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Joel Kotkin on California’s Golden Age

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Posted on Sep 18, 2009
book cover

By Joel Kotkin

California may yet be a civilization that is too young to have produced its Thucydides or Edward Gibbon, but if it has, the leading candidate would be Kevin Starr. His eight-part “Dream” series on the evolution of the Golden State stands alone as the basic comprehensive work on California. Nothing else comes remotely close.

His most recent volume, “Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance 1950-1963,” covers what might be seen as the state’s true Golden Age. To be sure, there is some intriguing history before—the evolution of Hollywood in the 1920s, the reaction to the Depression and the fevered buildup during the Second World War—but this was California’s great moment, its Periclean peak or Augustan age.

“It was a time of growth and abundance,” Starr writes in his preface, and provides the numbers to prove it. In 1950, California was home to 10.7 million, making it a large state to be sure, but hardly a dominant one. By the early 1960s, the population passed 16 million, slipping by New York state in population.

Yet it was not a mere matter of numbers that made California so appealing or important. It was the idea of California as not only a part of America, but also something more. To millions in America and around the world, California grew to mean opportunity, sunshine and innovation.

The state’s business elite, for example, did not identify with the button-down hierarchy that sat atop teeming New York, and its second-tier competitors like Chicago. The leaders of Los Angeles would never consider it a second city, but simply a different, and generally, better one. There was no need for the excessive Manhattan penis envy that led Chicago to keep trying to build higher buildings than Gotham.

In a different way, San Francisco’s top executives also did not crave that their city be New York—it was always more beautiful, nuttier, freer and more creative than Gotham. What they shared with their downstate rivals was a sense of superiority over the old part of the country. If anything, they felt a mixture of contempt—particularly the conservatives—and condescension about an older, decaying society that fixated on tradition, order and breeding.


book cover


Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963


By Kevin Starr


Oxford University Press, 576 pages


Buy the book

“California,” Cyril Magnin, scion of one of San Francisco’s great families, told me back in the late 1970s, “has recaptured what America once had—the spirit of pioneering. People in business out here are creative; they’re willing to take risks.”

Geography also plays a role here. Leaders in California, starting at least by the turn of the last century, looked out across the Pacific and saw themselves as part of an emerging shift from Europe to Asia, a process that continues and will dominate the rest of this century. This connection, suggested Pete Hannaford, a public relations executive and partner of Ronald Reagan’s Svengali, Michael Deaver, took on an almost Spenglerian inevitability. “Out here there’s a sense of being where the action is,” Hannaford believed, “with Japan and the Pacific.”

Starr captures these attitudes, which already had become deeply entrenched by the late 1950s and early 1960s. There was, as he writes, “a conviction that California was the best place to seek and attain a better American life.” However, it was more than money or power. It was about the quality of life. Success in California was not a matter of living by the rules, sheltered in a dark Manhattan apartment, but about the seduction of the physical world. In California, Starr writes, “Eros vanquished Thanatos.”

Yet Starr’s book is not merely about the rich, the powerful, and even the culturally influential. He finds his primary muse not in the Bohemian realms of San Francisco or the mansions of Beverly Hills, but in that most democratic of everyman’s places, the San Fernando Valley, the place author Kevin Roderick aptly dubbed “America’s Suburb.”

To see long excerpts from “Golden Dreams,” click here.

“The Valley” lies over the Santa Monica Mountains from the Los Angeles Basin. As late as the 1930s, it was largely an arid district of ranches, citrus orchards and chicken farms.  The area’s postwar expansion was rapid, even by California standards. Between 1945 and 1950 alone, the Valley’s population more than doubled to nearly 500,000. By 1960, it had doubled again.

This growth was far more than the mindless bedroom sprawl often depicted by aesthetes and urban intellectuals. People in the Valley did not depend largely on the old part of Los Angeles the way, for example, Long Island lived off Manhattan. Most of the Valley’s growth was homegrown—driven by local industry such as aerospace, entertainment, electronics and until the 1960s automobiles.

Even today, the Valley has very much its own economy and sense of separation from Los Angeles. However, more important, the Valley was, first, a middle-class phenomenon. A cosmopolitan of the first order, Starr manages to chronicle California’s artistic and literary elites, but does not see in them the essence of the state’s appeal. Instead, he explores the everyday wonders of the Valley’s families, single-family homes and swimming pools—6,000 permitted in one year, between 1959 and 1960!

As a Valley resident myself, I can still see the basic imprint of that culture, what Starr calls its “way of life.” Compared to the tony Westside and hardscrabble east and southside of Los Angeles, the Valley has remained a relatively safe “child-oriented” society, with a big emphasis on restaurants, malls, ball fields, churches and synagogues.

The single-family tracts, of course, have changed hands, and the majority of the owners have changed. The primarily WASP and second-generation Eastern European Jews are still there, but they have steadily been augmented, and sometimes outnumbered,  by others—Armenians, Orthodox Jews, Israelis, Persians, Thais, Chinese, Mexicans, Salvadorans, African-Americans and at least 10 groups I somehow will neglect and no doubt offend.

Yet the essential way of life forged in the 1950s and 1960s has remained a constant, and that remains the source of California’s attraction. Of course, it is no longer just a “Valley” phenomenon. As California has grown, there are many such places, outside San Diego, in Orange County, the Inland Empire, outside Sacramento, Fresno and scores of other towns. Almost all have the same imprint—an auto-dominated culture, dispersed workplaces, pools and a culture of aspiration.

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By P.Felicia, September 28, 2009 at 1:34 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Great review…yes, Kevin Starr is the best!
I reviewed the book for the SFChronicle—from POV of 4th gen. San Franciscan. 
Love your site…keep the ‘Faith’.  P.F B.

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By rob, September 20, 2009 at 1:42 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

lived in ca for yrs, if not for prop 13 no one would be able to afford a home there. also that silly notion that people believe there is some correlation between more money equals a better education, the places that spend the most have the worste education, taxes are to high. a gang bust in northern san diego county netted 25 gang members 17 where illigal aliens. there are no leaders and no laws. ca is in a state of chaose

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By Ray Duray, September 20, 2009 at 9:05 am Link to this comment

A couple more books suggestions:

“A Bright and Guilty Place” is something I’m currently reading. Noirish.

“Southern California: An Island on the Land”  by Nation Magazine veteran Carey McWilliams. Written in 1949 just as the Golden Age was being born.

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By ed cray, September 18, 2009 at 11:22 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

As a resident of California since 1940 and as a working journalist who covered politics in the 1960s and 1970s—therefore twice the observer—I would like to commend both Starr and Kotkin.  Starr has swept us from the 18th Century to the near present, and Kotkin has written the review Starr deserves.

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By bogi666, September 18, 2009 at 9:30 am Link to this comment

California’s golden age ended with the election of Ronald Reagoon in 1966! It was Reagoon who ushered in the anti government sentiment there and spread it nationwide. This resulted in the passage of Proposition 13 and the subsequent anti tax proposition which have basically eliminated majority rule representative republican government with democratic processes. As for term limits, what this means is that the state state elected officials will spend their elected time scheming to get as much corruption as they can while in office and after office appointments in industry, likely the corrupt one’s who bribed them with “campaign” contributions while they were in office. The proposition process produces requirements that cannot be financed due to the two thirds necessary to fund what has been constitutionally mandated to do by voters. Obviously, this is an unmanageable system because it is too complex and disjointed to even make sense.

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By Random Items, September 18, 2009 at 8:05 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I’ve never been there. It sounds like going there would
break the magic of the image in my mind. Based on 30
years of observing Florida succeeding into a cesspit.

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By 1984, September 18, 2009 at 8:01 am Link to this comment

There are reasons Mr. Madison disdained direct
democracy in favor of representative government. The
California Proposition citizen initiative process
illustrates his wisdom.

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By Old Geezer Pilot, September 18, 2009 at 7:38 am Link to this comment

I have lived in CA since the early 60s. The three GREAT
MISTAKES we have made in 45 years are:

Prop 13, which put an end to the best public education
system in America;

Term Limits, which meant that only the lobbyists have
the necessary continuity to get bills passed;

2/3 budget vote, which means that the minority
Republican party isn’t.

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By JMW, September 18, 2009 at 6:50 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I highly recommend Mike Davis’ “City of Quartz” abot the history of LA and Southern California. Incredible.

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By camnai, September 18, 2009 at 6:41 am Link to this comment

California started to go downhill with Proposition 13 in 1978, when the children
of the dustbowl refugees who had bought their houses on jobs in federal-tax
funded defense industries, and watered their lawns through such federal-tax
funded infrastructure as the Hoover Dam, decided they didn’t want to pay the
property taxes a first-world level of government services requires. You can take
the Joads out of Oklahoma, but you can’t take Oklahoma out of their kids.

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By C.Curtis.Dillon, September 18, 2009 at 4:08 am Link to this comment

What can one say about California?  I was there studying at Stanford during the early 70s and it was a heady time.  Silicon Valley was just getting started in the Stanford Industrial Park (HP was there along with Fairchild Semiconductor and others).  New companies were sprouting like weeds.  Very heady times.  For some years I worked back East for California companies and took trips back for meetings.  The growth was still there but costs had gone through the roof.  Houses in Palo Alto (around Stanford) were nearing a million dollars on a postage stamp lot.  People were already being forced into 1+ hour commutes from fringe communities south of San Jose and across the bay in Fremont.  Many were forced to live in these cheap apartment blocks and pay unbelievable rents.  The blush was definitely off the California rose.  I’m not surprised that California is ground zero for the housing collapse and that it is now almost terminal.  The government is basically worthless and the tax structure has been destroyed by a series of ill-advised ballot initiatives.  But the major universities still draw the best and brightest from around the world so maybe there is hope.  The culture of innovation may yet save their bacon but major changes are necessary.

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