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A New Kind of City...Lakewood

Lakewood, 1950s

Circa early 1950s aerial image of Lakewood development. Image from the California Historical Society Collection at USC Library

The post-World War II years placed a huge housing burden on Los Angeles County. The local aerospace and defense industry was booming and hundreds of new residents were streaming into the county each day. In 1949, developers Louis Boyar, Mark Taper, and Ben Weingart borrowed close to $9 million (equivalent to around $105 million in 2022 dollars) from Prudential Insurance to purchase 3,375 acres of farmland in Southeast Los Angeles County. Over the next five years, the partners frantically laid out 133 miles of streets and erected 17,500 homes in assembly-line fashion. Time Magazine called this new community the largest housing development in the world. As each subdivision opened, people lined up to buy the $7,500 to $9,500 homes. One salesman sold 107 homes in one hour.

Lakewood Center, 1950s

Among the stores opening with the new Lakewood Center were May Company, Sav-On Drugs, Kay Jewelers, Comar’s children’s shoes, Bond Clothes, Innis Shoes, See’s Candies, Currie’s Ice Cream, Rhode’s Jewelry, Leed’s Quali Craft Shoes, Hartfield’s Ready-to-Wear, and Lee’s Department Store. Image from the City of Lakewood

In 1951, in the midst of the Lakewood development and simultaneously with all the home construction around it, the developers also built the West's first regional shopping center. It was the massive Lakewood Center. The innovative, auto-oriented mall covered 154 acres and offered more than 100 stores, with parking for 10,000 cars. After it opened in 1952, it was, for two years, the largest shopping center in the United States.

Lakewood, Incorporation, 1954

March 11, 1954 issue of the Lakewood Enterprise, reporting on the incorporation vote. Image from the City of Lakewood

By 1953, the Lakewood community had quickly became a lucrative source of tax revenue, resulting in an annexation attempt by the nearby City of Long Beach. Rejecting that, residents saw that their best hope for warding off annexation attempts and maintaining their independence as a community would be to incorporate as a city of their own. In 1954, the mostly residential community became the first city in California to be incorporated since 1939. In order to achieve that so quickly, Lakewood adopted an innovative new idea for city government, proposed by attorney John S. Todd, a resident who helped to lead the effort to incorporate and went on to serve as Lakewood's first city attorney over the next 50 years. Until 1954, unincorporated communities seeking more local control over taxes and public services had to choose between either being annexed by an incorporated city or try building their own expensive municipal service structure from scratch, including full police, fire protection, and street maintenance services. The "Lakewood Plan," however, proposed to save money and expedite the city-formation process by contracting with the county or remain in special districts (such as for fire protection) for most essential city services. Once Lakewood implemented this plan in its incorporation, Lakewood became the first city in the nation to become a "contract city." Their model has since been adopted by 25 percent of California's cities (including 44 of Los Angeles County's incorporated cities) and dozens more throughout the nation.

Also see: City of Lakewood