Remembrance of Hopes Past: California on the Edge

By Benjamin Schwarz



Since 1978, Kevin Starr has been writing a monumental, multivolume history of California, Americans and the California dream. Until now, the installments have appeared in chronological order. (The last one, “Embattled Dreams,” covered merely a decade — the World War II years and their aftermath.) But in “Coast of Dreams,” the USC professor of history and former state librarian has leapfrogged, producing a chronicle of the state from 1990 to 2003. The picture he adumbrates here is of a grim period and an irrecoverable dream: of catastrophic fires and floods, the Loma Prieta and Northridge earthquakes, Los Angeles’ gang-banging murder spree and the nihilistic culture from which it sprang, the Rodney King beating that led to one of the worst riots in U.S. history, the ugly and farcical trial of O.J. Simpson and the perilous racial divisions it revealed, the nearly unrelieved deterioration of public services and the consequent disaffection of the state’s citizenry. Most of all, it shows the loss of what Starr has defined in his six previous volumes as the promise of California.

The limitations of this more or less instant approach to history are obvious, and certainly not lost on Starr. He shuns calling this a “history,” describing it instead as “a collection of snapshots and sketches … a preliminary effort.” There’s no archival material from which he can draw, no diaries, no letters. Instead he perforce relies almost exclusively on newspaper accounts, from this paper predominantly. Journalists and other on-the-spot chroniclers, though, make notoriously poor historians, as they often confound the trendy and the significant, confuse the trees with the forest and miss the long-term changes that take decades to discern. But Starr, an unusually sober and reasonable scholar, has been looking at California more closely and for longer, and struggling more systematically and with greater sensitivity to grasp its meaning, than any of its other current commentators. Wisely, rather than imposing a Procrustean interpretation on the period covered, Starr uses his “cinematic collage … to suggest the broad outlines and the complexity of a decade.” This laissez-faire approach works well, owing to the volume, range and creativity of his research and to his quite astonishing organizational skills. But it inevitably means that the reader imposes his own construal on Starr’s mass of evidence and impressions.

Starr’s volumes are foremost social and cultural histories. Here, because he’s attempting to write a comprehensive history (albeit a first draft), he minutely chronicles then-Mayor Richard J. Riordan’s differences with the Los Angeles City Council, the history of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s money pit, NAFTA’s effect on the state economy and the recall of Gov. Gray Davis. These accounts are characteristically fair-minded, authoritative and smooth but are too detailed to be diverting yet not detailed enough to be compelling. His observations are most vivid, precise and astute when he elucidates the way Californians live now — the ways ethnicity and class shape manners, mores, architectural and residential preferences; how consumer and linguistic developments arise, spread and mutate; and the ways that long-term economic and social trends have both reflected and altered Californians’ actual and idealized lifestyle. Starr’s cultural range has always been broad and his grasp sure.

Most important, he’s able to put tastes and ways of life in historical context: He deftly surveys the evolution and contemporary manifestations of Southern California’s surfing culture (from Bob Simmons’ development of lightened boards in the 1940s to the current billion-dollar surfware industry); the varieties of the Golden State’s religious experience (which encompasses Robert Schuller’s telecasts from the Crystal Cathedral as well as Hollywood’s infatuation with Tibetan Buddhism in the ’90s); the growing gap between Hollywood’s political and social values and those of the audience it purportedly serves; painters’ visions of Los Angeles from Richard Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park” series to the Photorealism of John Register; and the permutations of California culinary culture — the Francophilia of M.F.K. Fisher, the smug foodie-ism epitomized by Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse and the less self-absorbed if woefully inconsistent Trader Joe’s. (This reader wishes he’d have at least something to say about such middle-class eating places as California Pizza Kitchen and lavish less attention on Hawthorne Lane, Postrio and their ilk, for while Starr generally pays closer attention to Los Angeles than San Francisco, he’s obviously more keyed into the restaurant scene in the Bay Area.)

Baker029bDespite his evident interest in the elites’ restaurants, Starr has always focused on the middle and lower-middle class (largely transplanted Midwesterners) who, for better and worse (and Starr would unabashedly say often for better), long defined the state culturally, socially, politically and economically. (This is especially true of Los Angeles, which for a considerable period of the 20th century was America’s most bourgeois, homogenous Anglo-Saxon big city.) Indeed, his definition of the California dream throughout his volumes has been specific, narrow — and modest: California, as he’s chronicled in his earlier installments, promised — and delivered — “the highest possible life for the middle classes.” It was a place that strove, as Carey McWilliams famously wrote, to be “the Great Exception” — that is, in Starr’s paraphrase, to provide “a better place for ordinary people.” And that better place, he has continually shown, always meant a number of particular things. For one, it meant a private, tidy, stylish, airy and (originally) inexpensive home, such as the once-ubiquitous California bungalows of the early 1900s (“the closest thing to a democratic art that has ever been produced,” as the architectural historians David Gebhard and Robert Winter have written) or their successors, the Spanish-style homes of the ’20s and ’30s and the ranch and Eichler houses of the postwar era. Another was a lush garden, where the veterans of bleak prairie winters could grow oranges, lemons, figs, nectarines and pomegranates, and where the sons and daughters of Dust Bowl migrants could enjoy a barbecue on a warm afternoon in February. (Of course, what’s unusual about Los Angeles is that so many families could experience this essentially suburban existence in the middle of the city.) There was also a small basket of public goods: decent roads, a responsive public safety network that allowed for what Starr nicely calls “the quiet enjoyment of one’s premises,” and the libraries and schools that helped produce the Los Angeles “common man,” who, as that jaded Easterner James M. Cain described him in 1933, “addresses you in easy grammar, completes his sentences, shows familiarity with good manners, and in addition gives you a pleasant smile.”

Starr has been chronicling the definition and refinement of this California good life (which he succinctly characterizes as “a responsible and cultivated domestic life in suburban circumstances”) and its hold on the national imagination from the 19th century through World War II. In fact, the most compelling aspect of his previous installment was his story of how the California dream would, for much of the second half of the last century, be extended to a previously unimaginable number of Americans of modest means. Wartime spending essentially created the aeronautical industry with California at its heart and in the process enabled (a planned, domestically oriented) capitalism to give rise to perhaps the closest approximation of a workers’ paradise that ever existed. (Starr argued convincingly that such companies as Douglas, Lockheed and Northrop engendered “in terms of employee relations and benefits … a planned social democratic utopia.”) Defense jobs swiftly assimilated and made prosperous the state’s more than 1 million Okies and Arkies, a group that one would have assumed after reading “The Grapes of Wrath” would have composed California’s permanent underclass. And although the Golden State’s war economy took off suddenly, thanks to the Cold War it lasted half a century — a run that sustained a staggeringly large and prosperous working class.

Throughout this volume, Starr alludes elegiacally to a world he has yet to chronicle in his history but that’s already, and irretrievably, lost: the CaliforniaHLP_03_Primary_White_Flight of the 1950s through the 1980s, when the state extended the good life to the solid middle class as well as to what he calls “the lower rungs of the middle classes” — lower managers, skilled workers, “white people with high school degrees.” In such places as Hayward in the north and Downey and Lynwood in the south, the “homes may have been smaller … than those in Lafayette or Brentwood, and the shopping centers were not so lavish.” Still, “there were small swimming pools and barbecues in every backyard, a Ford or Chevrolet in the garage, and the kids were attending brand-new public schools.” To be sure, this postwar extension of the California dream was thanks largely to economic and social forces beyond the control of the state. But California’s progressive, pragmatically reformist traditions and those Starr calls “The Folks” — the plain, upstanding former Midwesterners whose values still defined the place, and were personified by Earl Warren, the Republican governor and a man who arguably did more to advance what is now called the “progressive agenda” than any figure in the second half of the 20th century — helped things along enormously by building a public sector (secondary schools, parks and world-class universities) that became the envy of the world.

“Coast of Dreams” demonstrates the resilience of that dream — despite seemingly unendurable commutes, the sniffings of the cosmopolitan elites and a diminishing quality of life, Californians of every ethnicity choose the suburban life (indeed, by the 1990s the suburbs were as ethnically mixed as the rest of the state) — as well as the social and economic forces arrayed against it. Those looking for forceful arguments that assess the causes of the state’s woes should look elsewhere (to Peter Schrag’s “Paradise Lost” for a largely politically based critique from the left or to the work of James Q. Wilson for a conservative, largely socially based one). Starr didn’t set out to write a public policy tract. He’s a sensible and keen observer who plainly embraces what he calls “the reforming center,” a political space he defines rather broadly. He refreshingly acknowledges that California’s prisons did coddle inmates even as he shows that the three-strikes law has been a disaster. He also notes that the combined effect of Serrano vs. Priest and Proposition 13, along with the virtual disappearance of the middle, lower-middle and working classes in many school districts, is largely responsible for the failure of the state’s schools but that they probably won’t improve without a shift in public attitude to permit them more easily “to expel troublemakers, and in general to enforce a rigorous code of conduct, even to demand uniforms….”

But Starr’s strength lies in his descriptive, not proscriptive, powers, and his often offhanded sketch of the destruction of the California dream is incontrovertible. Obviously, a shrinking blue-collar class has been excluded from that dream. (In this way, as in many others, the war years and postwar period have proved a brief aberration.) For the embattled middle class in much of the state, the barriers to homeownership are as insurmountable as the secondary public education offered is abysmal. The young elites may flock to the former middle-class enclaves of mid-Wilshire or the residential blocks off Melrose, but for today’s middle-class families, life in those charming (but now unaffordable) bungalows and duplexes too often means, as Starr writes of city life for the middle class generally, “nonresponsive institutions, questionable public schools, and a growing sense of danger….”

Of course, the California good life is still available to those whom Starr calls “the fiercely competitive” — but that’s just the point, and just the tragedy. Most of us are merely ordinary. For nearly a hundred years ordinary people — provided they were white — could probably live better, happier lives in California than they could anywhere else on the planet. Today, that good life, reflecting our highly stratified and highly mobile society, is reserved for the most talented and most able of all backgrounds. But this, of course, is a profoundly undemocratic betrayal of Starr’s California dream. As the late British economic historian R.H. Tawney wrote, “opportunities to rise are no substitute for a general diffusion of the means of civilization” and of the “dignity and culture” needed by all “whether they rise or not.” The demise of the California dream represents the broken promise of American life. *

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