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Powerful Dynamics Exists South of Tehachapis, North of Gila

November 03, 1987|LAWRENCE CLARK POWELL | Lawrence Clark Powell, novelist and historian, was the UCLA librarian from 1944 to 1961

Arizona is feeling severe divisive pains. Gov. Evan Mecham, elected just last year, already faces a recall. His former proponent, Barry Goldwater, has called for his resignation. Unfavorable appearances on national TV shows and in a Doonesbury strip have not helped his cause.

In the midst of this turmoil a Tucson jokester floated a proposal that southern Arizona secede and form a new state. A bumper sticker reading "Free Baja Arizona" appeared overnight. Although the spoof never called for a constitutional convention, it did fuel the recall movement.

Before the Gadsden Purchase from Mexico in 1853, Arizona Territory ended at the Gila River, which (in flood) flows across the state from New Mexico to California. Today many inhabitants below this natural boundary would gladly turn their backs on Phoenix, the power center in the north envied for its more plentiful water. Tucsonans console themselves by saying that aridity confers character.

As a not unhappy Californian domiciled in Arizona, I am struck by the similarities between the two states. Although Arizona has never gone as far as California in taking actual steps to divide the state, there has always been a sentiment for divorce.

California's urge to separate began in 1851 only a year after admission to the Union--"A Convention to Divide the State of California" was called to meet in Los Angeles. The reasons were political neglect, moribund commerce, unfair taxation and lack of protection against Indian raids. Nothing came of it. Then eight years later Andres Pico gained legislative consent to withdraw the counties from San Luis Obispo south to form a new Territory of Colorado. The Civil War ended that movement. In Arizona the old traditional city is in the south; in California it is in the north. Whereas the breaking point in one state is a river, in the other it is a mountain range. Even as the Gila forms a natural boundary between Baja and Alta Arizona, so are the Tehachapis a protective wall between what one Sacramento newspaper refers to as Superior and Inferior California.

Things are changing though and nothing is clear anymore. If northern Californians once found the south insufferably rural, more San Franciscans are now seen at Disneyland than Angelenos in Golden Gate Park. While Tucsonans were once ashamed to be seen in Phoenix, now they are lured by the shining bank towers and opulent shops.

Meanwhile, the economic and cultural homogenization of both states goes on, making separation virtually impossible. Ed Abbey's calling Phoenix "The Blob" has not slowed its growth any more than Ward Moore's satirical "Greener Than You Think" did anything to Los Angeles other than to make it smile 40 years ago. In that novel an overfeeding of lawn fertilizer caused the Bermuda grass to grow until it smothered the globe.

Are the prospects bleak for the two cities? Not for literature, which roots in the humus deposited by people en masse. Dickens didn't write about village life. San Francisco suffers from its very lack of size. And because everyone loves it, that city has never produced a creative literature to rival Los Angeles, which many hate or pretend to.

Ambivalence is good for a writer. Love alone makes no story. Sprawl, traffic and smog cause angry feelings in those who are at the same time powered by the city's energy. The irritated oyster secretes the pearl and L.A.'s laureate is Raymond Chandler.

Arizona, too, has ambivalent feelings about the seemingly endless growth of its two biggest cities. There is no consensus. The time is ripe in both states for a literary masterpiece or two. They could be written by a maladjusted Tucsonan living in Phoenix or a homesick San Franciscan living in Los Angeles. Even as they are sustained by big city amenities, so do they suffer from the ills.

To write lastingly about a place one needs to write from a balance of love and hate. Banished from Dublin, Joyce wrote "Ulysses" in "silence, exile and cunning." In California and Arizona at this very hour, unknown writers may be hunched over their word processors, drawing their inspiration from the mixed dynamics of those cities above the Gila and below the Tehachapis that go on accumulating the power if not the glory.

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