in 1949 (in Santa Barbara), so I do remember both places.  We moved to Falda just before I started kindergarten. I went to kindergarten through 3rd grade at Crenshaw Elementary. Then we moved to Glenburn in 1959, which seemed a long way apart, but my sister reminds me that my parents actually had us WALK from Falda to Glenburn, with our wagon full of stuff, during the move!  (We still can’t figure out why they had the three of us, when Robyn was only 5 and I was 10, walk on our own from one place to the next!) So it really wasn’t that far, but we did have to cross a freeway.

Then you moved on to Goleta – about 1964? Or earlier? You’ve said this was because your mom wanted a 2-story house – was this the only reason?

We moved to Goleta because my dad’s company—Shinoda Bros. nursery—moved to Santa Barbara. I think I sent you the article about the reasons for this?  The company had originally had greenhouses on Vermont and 190th  in Torrance, where they had been since the 1930s; they raised both chrysanthemums and orchids. They were Japanese who had been in California longer than my family had been; they were interned in WWII, but were able to get back their properties after the war. By 1963, the smog was so bad in LA that it was starting to cause the flowers to have BURNT petals!  And the land was also very valuable by that time—so they moved to Santa Barbara, 2 hours up the coast.  This was fine with my family, since my grandmother was still in Santa Barbara, and it’s where my dad grew up.  I don’t remember that my mom wanted a 2-story house! I think what I meant was that at that time a 2-story house was still unusual in the lower-middle-class kind of suburbs we were used to in Southern California—so it seemed quite posh to us. Later on, my mom complained about how hard it was to clean a 2-story house. I know they paid $26,000 for the Goleta house in 1964 (well, that was what the house cost—they had not paid off the mortgage in 1974 when my mother sold the house for what seemed the astronomical sum of $125,000!).

Where did your family live before Torrance? Can you tell me a bit about your mom and dad?  Where did they grow up, what was their family like? You’ve mentioned that your father was a “horticulturalist” – did he train for that? Did your mother work and/or have specialized training? What kind of houses (or apts) did you mother and father live in before Torrance?

My parents lived in Santa Barbara when they got married (VERY young, about 21!) in 1948. First they lived in a trailer in the back yard of his parents’ house (an old weatherboard cottage with 1 ½ bedrooms on a huge plot of land at the base of the Mesa, the hill at the edge of Santa Barbara proper). My grandmother’s house was the true center of my family’s life, the Jungian gestalt of “home” that I have—it’s still there, and it breaks my heart to see it still.  My parents then moved to San Luis Obispo, where my dad went to California Polytechnic University—Cal Poly—on the GI Bill, where he studied Ornamental Horticulture. His first job out of college was as Superintendent of the Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens—but we had to live on the grounds (in a beautiful little cottage that burned down in the most recent fires!), which my mother didn’t like because we couldn’t have a TV antenna and it was isolated.  I’m not quite sure why he left there so quickly—I think it was too political for him, and not enough to do with growing plants. So they moved to what was essentially welfare housing, called Pilgrim Terrace, where my youngest sister was born, until he got the job in Torrance—my mother loved this place, because it was filled with other young families, some of whom became their life-long friends.  From there we moved to Torrance, because he got the job at Shinoda Brothers. I don’t think my dad was ever happy in LA/Torrance, it was too big a city for him. We went up to Santa Barbara and my grandmother’s very often, at least once a month. We knew the route on 101 or the Pacific Coast Highway very, very well.

My father was born of German/Norwegian immigrants who had come to LA in 1918.  He grew up poor (his mother worked as a cook and maid, his father did nothing as far as I know), and lived in that Santa Barbara house from the 1930s.  My mother was born in Pennsylvania, and had to move in with her mother’s family in Leominster, Mass., during the Depression when her father died of cancer at 42 in 1936.  Her mother went back to school to become a teacher, but they were very, very poor during that time, but of well-educated family background (my grandmother’s brother was a famous chemist who taught at Princeton for 40 years). She lived in dreary old dark New England houses, I think, although she remembered her grandfather’s house fondly.  She went to UMass for a few years, but couldn’t wait to leave New England and go to California (she wanted to be an actress! There’s a very emotional story here, but I’ll save that for another time). She said living in Santa Barbara made her feel like she was on a permanent vacation, it was so beautiful. She didn’t have any special training, and was “just a housewife” until I was about ten, when she started working part-time at a catering company.  She was always involved in PTA, Girl Scouts, and she did lots of sewing, and singing. Then when I was in high school, she became the attendance clerk at a junior high, which she did for many years.  We were quite poor when we first moved to Torrance—I remember something like $200/month—and a lot of waffles and vegetable soup for dinner. But everyone else in our neighborhood was in the same boat.

Why did the family move to Falda Ave.? Did they like the house? What did they like about it? Do you have any idea how they found it – through friends, newspaper, army buddies? (Was your dad in the army?) Did they have an FHA mortgage?

We moved to Falda because it was near where my father’s new job was. At the time they moved there, the subdivision was brand new—I can remember new houses popping up every week, and there were still construction sites when we moved in.  We played in the big concrete sewer pipes that were laid out on the construction sites; no one ever stopped us. (As I swear I already wrote to you, this was at the time when Torrance was growing by a thousand people a week!).  I also know that they chose Torrance because it had a well-known good school system (NOT LAUSD!)—and that was an important consideration for them. Behind us was a dairy, down the street were the oil refineries. They LOVED the house, because it was their first time to be completely independent and to have their own place. My father did lots of work in the backyard, putting in a patio and lots of plants. My grandmother had re-mortgaged her house to give them the money for their down payment, but I’m pretty sure they bought it through my dad’s GI Bill (yes, he had been in the army). I assume they found the house through the newspaper, or by going there and looking at model homes—these developments were all over the place and had open houses almost permanently.

Why did they move to Glenburn? You’ve said it was a “step up” because it was all white, so I assume that was not true of the Falda neighborhood. But was there any other reason? Ws it new when they bought it? How did they find it (as above)? Did they like the Glenburn house? What did they like about it? If I’m remembering right, the Glenburn house was quite similar to the Falda one, is that right? You sent me an exterior from Glenburn, but I don’t think I have one from Falda.

The Falda house had only two real bedrooms and a small den-like room, and as I said before, the Glenburn house had three bedrooms and was considered a better neighborhood and a fancier house, although seeing it now, it’s hard to imagine! I think it must have been a new house, but I’m not sure—it must have been fairly new in any case. It seems to me that the Glenburn house actually had a smaller back yard, and behind us was an entire field of huge electrical towers that buzzed all the time; the field was filled with jack rabbits and possums, who would sometimes come into our yard and bite the cats. But my father did his usual job of landscaping, and we were considered the best landscaped house on the block.  The Falda neighborhood was mostly white when we lived there, but there were also Mexican families (didn’t I write about this before?  About Nelly & Alonzo, across the street? They had six kids, and we would ALL go to their house to eat the STACKS of tortillas and beans that she made every day. Nelly also taught my mother to cook Mexican meals, thank God). Once we moved, most of the neighborhood became predominantly Mexican, I think (As late as 1964, there were covenants in place in Torrance to prohibit black families from moving in).

My parents would not have moved JUST because a neighborhood was all white, that isn’t what I meant to imply!  I never remember anything like that ever being expressed—I just mentioned that point to emphasize that in 1950s Los Angeles, these lower-middle-class suburbs were predominantly white, which they would not now be.  My parents did have the typical racist attitudes of the time about black people. But since so much of our lives involved Mexicans, either as workers for my father’s company, or in our neighborhoods, they didn’t express the same kind of prejudices about Mexican families.

I have sent you a photo of the Falda house now.  The amusing thing is that you said the Falda and Glenburn houses looked so much alike, but at the time the families who bought these houses thought they were VERY different—they talked all the time about the differences in floor plan, better materials, etc. The Falda house was very small and rather dark, the Glenburn house was bigger, and it did have a sliding-glass door out to the patio.  That made it a step up in these circles.

What were the neighbors like in each place? You’ve said that Torrance was “solidly middle class” but of course that’s a hard thing to measure & I’m wondering what it means for you. Were there no tradesmen or construction people among your neighbors? What was the typical work?

The neighbors on Falda were all young families, most of them with at least two children; I’m sure that for most of them, this was their first house.  By “middle class”, I guess I mean lower middle class—one step up from working class. There were lots of construction people, tradesmen (my father did lots of barter for services in exchange for landscaping other people’s houses), insurance salesmen, factory workers, and the like.  That’s what I meant by middle class. NOT professionals. I think there were a few elementary school teachers, and people who worked at the airplane companies (Northrup). The neighborhood was very much like D.J. Waldie’s descriptions of Lakewood. I may be wrong, but I get the feeling my parents were unusual in both having college education.

On Glenburn, there were probably a few more people with their own businesses—I remember our best friends were the neighbors two doors down who were Italians (I got my first pen pal from them—her niece in Trento, Italy). He had his own knife-sharpening business, with a little truck that went to all the surgeries and restaurants in town. She sewed bathing suits at home for Catalina bathing suit company. Our other good friends there were the Poblascos; he drove a beer truck for 40 years, and she also did something at home with sewing. And I swear there were fewer children in each house!  Some older families, too—the people across the street had their daughter live with them; she must have been in her early 20s, and had two children out of wedlock (as they still called it at the time—quite scandalous, as I remember). Our next door neighbor had a weird son who we were all told to steer clear of (he was later arrested for child molestation).

Were you in grade school at Glenburn? At Falda? What was life like for kids in each place? In the wonderful picture of you on your bike, as seen through the front window, where were you going? What about recreation? Any nearby parks? Girl scouts? Local sports?

Yes, kindergarten to 3rd grade at Falda, 4th grade through 9th grade on Glenburn.  In both places, we all walked to school—my parents never drove us, nor do I remember anyone else being driven to school, unless we had to be picked up for a dentist’s appointment or something.  On Glenburn, we had to cross several busy streets (with crossing guards, who were the same people for many years). We all played on the streets, on the sidewalks and occasionally in the street itself (for baseball games).  We rode our bikes on the sidewalks and around the block.  I very rarely was GOING anywhere on my bike, just riding it around the neighborhood, but lots of other kids did ride their bikes to go to friends’ houses or to the mall. On the way home from school, we stopped at a liquor store to buy penny candy! Torrance was notoriously bad for parks—we had to be driven to the only one I can remember, and it was nothing but a big patch of hard ugly grass, with a few trees and perhaps a swing set. (I seem to remember a roller skating rink near there, too?) My mother also drove us occasionally to the city swimming pool, which was quite a ways away.  She also insisted that we take swimming lessons at the local junior college, which was well known for its swimming program—people would line up hours in advance to get their kids into the right swimming classes. I was in Brownies and in Girl Scouts—we took horseback riding lessons that had us riding along the concreted LA River basin.

For me, the big deal once I was in about 8th grade was going to the beach every single day of summer—I was a surfer bunny (didn’t do it much myself, but hung around with the boys who did surf!).  Each school had a preferred beach—ours was 21st Street beach in Hermosa Beach. (I once played beach volleyball there with the guys from Redondo Beach High School, who would become the Beach Boys!) So Torrance was really part of the South Bay, where beach culture was very important.  My mother or my father would drive a whole bunch of us, with surfboards, in my dad’s pickup truck.  They would take us at about 8 in the morning, then come pick us up at 5 or so. This was every day, from the first day of summer.  We must have taken lunches with us to the beach, or bought something very small from the hamburger stands, because we certainly didn’t have a lot of money. (Although I did start to babysit from the time I was 12, and did LOTS of it once we moved to Goleta). It is interesting to remember that even then, most of our activities involved being driven somewhere—the LA lifestyle! There was no public transportation to speak of, and I don’t remember ever taking a bus anywhere. Although the famous LA Red Cars were still in operation when we lived on Falda, I have absolutely no memory of ever seeing them at all. Every Sunday weekend, my dad wanted us to go for a drive (we hated it), when we always went the same route, around Palos Verdes, sometimes to see the whales coming up or down the coast, but mainly to gawk at fancy new houses in the better neighborhoods.

We (my mother and me) were also fanatic Dodgers fans, so we listened to the baseball games all the time, and went to the new Dodger Stadium occasionally, but that was a very big event.  We rarely ventured into LA proper.

Do you remember anything about construction or equipment details? The houses were on slabs, I know, and I think you’ve said there was no heat – is that right? Were both 3 BR, 1 bath? Or 2 BR? Stucco on the outside, right? Living room in the rear? Sliding windows to the patio at Glenburn but not Falda, right? Did either house have a separate dining room or alcove, or did you eat in the kitchen? Where was the TV? Did your parents do a lot of fixing up, or not? Did your dad have a workshop in the garage?

The Falda house was very simple construction, concrete slab base, then wooden frame and drywall.  Stucco exterior, I think.  There was heat, but just one simple wall heater in the living room.  The living room was at the front, where the picture window is.  Only two bedrooms—we three girls slept in one room, with bunk beds. (Actually, now that I remember it, there WAS another room—we called it the “play room”, and later on I slept there—so there must have been 3 bedrooms!  Hmmm….) One bathroom. No sliding glass door at Falda, and we ate in the kitchen. My dad did a lot of work in the backyard—we had a sandbox and swing set, as well as a covered patio, and lots of beautiful plants.  The side of the house also became well-known in the neighborhood for spectacular poinsettias.

The Glenburn house had a wooden façade on the front of the house, I think—part of the ranch style décor, I suppose.  It had central heating, but no air conditioning (no one had air conditioning then). It had a two-car garage, but you couldn’t enter the house from the garage.  It had a set-back front porch with steps up to the front door, an entrance hall and an open entrance into the living room (i.e., there were no closing doors between the living room and entrance hall, nor from entrance hall into the “wings” of the house—very open plan). On the left side of the entrance hall was a doorway (with no door) into a wing with a front bedroom (my bedroom—the window for this bedroom looked out right on to the driveway), a bathroom (with bath and shower) and my parents’ bedroom at the back.  On the right of the entrance hall was a small bathroom (with shower), the entrance to the kitchen, and a big bedroom at the end (my sisters’ bedroom).  The kitchen was a long thin space, which led to a separate dining room; but my father in 1961 tore out that wall and put in a bar, where we usually ate after that time. There was a small back space off of the kitchen, where the washing machine was—I don’t think they had a dryer then, and the clothesline was out the back door off of this laundry space. There was a sliding-glass door out to the patio and back yard.  My father did have a lot of tools and stuff in the garage, and he did lots of construction projects on the house—I remember lots of grousing about permits and ignoring the requirements to get permits for building.  The TV was in the living room.

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