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Reviewed by Preston Jones


A California State of Mind

The dreams and follies of the nation, writ large.

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At the same time, we see that the U.S. gets more than fifty percent of its fruits and vegetables from California's farms—and, thus, the nation has benefited economically from cheap immigrant labor, legal and not. Immigration is a complicated issue.

The California Dream keeps taking kicks in the slats. "Fewer and fewer people were speaking of the California dream these days," Starr writes near the end of Coast of Dreams, the volume that takes the state's story into the early 21st century. "[M]ore were talking about the challenges facing California."

Let us count the ways. As of a few years ago, seven of America's ten smoggiest cities were in California. According to a list put out by Business Week near the beginning of the current economic unpleasantness, three of America's five cities with the highest rates of foreclosure were in California—San Bernardino, Sacramento, and Stockton, the last of which also was ranked as one of the country's most violent cities. Forbes magazine produced a list of the 18 American cities with the worst traffic—half of them were in California. One is almost stunned that L.A. has not made recent lists of the country's most murderous villages, but figures published by the Los Angeles Times don't provide much comfort. In 2007, the city's authorities had identified some 720 gangs with a total of 39,000 members.

In Coast of Dreams, Starr describes how much of this developed; his chapters feature titles and subtitles like "A Rapid, Monstrous Maturity," "Homes and Happiness in Residential Subdivisions," "Freeways to the Future," "Scene of the Crime," "Illegals,"—and—in reference to Governor Schwarzenegger—"Hasta la Vista." Then there's the chapter on California's seasons, "Earthquake, Fire and Flood"—to which can be added "mudslide." Our friends at Westmont College in Santa Barbara can tell us about it.

Obviously, natural disasters happen elsewhere: a student of mine lost her home to a tornado, and we're still getting reports on post-Katrina New Orleans. But where the inhabitants of the Mardi Gras city rarely pay for their weird commitment to sub-sea-level existence, California coughs up blood every year for its habitual defiance of nature. One subdivision after another goes up in deserts and fire-prone chaparral—and then the rain and mud. "The weather was bizarre," my sister wrote to me from Loma Linda. "It rained like I've never seen it rain here and it was super cold and windy. There was a horrible flashflood and mudslide in Old Waterman Canyon and a bunch of people died, on Christmas day … isn't that sad? It was really awful!"

And so it goes. I plugged the words "water crisis California" into Google and learned that a major earthquake or flood that disrupted the flows of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers would jeopardize the water supply of over 20 million people who have decided to live in a state where drought is normal. Starr tells us that California's water infrastructure, "a wonder of the modern world," was built on the assumption that "there would always be enough water." California Dreamin'.

Some readers will be put off by the negative tone taken here, but they will need to tell us why Californians, particularly Southern Californians, who still like the place increasingly feel compelled to explain themselves. To be sure, beyond the state of Arkansas I often have to do the same thing. But the Natural State has never been cool. As H. L. Mencken put it decades ago, Arkansas "is the most shiftless and backward state in the whole galaxy." It isn't quite true—Mississippi is a tough competitor—but one needn't hang around long to see what the scribe was getting at.

We learn from Starr's volume on California's early years that that state has always had its detractors. But it's really only in recent times that the Coast of Dreams has become the stuff of widespread nose crinkling. Or perhaps this applies mostly to Los Angeles and the paved mess that surrounds it to the horizon. When people say that it would be fine with them if California broke off the continent and fell into the sea, they mean L.A. (and sometimes San Francisco). Who after all nurses a grudge against Eureka, Healdsburg, St. Helena, or Yucaipa? And while many California cities compete for the status of "armpit" (Colton and Blythe would be good nominations), other places in the state are just hip. Islands come to mind: Balboa, Coronado, Catalina. But, then, who can afford to live in those spots?

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