Lakewood is a city ten miles southeast of Los Angeles that in 1950 broke new ground-literally and figuratively-when the Lakewood Park Company started building what would become the nation’s first post-war planned housing development, consisting of 17,500 houses on about 3,500 acres. Lakewood emerged from a former sugar beet field to become a model planned community, complete with street lighting and underground wires, assembly-line construction of about 50 houses a day, berms between residential streets and the highway, and a car-friendly prototype shopping area called Lakewood Center.
The community’s size also eclipsed that of many long-established cities such as Holyoke, Massachusetts, and Santa Ana, California. Promoted with slogans such as “Lakewood – My Home Town” and “Lakewood, Tomorrow’s City Today,” the community was built just in time for war veterans and their families to buy their first homes with the help of the G.I. Bill of Rights, which let buyers put little or no money down and pay for their mortgages with low-interest 30-year loans.
As the unincorporated Lakewood grew from a small village in 1950 to a community of more than 70,000 residents in less than three years, so grew its municipal needs. Lakewood thus had three choices: become annexed to nearby Long Beach, remain unincorporated and continue to receive county services, or incorporate as a city. In 1954, residents chose the latter option and voted to incorporate as a city, the largest community in the country ever to do so and the first city in Los Angeles County to incorporate since 1939.
However, the incorporation had a twist: while the new City Council would set policy and budgets at the local level, members would continue to contract with Los Angeles County to receive a wide range of county services such as road repair, water and sewer services, and fire protection. This novel arrangement-which let the city retain local control of its government while tapping efficiently into existing services-was spelled out in a document called the Lakewood Plan, that was adopted and modified by many other communities in California and the United States that wanted to incorporate as well.
Today Lakewood-with 26,000 housing units, most of them single-family detached homes-remains known for its community services and quality of life as a bedroom community. The community is studied by historians and city planners because of its distinction as a ground-breaking type of suburb and because of the Lakewood Plan’s visionary combination of local and county services. Among other things, Lakewood introduced a number of innovations into suburban development-such as assembly-line house construction-and is often compared to Levittown, New York.