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California and the West

State's 150th Birthday No Different From 149th

History: Plans for grand celebration fade. California's diversity, worship of the moment are possible reasons.

September 08, 2000|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There was wild celebration in the streets when news of California's statehood reached San Francisco in 1850.

There was a six-hour parade, a 42-foot-high birthday cake and five days of Hollywood Bowl pageantry when California celebrated its centennial.

Saturday, when California turns 150, there will be scattered local observances and living-history encampments on the Capitol grounds in Sacramento. The U.S. Postal Service is issuing a commemorative stamp.

And that's about it.

Blame it on political lethargy, the unruly sprawl of California, the state's indifference to yesterday: The sesquicentennial has pretty much been a bust.

The big state with an even bigger ego, the place that has left its cultural handprints all over the globe, couldn't manage a decent birthday bash.

"I'm so disappointed over what we did not do," said Peter Blodgett, a history curator at the Huntington Library in Pasadena.

It can be argued, of course, that to largely ignore such a milestone is sooo very West Coast. Let them fuss over history back East. Here, in the birthplace of virtual reality, the moment reigns.

It did from the beginning.

The state's birth was swift and premature, induced more by the opportunism of the Gold Rush than idealism.

California was a vast piece of sparsely settled real estate snatched from Mexico when the 1848 discovery of gold lured tens of thousands of fortune seekers into its hills.

Young men came from Chile and China, Mexico and Massachusetts, from France and Ireland.

They weren't settlers. They didn't bring their wives. They weren't planning on staying. They wanted to scoop up gold and go back home. There was ethnic brawling and lawlessness in the mining camps.

Not even a territory, California was governed by the U.S. military--something the Americans pouring into the gold fields did not like. There was agitation for self-rule.

So, in 1849 the military governor called a constitutional convention in Monterey. Forty-eight men gathered for six weeks to draw up the blueprint for a new state.

Six were native-born Californians; most of the rest were citizens of the United States. Debates were held in English and Spanish. Inexperienced in such matters, the delegates borrowed heavily from other state constitutions.

They argued about boundaries, slavery and suffrage. Their decisions shaped not only California, but the rest of the nation.

In choosing to be a free state, California poured fuel on the slavery debate that would within a decade rip the country apart.

In choosing to confine the vote to adult white males--but at the same time stipulating that state documents and laws be printed in English and Spanish--the Constitution's authors demonstrated an ambivalence about the state's ethnic mix that continues to this day.

Indeed, Blodgett suggests that one of the things that undermined this year's sesquicentennial celebration was uncertainty about how to celebrate an event that had less than wonderful consequences for many groups.

During the early decades of statehood, californios were trampled on, Native Americans decimated, nonwhite immigrants disenfranchised.

Today there is a sensitivity to that complexity that did not exist 50 years ago, when the state population was much whiter, fraternal organizations stronger and world views simpler.

To mark the 1950 centennial, 125,000 Southern Californians crowded into the Hollywood Bowl over five consecutive nights to hear actor Lionel Barrymore narrate what the Los Angeles Times called a "monumental spectacle that captured the majestic sweep of history."

In San Francisco, about 300,000 people turned out for a centennial parade of 75 floats, nearly 100 marching units and 28 bands. At the city's civic center, a huge birthday cake was lit with 100 candles.

This time around, neither San Francisco nor Los Angeles planned any observance for Saturday, the 150th anniversary of California's admission to the Union.

The state sesquicentennial celebration, originally conceived as three years of grand events to commemorate the discovery of gold, the 1849 Gold Rush and 1850 statehood, turned out more like a homemade video than the big Hollywood production envisioned.

A tall ships race last summer attracted about a third of the boats planners once predicted. Funding for major activities failed to materialize amid political squabbling and lack of interest that continued from the administration of Gov. Pete Wilson into that of Gray Davis.

"We always found Sacramento very uncooperative from the very beginning," said John M.W. Moorlach, Orange County treasurer and a member of the sesquicentennial's fund-raising foundation.

There was even a last-minute scramble for money to pay for this weekend's historical fair in Sacramento.

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