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California is free, vibrant and diverse

'For all of our problems, the Golden Age of California is now,' says Kevin Starr, the state's legendary historian.

July 28, 2009|HECTOR TOBAR

The Ft. Moore Pioneer Memorial on Hill Street is my favorite neglected corner of the downtown Los Angeles Civic Center. As far as I know, it's the biggest monument to the United States' conquest of California.

I go there to feel the history. I stand under the terra-cotta soldiers and read the inscriptions honoring the troops who "helped win the Southwest" and who raised the Stars and Stripes at "the first Independence Day in Los Angeles."

My wife thinks my obsession with this monument is bizarre. After all, I'm the son of Latin American immigrants, and the memorial indirectly celebrates the defeat of Mexico's armed forces.

But I'm an incurable history geek. And besides, the Ft. Moore memorial isn't just a tribute to military victory; it's a testament to the prosperity and hope of the era when it was built and when people gathered there to enjoy its fountains and pools of water, the 1950s and '60s.

My father, a Guatemalan immigrant, believed this land of milk and honey would make his children taller. We Californians were dreaming big back then. We were busy building new freeways, suburbs, university campuses and aqueducts that brought water southward and made all that growth possible.

So when our city fathers and mothers (including the legendary Dorothy Chandler) completed this monument in 1957, they put a big waterfall in it, some 80 feet wide and 45 feet high.

I wandered over to the Ft. Moore Memorial last week, about the same time our lawmakers agreed to a disastrous new state budget. I wanted to soak up some of that old self-confidence and can-do spirit.

What did I find? An empty flagpole. No Stars and Stripes, no California Bear Flag, nada. And the waterfall and fountains were bone dry; the water's been turned off for a generation now.

Standing there, I thought: Oh, California, how you have fallen! Today your schools are being decimated, your universities furloughed and even your prisons drained of money. And this monument that celebrates the beginning of your proud English-speaking modern history is a dusty, forgotten wreck.

I called Kevin Starr, the legendary California historian, to tell him about this municipal embarrassment. Starr has a new book about the boom time when the memorial was built: "Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963."

I figured he would be upset. He wasn't exactly.

First of all, he said, it's understandable that Los Angeles would turn its back on a monument to military conquest. California changed a lot, and very quickly, in the years after the Ft. Moore monument was completed. After the Vietnam War, he said, military adventures became "a touchy subject."

That made sense. But what about the time when the monument was built? Wasn't California a more united place in that "age of abundance"? There were no budget impasses, no draconian cuts. In that Golden Age, our relative prosperity smoothed over our differences, I said.

"I'm going to have to disagree with you on that last point, Hector," Starr said. "For all of our problems, the Golden Age of California is now."

Nostalgia is often the enemy of truth. Like a lot of California natives, I look at our past through rose-colored glasses. But Starr gave me a little history lesson that left me appreciating the here and now.

It is true, Starr told me, that California government was a well-oiled machine in the 1940s, '50s and '60s. "There was a large and vital political center here," he said.

In 1942, California elected a great Republican centrist, Earl Warren, to the first of three terms as governor. In the 1960s, the speaker of the Assembly was Jesse Unruh, a Democrat and master of the political bargain. Somehow, he persuaded then-Gov. Ronald Reagan and other Republicans to go along with the largest tax increase in California history.

"California had a cadre of professional politicians who cut deals with each other," Starr said. "Love of commonwealth" was the order of the day. A population boom helped feed state and local coffers.

So far, so good. But not all good, Starr said. During those boom times, we bulldozed urban neighborhoods and drained pristine mountain lakes dry in the name of progress.

And the ethos that made us believe we could conquer all also denied full freedom to millions of people.

"Fifty years ago, there was still Jim Crow in California," Starr said, referring to the officially sanctioned segregation and discrimination against blacks and other minorities.

Today California is a culturally vibrant place, Starr said. We've wiped off the books the anti-miscegenation laws that kept blacks from marrying outside their race. Housing discrimination is, for the most part, only a memory. "What we haven't negotiated is the size and extent of the public sector," he said.

That's where we are today, 158 years after California entered the union. We are more free and diverse as a people -- and also more divided than ever.

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