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A Post-Modernist California Is Born

October 23, 1994|Kevin Starr | Kevin Starr, a contributing editor to Opinion, is the State Librarian of California and a member of the faculty at USC. The newest volume in his history of California, "The Dream Endures: California Through the Great Depression," will be published by Oxford University Press

SACRAMENTO — In the minimalist mid-1990s--so fraught with peril and an odd, defiant kind of hope--emerges the necessity of deliberate choice, of making California happen once again, as a matter of vision and will. Like the pioneers of the mid-19th Century, like the Californians of the Depression era, today's challenge is reassembling, renewing and re-earning the commonwealth.

In the past, California might have glistened on the shores of the Pacific as an assured utopia: a place of unrivaled beauty and economic opportunity, where daily life could be better--much better--for ordinary Americans. This notion had deep historical roots and resulted in the development of California through a sequence of booms, from the Gold Rush to the post-World War II economic explosion. What drove Americans and then, increasingly from the 1960s onward, non-Americans to choose California as their destined place?

When Crenner and Lee Bradley, African-Americans from Texas, arrived in Los Angeles in 1924, they found no easy increment. Crenner went to work as a maid, Lee found work as a Pullman porter on the Santa Fe. Yet, for all the difficulties the Bradley family faced, their son, Tom, a studious boy devoted to his brothers and sisters, gained admission to Polytechnic High School in 1934 (one of 113 African-Americans among 1,300 students) and went on to UCLA.

The fact is, people like the Bradleys believed they could do better in California, and, despite the apocalyptic musings of Nathanael West, most did. In 1849, they came to escape the confines and certainties of New England villages and small-town life in the Old South. In the 1880s, they came, like Harry Chandler, to recover from lung disease in the sunny climate. In the 1920s, a generation of rural Midwesterners and Southwesterners, like the Bradleys, came to enjoy the benefits and amenities of suburban life: especially the chance to own a home. After World War II, millions came, delighted that they had survived the war.

They came to possess and repossess the American Dream in the biggest possible way. By 1948, Gov. Earl Warren was writing in the Saturday Evening Post that California would have to build millions of housing units, thousands of schools, and thousands and thousands of miles of roadways and freeways if it were to accommodate the millions of Americans pouring into the Golden State.

There were jobs aplenty, so many of them in defense-related industries, which, since 1941, had been providing a continuing steroid boost to the economy. Innumerable K-12 plants had sprung up since the school-building boom initiated by Warren in 1948. The Master Plan for Higher Education pushed through by Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown Sr., in 1960, offered a menu of choices: academic and/or vocational training in junior colleges, a state college system exfoliating campuses across the commonwealth, a UC system pushing toward nine campuses. Developers were bringing on line millions of residential units, the vast majority of them within the economic reach of working Californians. A newly completed freeway system whizzed Californians to and from work with little delay, and, somewhere in the subliminal distance, the Beach Boys were always singing of a land of youth and leisure on the shores of the sundown sea.

It was easy then to become or to remain a Californian; indeed, California embodied what the 18th-Century Anglo-Irish parliamentarian and philosopher Edmund Burke called "the unbought grace of life"--the gifts of beauty and abundance, which seemed to come at no cost.

Sometime in late 1989 and early 1990, however, just as the Berlin Wall was disassembled, a tragic sense of life entered the California consciousness: a sense that boom times, the easy times, were yielding to an era of transformation and challenge.

Not that the tragic sense of life was previously absent from the consciousness of Californians. For Latino-Californians, resident in California since 1769, Americanization had its tragic dimension, especially the Land Act passed by the Yankees, which forced each Latino landowner to prove his or her title to ownership of property. Land lawyers prospered as Latino-Californians sold off their properties or bartered them away to pay their legal bills.

In the 1850s, cholera could wipe out an entire wagon train. The Depression of 1873 filled San Francisco with unemployed transients and rendered portions of the population homeless. The World War I era migration included many Japanese, who were forbidden by the alien land laws of 1913 and 1920 to own property. The agonies of the Dust Bowl migration speak for themselves. Yet, never did these sectors of suffering overwhelm the image of the state.

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