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Joel Kotkin on California’s Golden Age

Posted on Sep 18, 2009
book cover

By Joel Kotkin

(Page 2)

In the ensuing decades, perhaps to be covered in Starr’s next book, this archetype evolved mightily. The San Gabriel Valley, once a plain vanilla suburban appendage, has morphed into the country’s largest Asian suburbia, complete with a shopping center jokingly referred to as “the Great Mall of China.” The often-monotonous housing tracts between San Jose and Palo Alto, on the San Francisco Peninsula, also attracted hundreds of thousands of Asians but also produced something equally astounding—the Silicon Valley, the world’s leading center for technology.

These suburban developments long ago surpassed in importance the urban roots of California metropolises. A serious corporate center during the time covered by Starr’s volume, San Francisco has devolved in a ultra-politically correct, hip and cool urban Disneyland for Silicon Valley, providing good restaurants and housing for those still too young to crave a house on the Peninsula. The San Gabriel Chinatown long ago replaced the older one in downtown Los Angeles as the center of Asian culture and cuisine.

These places grew before the current malaise infected the state. As Starr points out, California based its ascendancy   on two seemingly contradictory principles: entrepreneurship and activist government. Under Gov. Earl Warren, but also Goodwin Knight and finally Pat Brown, the state made a commitment both to basic infrastructure—energy, water, roads, schools, parks—and expanding its economy.

By the early 1960s, this system was hitting on all cylinders. New roads, power plants and water systems opened lands for development for farms, subdivisions, factories. Ever expanding and improving schools produced a work force capable of performing higher-end tasks, and capable of earning higher wages. New parks preserved at least some of the landscape, and gave families a place to recreate.

For Pat Brown, arguably the greatest governor in American history, this was all part of California’s “destiny.” Starr describes Brown’s California as “a modernist commonwealth, a triumph of engineering, a megastate committed to growth as its first premise.” Yet within this great modernist project was also stirring opposition, on both left and right, that would soon place this Golden Age at its end.

Many of the objections were legitimate. The Sierra Club and its many spinoffs rightfully saw the Brown development machine as threatening California’s landscape, wildlife and, in important ways, the appeal of its way of life. More careful controls on growth clearly were needed. The battle over the nature of those controls continues to this day.


book cover


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


By Kevin Starr


Oxford University Press, 576 pages


Buy the book

Some more angry voices, then as now, targeted the very existence of suburbia, the dominant form of the state’s growth, and eventually sought its eradication. This struggle goes on to this day with a religious fervor, led, ironically, by the former and perhaps future governor, Jerry Brown, currently attorney general and leading Torquemada of the greens.

Minorities also began to stir amid the celebrations of the 1950s and early 1960s. Woefully underrepresented in the halls of power and the corridors of business, Asians and Latinos remained largely passive politically. However, by the early 1960s acceptance of exclusion was giving way to more assertive attitudes. Ultimately the massive immigration that swelled both their numbers in the 1970s and beyond would ensure these groups far more influence both on the politics and in the economy of the state.

Yet it was the African-American who would really upset the balance of the golden era. Never discriminated against as in the South, black Californians felt the lash of a thousand, often-informal exclusions. As the civil rights movement grew, with it less deferential attitudes, particularly toward the police, a powder keg was building. In 1964, the first year after the era chronicled in “Golden Dreams,” Watts blew up, shattering the comfortable assumptions of a progressive, post-racial state.

Finally, as Starr reports, there was mounting thunder on the right. The business elite and the middle class were financing the ever-expanding California state. They saw their money go to the poor, to minorities and state employees. Particularly annoying were the university students, many of whom were in open revolt against the state, in the mind of much of the public that had nurtured them.

By the early 1960s many of these latter Californians also were angry, but their rage would express itself not in riots, but at the ballot box, ushering in the age of Ronald Reagan. The period that follows “Golden Dreams” emerges as one of conflicting visions, between greens, students and minorities, on the one hand, and largely suburban middle-class workers and business owners on the other.

These two groups would battle over the next generation, with the advantage oscillating over time. Today the heirs of the protesters—greens, minority activists and former ’60s radicals—hold the political advantage, although the state they dominate has fallen on parlous times.

In retrospect, the golden era before these conflicts does indeed seem like a high point. The question now is whether California, down on its luck, will find a way to rebound, much as imperial Rome did after the demise of the Julian dynasty, or fall, like Athens, into ever more squalid decline. Does the state have a bright “destiny” ahead or only more ruin? 

This, of course, will be the basis for another historical epoch. Let us hope Kevin Starr be around to chronicle it for the rest of us.

Joel Kotkin is a distinguished Presidential Fellow at Chapman University. He is author of “The City: A Global History.” His new book, “The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050,” will be out from Penguin Publishing in February.

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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
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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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