In Thomas M. Johnson’s Lakewood: Portraits of a Sacred American Suburb, he pays homage, in part, to William Levitt’s idyllic vision for planned living in postwar America. Introduced by a passage from D.J. Waldie, author of Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, Johnson’s take on the suburban dream is quickly boiled down: “He’s picturing the place where stories of working-class aspirations were first mass-produced in the 1950s. Today, the same stories of anxiety and hope are being told, but the speakers are all the colors of our maximally mixed Los Angeles.” It’s that last part, the demographic reality of Lakewood, that makes Johnson’s portraits so compelling.
What Johnson does with Lakewood is provide an honest depiction of what’s going on in so many first-ring suburbs across the country. As wealthy whites move further away from a city’s urban core, neighborhoods like Lakewood become more representative — both socially and economically — of the people who populate a city like Los Angeles and its ancillary neighborhoods. Similar changes have also taken place in first-ring suburbs in cities like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and St. Louis, to name only a few. These photographs are also a reminder that Levitt’s planned communities in Pennsylvania and New York were not initially open to all people (see: The Levittown Lynch Mobs).
Johnson’s Lakewood, however, is less interested in race and more fixated on the disintegration of the suburban ideal, as he explains in an artist statement: “I search for provocative portraits and relics of Lakewood’s middle class. I come upon kids riding their bikes whose parents are watchful of strangers but not threatened by them, women tending their yards, and men tinkering inside their garages. I interact with these folks, many whom I share similar concerns and interests. They question why I am taking pictures or if I work for a newspaper. When I tell them my pursuit is only artistic many shake their heads. But for every one who is uncomfortable with my presence, there are those who welcome me to photograph them and their front yards.”