The Other Mr Burns and Homer

My mother just left after a few days in L.A. Mom comes down once or twice a year, visits me, visits her best friend (they met back at Van Nuys Junior High), and then heads back up to Canada. But unlike most parental unit visits, mine are exercises in dredging Mom’s memories. Crossing June Street reminds her that her paternal grandmother lived on that street. Echo Park reminds her that her father, my grandfather, used to take Mom out in the little paddleboats there. And the mention of Westchester reminded her that it was one of the first places that her parents settled after emigrating from Brooklyn in 1950.

Burns.jpg I thought I’d look up a bit more about Westchester, and about that area of the city, and that’s where I ran into Fritz Burns. I can only assume that it was one of his houses that my grandparents bought upon arriving in L.A. Without much money, and with three small children six and under, they must have wanted to flee their temporary accommodations in the Jewish community of Boyle Heights and move someplace with space and a yard. Fritz Burns is credited with developing Westchester, by building “thousands of attractive homes that sold for less than $4,000 [Architectural Digest‘s 1946 article quoted the houses starting at $6,950] and which could be purchased with a down payment of only $150″. Within ten years of developing “new innovations in pre-fabricated housing,” Fritz had:

    “…developed a tract of inexpensive prefabricated single-family homes on the site of a former hog farm at the intersection of Manchester and Sepulveda Boulevards. This community, dubbed “Westchester,” grew by leaps and bounds as the aerospace industry boomed in World War II and afterward.

The first of the Kaiser-Burns homes were sold in 1946, hot off the quarter-mile long assembly line. And as thousands of WWII veterans and their families came back to Los Angeles, there was more and more demand for the cheap, fast housing. Just ask the kids on the 1947 bus: going on the very first Crime Bus tour was like getting a history lesson on the spread of Lower-Middle Class Los Angeles Immediately After WWII.

Which brings me back to the other Homer: Homer Price. One of the images that stuck with me from Robert McCloskey’s children’s book, Homer Price was the idea of the pre-fab houses. Homer Price was written in 1943, three years before the pre-fab houses would start showing up in Westchester, and four years before Levitt & Sons would announce their plans for Levittown, Westchester’s more extreme relative in New York. But Homer Price is a symbol of the 1940s, of that “All American” image that was transplanted to Los Angeles through immigrants from the Midwest. And as a symbol of the times, in the Homer Price story about a pre-fabricated neighnorhood , “McCloskey subtly weaves the idea of inevitable change…by the 100-house suburb of identical, prefabricated houses that sprouts up within a week on historical Centerburg land.” (from an review). This is what I thought about when I read of Fritz Burns: that old story from 1943 that I read in 1986. Maybe it was Los Angeles’ Fritz Burns’ suggestions for mass-producing homes in the 30s, that inspired the Homer Price story written a few years later. Maybe it was plans to build in Los Angeles that sparked a story set in Ohio.

Anyways, the point of all this is that, in the early 50s, my mother and her two siblings and parents settled in Westchester. They were one of hundreds of thousands of young families looking for their own little houses in America. But Los Angeles was always a city of single-family dwellings – thanks to the streetcar real-estate sales at the turn of the century. With that established residence standard, it was just a matter of time before communities of assembly-line houses like Westchester sprang up. The result is that my mother’s earliest childhood memories in that neighborhood are more than just a transition before the Valley. They are a symbol of how my own family history is caught up in the bigger trends of Los Angeles’ history – and how the single-family dwelling trends of Los Angeles, and the cheap, easy houses that fit in so well, became such a great trend that they swept all of America.