As the standard cliche has it, Suburbia USA is consumerist wasteland where endless rows identical houses define a dreary landscape of dull conformity. The anthem for that sentiment is Malvina Reynolds' song "Little Boxes," which became a hit for folkie Pete Seeger in 1964:
Little boxes on the hillside, Little boxes made of tickytacky
Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes all the same
There's a green one and a pink one and a blue one and a yellow one
And they're all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.
As it happens, Malvina had a particular place in mind when she wrote her anti-suburban sing-along: The Westlake District of Daly City, California, just south of San Francisco. To wit:
Westlake has earned some unflattering nicknames over the years. Malvina Reynolds’ folk song “Little Boxes” was inspired by Westlake’s “ticky-tacky” houses, visible along the highway during a car trip she took through Daly City in 1962.
Forty years later, however, Westlake may be getting the last laugh.
Inspired by our recent discovery of the deliciously retro Italian-American restaurant Joe's of Westlake, Telstar Logistics recently spent some time surveying the neighborhood, and it turns out to be far more interesting than the stereotypes (and Pete Seeger) would suggest.
First, a little bit of history about Westlake and its developer:
Henry Doelger was America’s largest homebuilder during most of the 1930’s, and ended up building much of San Francisco’s Sunset district. In 1945, he purchased a large tract of land adjoining San Francisco. This sandy, foggy area, comprised of pig ranches and cabbage farms, seemed remote and unappealing to Doelger’s advisors, who thought he’d made an expensive mistake. But his legendary business foresight proved 20/20 again– the postwar housing boom was poised to begin.
If there is such a thing as a “good” suburb, that’s what Doelger wanted Westlake to be – a fully planned “city within a city” of houses, schools, shopping centers, offices, medical facilities, churches, and parks, right next to San Francisco. But in order to be economically viable, the homes had to be affordable to average people, so Doelger and his company had to invent ways to keep construction costs down while making them attractive enough to lure buyers from the city.
Today, Westlake remains a middle-class place of freshly-painted little boxes perched on the hillside, one after the other, each with a late-model car in the driveway. But it all seems rather pleasant, and not so ticky-tacky.
Moreover, unlike East Coast Levittowns, the homes in Westlake remain curiously unmarred by later additions and remodels, and thanks to lots of loving maintenance and lawn care, the area's architecture now exudes midcentury-modern cool. (A chicken in every pot! An Eames Lounge chair in every living room!) Driving the streets feels like cruising through a time capsule of late 1950s America, with all the innocence and optimism that era embodied. And in 2006, that seems strangely reassuring.
Most tangibly, no suburban development looks this good after so many years unless the people who live there feel that they have an investment in the place as a community. Westlake was a success, despite the criticism it generated when it was first built. Come 2046, it'll be interesting to see if the same can be said of the even more identical, even more ticky-tacky developments being erected today by the likes of Pulte and KB Homes.
"Little Boxes" by Peet Seger, 1964. (MP3 Download): LINK
Ticky Tacky Westlake (Flickr photoset by Telstar Logistics): LINK
Westlake (Daly City, California) history page: LINK
"Little Boxes: The Architecture of a Classic Midcentury Suburb," a 2006 book about Westlake by Rob Keil: LINK
Additional information and lots of new Westlake photos can be found in an updated Telstar Logistics post, "A Return to Westlake."
(Westlake photos above by Telstar Logistics)