The Douglas Aircraft Company opened their Long Beach assembly plant – adjacent to Daugherty Airfield, now Long Beach Airport – in 1941. During WWII, Douglas manufactured more than 31,000 aircraft here, becoming one of the largest wartime contractors and one of the region’s main employers.
Lakewood grew around the plant, to supply Douglas with workers and to supply workers with housing. In the post-war years, the surrounding sugar beet fields gave way to “Tomorrow’s City, Today”, as the largest suburban housing development at that time was built to accommodate returning veterans. These veterans in turn found work in the burgeoning aerospace companies of Southern California.
The vast housing tracts were centered around the Lakewood Center Mall, creating one of the first “live/work/play” developments of Southern California. The two- and three- bedroom homes included luxury features such as oak floors, stainless-steel sinks and garbage disposals. Prospective buyers could choose between 52 floor plans and 39 color combinations, all prefabricated and assembled on the spot by some 4000 construction workers. Between 1950 and 1953, 17,500 homes were built. The mall was the town center, where the worker became the consumer.
Lakewood was a company town, shaped by its relationship to Douglas: city planning and architecture were determined by the plant’s necessity for an available and plentiful workforce; the workers in turn were dependent on the plant for their livelihoods. When McDonnell Douglas (merged, 1967) laid off half its workforce in the early 1990s following post-Cold War cutbacks, Lakewood’s economy was devastated. Unemployment is cited as one of the key factors in the notorious “Spur Posse” crime spree of 1993.
In 1997, McDonnell Douglas merged with Boeing, after having already acquired Hughes Helicopters and North American Aviation. The aerospace giant continued to manufacture commercial jetliners in Long Beach until shutting down production in 2006. Boeing still operates a scaled-down facility in Lakewood today, where the expansions and contractions of the industry can be read in the landscape: in the razed lot that sits adjacent to the airport, in the rundown Lakewood Center mall, and in the old “Fly DC Jets” sign that sits on the roof of the Boeing plant.