The cost of controlling or rearranging the Sacramento, was largely borne, like the cost of controlling or rearranging many of other inconvenient features of California life, by the federal government.
This extreme reliance of California on federal money, so seemingly at odds with the emphasis on unfettered individualism that constitutes the local core belief, was a pattern set early on, and derived in part from the very individualism it would seem to belie…Charles Nordhoff complained of California in 1874 that “a speculative spirit invades even the farm house,” too often tempting its citizens “to go from one avocation to another, to do many things superficially, and to look for sudden fortunes by the chances of a shrewd venture, rather than be content to live by patient and continued labor.”
Yet the California community most deeply recalled by the author of this system was what he acknowledged to have been “a community of irresponsible strangers” (or in another reference, “a blind and stupid and homeless generation of selfish wanderers”), a community not of the “loyal” but of “men who have left homes and families, who have fled from before the word of the Lord, and have sought safety from their old vexatious duties in a golden paradise.”
Almost a century later (1960), Cary McWilliams…remarked on the almost total absence of conventional “rural” life in California, which would have been, if it were a country, the world’s seventh-largest agricultural producer. “The large shipper-growers ‘farm by phone’ from headquarters in San Francisco or Los Angeles. Many of them travel, nowadays, exclusively by plane in visiting their various ‘operations’…Their relationship to the land is as casual as that of the migratory workers they employ.” To live as farmers would have been, for the acquisitors of these operations, a bewileringly alien concept, since their holdings were about something else altogether: they were temporary chips in the game of capital formation.
…At the time the Hollister ranch was sold, in the late 1960s…roughly two and a half million acres of California still belonged to Southern Pacific. Almost half a million acres belongs to the Shasta Forest Company. A third of a million acres belonged to Tenneco, another third of a million each belonged to the Tejon Ranch Company, Standard Oil, and Boise Cascade…
All played a role in determining which of California’s possibilities would be realized and which limited.
Carey Mcwilliams…characterized the pervasive local hostility towards Asians as “a social and psychic necessity of the situation,” the “negative device” by which a state made up of newly arrived strangers had been able to acheive the illusion of a cohesive community joined against the menace of the foreign born.
Their rightful place in the California fable validated, Saxon and Billy settle in, determined to redeem the birthright of the “old stock” through the practice of scientific agronomy, which London himself imagined that he and his second wife, the woman he called his “Mate-Woman”, Charmian Kittredge, were perfecting on their own Sonoma ranch. London’s letters from this period speak of “making the dead soil live again,” of leaving the land “better for my having been,” of unremitting industry, transcendent husbandry. “No picayune methods for me,” he wrote. “When I go in silence, I want to know that I left behind me a plot of land which, after the pitiful failures of others, I have made productive…Can’t you see? Oh, try to see!- In the solution of great economic problems of the present age, I see a return to the soil.”
This was another confusion. His crops failed. His Wolf House, built to last a thousand years, burned to the ground before he and the Mate-Woman…could move in. His health was gone. He battled depression. He battled alcoholism. At one point in 1913, the year Wolf House was completed and burned, he had only three dollars and forty-six cents left in the bank…Jack London had died, at forty, of uremic poisoning and one final, fatal, dose of the morphine prescribed to calm his renal colic. In the last novel he was allowed to write…he had allowed his protagonist and author-surrogate to ask these questions, a flash of the endemic empty in a work that is otherwise a fantasy of worldly and social success: “Why? What for? What’s it worth? What’s it all about?”
The transformation of the Bohemian Club from a lively if frivolous gathering of local free spirits to a nexus of the nation’s corporate and political interests in many ways mirrored the larger transformation, that of California itself from what it had been, or what its citizens preferred to believe that it had been, to what it is now, an entirely dependent colony of the the invisible empire in which those corporate and political interests are now joined.
This was the same “average Californian” who, by the year…1886, had already sold half the state to Southern Pacific and was in the process of mortgaging the rest to the federal government. For most of the next hundred years, kept aloft first by oil and then by World War Two and finally by Cold War and the largesse of the owners and managers who would arrive in Gulfstreams for the annual encampment at Bohemian Grove, that average Californian had seen his “easiest failing” yield only blue skies.
By the year 2000, according to The Los Angeles Times, some hundred Orange County motels were inhabited almost exclusively by the working poor, people who made, say, $280 a week sanding airplane parts, or $7 an hour at Disney’s “California Adventure” park. “A land celebrating the richness and diversity of California, its natural resources, and the pioneering spirit of its people,” the web site for “California Adventure” read. Joan Irvine Smith told Art in California about the collection she bought with the proceeds of looking exclusively, and to a famous degree, forward. “I can see California as it was and as we will never see it again.” Here is one extreme example of the conundrum that to one degree or another confronts any Californian who profited from the boom years: if we could still see California as it was, how many of us could now afford to see it?
John Todd, a resident of Lakewood since its beginning and later its city attorney, wrote of the planning stage. “Everything about this entire project was perfect,” Mark Taper said in 1969 when he sat down with city officials to work up a local history. “Things happened that may never happen again.”
What he meant, of course, was the perfect synergy of time and place, the seamless confluence of World War II and the Korean War and the G.I. Bill and the defense contracts that began to flood Southern California as the Cold War set in. Here on this raw acreage on the flood plain between the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers was where two powerfully conceived national interests, that of keeping the economic engine running and that of creating an enlarged middle or consumer class, could be seen to converge.
“Naively, you could say that Lakewood was the American dream made affordable for a generation of industrial workers who in the preceding generations could never aspire to that kind of ownership,” he said one morning when we were talking about the way the place was developed…”They worked for Hughes, they worked for Douglas, and they worked at the naval station and shipyard in Long Beach. They worked, in other words, at all the places that exemplified the bright future that California was supposed to be.”
According to a June 1993 report on aerospace unemployment prepared by researchers at the UCLA School of Architecture and Urban Planning, half the California aerospace workers laid of in 1989 were, two years later, either still unemployed or no longer living in California. Most of those who did find jobs had ended up in lower-income service jobs; only seventeen percent had gone back to work in the aerospace industry at figures approaching their original salaries. Of those laid off in 1991 and 1992, only sixteen percent, a year later, had found jobs of any kind.
“We’re developing good citizens,” Mark Taper had said about Lakewood in 1969. “Enthusiastic owners of property. Owners of a piece of their country-a stake in the land.” This was a sturdy but finally unsupportable ambition, sustained for forty years by good times and the good will of the federal government.
“He knew his suburb’s first 17,500 houses had been built in less than three years. He knew what this must have cost, but he did not care.
The houses still worked.
He thought of them as middle class even though 1,100-square-foot tract houses on streets meeting at right angles are not middle class at all.
Middle-class houses are the homes of people who would not live here.”
This is in fact the tacit dissonance at the center of every moment in Lakewood, which is why the average day there raises, for the visitor, so many and such vertiginous questions.
What does it cost to create and maintain an artificial ownership class?
What happens when that class stops being useful?
What doe it mean to drop back below the line?
What does it cost to hang on above it, how do you behave, what do you say, what are the pitons you drive into the granite?
Lakewood exists because at given time in a different economy it had seemed an efficient idea to provide population density for the mall and a labor pool for the Douglas plant. There are a lot of towns like Lakewood in California. They were California’s mill towns, breeder towns for the boom. When times were good and there was money to spread around, these were the towns that proved Marx wrong, that managed to increase the proletariat and simultaneously, by calling it middle class, co-opt it.
…Yet there was in Run River something that was not true, a warp, a persistent suggestion that these changes brought about by World War Two had in some way been resisted by “true” Californians. Had not any such resistance been confined to the retrospect? Were not “changes” and “boom years” what the California experience had been about since the first American settlement? Were we still not willing to traffic our own history to get what the railroad could bring us?
Californians of more programmatic mind for many years presented these postwar changes as positive, the very genius of the place: it was conventional to mention the freeway system, the aerospace industry, the University of California Master Plan, Silicon Valley, the massive rearrangement of the water that got funded when Pat Brown was governor, the entire famous package, the celebrated promise that California was committed to creating and educating an apparently infinitely expandable middle class. The more recent programmatic attitude was to construe the same changes as negative, false promises: the freeways had encouraged sprawl, the aerospace industry had gone awry, the University of California had lost faculty and classrooms to budget cuts, Silicon Valley had put housing beyond the means of non-tech California, and most of the state was still short water.
During World War Two and the immediately postwar years, 1940 to 1950, the population of California did in fact increase 53 percent. During the next ten years, 1950 to 1960, the population of California did in fact increase 49 percent.
Yet such growth was in no way unprecedented. Nor, in a state that had seen its population increase in the first ten years of statehood by 245 percent, was it even remarkable…There had been, then, from the beginning, these obliterating increases, rates of growth that systematically erased freshly laid traces of custom and community, and it was from such erasures that many California confusions would derive.
“When we all went to the universities, when we abandoned what made us good and embraced what made us comfortable and secure, we lost something essential, knew we lost it and yet chose to lose…Material bounty and freedom are so much stronger incentives than sacrifice and character.” – Victor Davis Hanson
Notice, too, that the “destruction” of the San Joaquin Valley, as he sees it, began at the point when the small family farms on the east side of the Valley (the arid west side of the Valley, the part described by William Henry Brewer in the 1960s as a “plain of absolute desolation,” belonged to corporate growers) began giving way first to industrial parks and subdivisions and then to strip malls and meth labs.
There is a further possible mirage here: the San Joaquin Valley’s “beautiful century” could have seemed, to those actually living it, perhaps not entirely golden: “Here, in this corner of a great nation, here in this valley of the West, far from the great centers, isolated, remote, lost, the great iron hand crushes from us, crushes liberty and the pursuit of happiness from us”…That was Frank Norris, writing in The Octopus, on the slaughter that took place in 1880 at Mussel Slough, now Lucerne…just fifteen miles from Selma, the site of the farmhouse in which six generations of Victor Davis Hanson’s family have lived.
This was by no means to say that I believed all or even most Californians to be rich, only to suggest that the fact of having no money seemed to me to lack, in California, the immutable gravity that characterized the condition elsewhere.
Since the building and staffing of new prisons were major reasons why California no longer felt rich enough to adequately fund its education system, this second fact initially presented itself as an even deeper affront than the first, evidence that a “new” California had finally and fatally out the old. Then I remembered, then I realized.
We are seeing nothing “new” here.
We are seeing one more version of making our deal with the Southern Pacific.
Were are seeing one more version of making our bed with the federal government.
We are seeing one more enthusiastic fall into a familiar California error, that of selling the future of the place we lived to the highest bidder, which was in this instance the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.
Don Novey is the former guard at Folsom State Prison who became in 1980 the president of the California Correctional Peace Offices Association…”If Don Novey ran the contractor’s union,” a Republican strategist told the Times, “there’d be a bridge over every puddle in the state.”…The prison guards were the political muscle behind the 1994 “three strikes” legislation and initiative, the act that mandated a sentence of 25 years for any third felony conviction, even for crimes as minor as growing a marijuana plant on a windowsill or shoplifting a bottle of Ripple. The prison guards were the political muscle that had by the year 2000 made the California corrections system, with thirty-three penitentiaries and 162,000 inmates, the largest in the western hemisphere.
It was also 1994 when standardized testing reading skills among California fourth-graders placed them last in the nation, below Mississippi, tied only with Louisiana. It was 1995 when, for the the first time, California spent more on its prisons than on its two university systems, the ten campuses of the University of California and the twenty-four campuses of California State University.
Through most of my life I would have interpreted the growth of the prison system and the diminution of the commitment to public education as evidence of how California had “changed.” Only recently did I come to see them as the opposite, evidence of how California had “not changed,” and to understand “change” itself as one of the culture’s most enduring misunderstandings about itself.
From the 1870s to the 1920s…California had a higher rate of commitment for insanity than any other state in the nation, a disproportion most reasonably explained…”by the zeal with which California state officials sought to locate, detain, and treat not only those considered ‘mentally ill,’ but also a wide variety of other deviants- including, as state hospital physicians put it, ‘imbeciles, dotards, idiots, drunkards, simpletons, fools,’ and ‘the aged, the vagabond, the helpless.'”
In 1870, the federal census classified one in every 489 Californians as insane. By 1880, the rate had reached 260 and the asylums had passed capacity, the notion of sterilizing inmates gained currency. the idea being that a certain number could then be released without danger of reproducing.
What was arresting in this pattern of commitment was the extent to which it diverged from the California sense of itself as loose, less socially rigid than the rest of the country, more adaptable, more tolerant of difference. When Fox analyzed the San Francisco commitment records for the years 1906 to 1929, he found that the majority of those hospitalized, fifty-nine percent, had been committed not because they were violent, not because they presented a thread to others or themselves, but simply because they had been reported, sometimes by a police officer but often by a neighbor or relative, to exhibit “odd or peculiar behavior.”
“Are we on the right road,” my mother had asked again and again as we drove up 101. I had repeatedly assured here that we were, at last pointing out an overhead sign: 101 North.
“Then where did it all go,” she had asked.
She meant where did Gilroy go, where was the Milias hotel, where could my father eat short ribs now. She meant where did San Juan Bautista go, why was it no longer so sweetly remote as it had been on the day of my wedding there in 1964. She meant where had San Benito and Santa Clara Counties gone as she remembered them, the coastal hills north of Salinas, the cattle grazing, the familiar open vista that had been relentlessly replace (during the year, two years, three, the blink of the eye during which she had been caring for my father) by mile after mile of pastel subdivisions and labyrinthine exits and entrances to freeways that had not previously existed.
For some miles she was silent.
California had become, she said then, “all San Jose.”