Joel Kotkin on California’s Golden Age
Posted on Sep 18, 2009
By Joel Kotkin
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.
Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950-1963
By Kevin Starr
Oxford University Press, 576 pages
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.
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