Editor's Choice July/August 2009

California Dreamers

The latest volume of Kevin Starr’s history chronicles the triumph—and points toward the tragedy—of the Golden State’s Good Life
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Image: David Noble Photography/Alamy

It was a magnificent run. From the end of the Second World War to the mid-1960s, California consolidated its position as an economic and technological colossus and emerged as the country’s dominant political, social, and cultural trendsetter. Thanks to wartime and Cold War defense spending, a flourishing consumer economy, and a seemingly ever-expanding tax base, the state was at the forefront of the single greatest rise in prosperity in American history. In 1959, wages paid in Los Angeles’s working-class and solidly middle-class San Fernando Valley alone were higher than the total wages of 18 states. This affluence ushered in an era of exhilarating if headlong growth and free spending. The state’s public schools—the new, modernist elementary schools with their flat roofs, gleaming clerestory windows, and outdoor lockers; the grand comprehensive high schools (Sacramento, Lowell in San Francisco, and Hollywood and Fairfax in Los Angeles)—were the envy of the nation. Berkeley, the flagship campus in the UC system, emerged as the best university in the country, probably the world. It was a sweet, vivacious time: California’s children, swarming on all those new playgrounds, seemed healthier, happier, taller, and—thanks to that brilliantly clean sunshine—were blonder and more tan than kids in the rest of the country. For better and mostly for worse, it’s a time irretrievably lost.

These years are the subject of the eighth volume of Kevin Starr’s monumental chronicle of California, collectively titled Americans and the California Dream. Starr is a lumper, not a splitter, and in this 500-plus-page history of 14 years, he lovingly and exhaustively chronicles such topics as the byzantine political, fund-raising, and public-relations effort to build Los Angeles’s Music Center (and in the process illuminates the central place choral music occupied in Los Angeles’s Protestant culture, as well as the tension—once intense, now faint but unmistakable—between the Jewish Westside and the ever-declining WASP establishment of downtown, Hancock Park, and Pasadena); the evolution of the surfing, rock-climbing, and hot-rod subcultures; Zen Buddhism’s pervasive influence on California art and design; the California Water Plan of 1957 (the template for the 700-mile network of reservoirs, pumping stations, canals, pipes, and aqueducts that carries almost 2 billion gallons of water daily from Northern California to the south and remains the largest water project in world history); and, in deadly detail, the career of Dave Brubeck.

But neither this installment nor the series as a whole succumbs to muddle, because Starr consistently returns to his leitmotif: the California dream. By this he means something quite specific—and prosaic. California, as he’s argued in earlier volumes, promised “the highest possible life for the middle classes.” It wasn’t a paradise for world-beaters; rather, it offered “a better place for ordinary people.” That place always meant “an improved and more affordable domestic life”: a small but stylish and airy house marked by a fluidity of indoor and outdoor space, such as the ubiquitous California bungalow (“the closest thing to a democratic art that has ever been produced,” as the architectural historians David Gebhard and Robert Winter have written) and a lush backyard—the stage, that is, for “family life in a sunny climate.” It also meant some public goods: decent roads, plentiful facilities for outdoor recreation, and the libraries and schools that helped produce the Los Angeles “common man” who, as that jaundiced easterner James M. Cain described him in 1933, “addresses you in easy grammar, completes his sentences, shows familiarity with good manners, and in addition gives you a pleasant smile.”

Until the Second World War, California had proffered this Good Life only to people already in the middle class—the small proprietors, farmers, and professionals, largely transplanted midwesterners, who defined the long-underindustrialized state culturally and politically. But the war and the decades-long boom that followed extended the California dream to a previously unimaginable number of Americans of modest means. Here Starr records how that dream possessed the national imagination (and thereby helped define middle-class aspirations and an ideal of domestic life that survives to this day) and how the Golden State—fleetingly, as it turns out—accommodated Americans’ “conviction that California was the best place in the nation to seek and attain a better life.”

In the brief era Starr examines, the world rushed in to grab that life: the state’s population nearly doubled between 1950 and 1970. This dolce vita was, as Starr makes clear, a democratic one: the ranch houses with their sliding glass doors and orange trees in the backyard might have been more sprawling in La Cañada and Orinda than they were in the working-class suburbs of Lakewood and Hayward, but family and social life in nearly all of them centered on the patio, the barbecue, and the swimming pool. The beaches were publicly owned and hence available to all—as were such glorious parks as Yosemite, Chico’s Bidwell, the East Bay’s Tilden, and San Diego’s Balboa. Golf and tennis, year-round California pursuits, had once been limited to the upper class, but thanks to proliferating publicly supported courses and courts (thousands of public tennis courts had already been built in L.A. in the 1930s), they became fully middle-class. This shared outdoor-oriented, informal, California way of life democratized—some would say homogenized—a society made up of people of varying attainments and income levels. These people were overwhelmingly white and native-born, and their common culture revolved around nurturing and (publicily) educating their children. Until the 1980s, a California preppy was all but oxymoronic. True, the comprehensive high schools had commercial, vocational, and college-prep tracks (good grades in the last guaranteed admission to Berkeley or UCLA—times have definitely changed). But, as Starr concludes from his survey of yearbooks and other school records, “there remained a common experience, especially in athletics, and a mutual respect among young people heading in different directions.”

To a Californian today, much of what Starr chronicles is unrecognizable. (Astonishing fact: Ricky Nelson and the character he played in that quintessential idealization of suburbia, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, attended Hollywood High, a school that is now 75 percent Hispanic and that The New York Times accurately described in 2003 as “a typically overcrowded, vandalism-prone urban campus.”) Granted, a version of the California Good Life can still be had—by those Starr calls the “fiercely competitive.” That’s just the heartbreak: most of us are merely ordinary. For nearly a century, California offered ordinary people better lives than they could lead perhaps anywhere else in the world. Today, reflecting our intensely stratified, increasingly mobile society, California affords the Good Life only to the most gifted and ambitious, regardless of their background. That’s a deeply undemocratic betrayal of California’s dream—and of the promise of American life. As R. H. Tawney wrote, “Opportunities to rise, which can, of their very nature, be seized only by the few,” cannot “substitute for a general diffusion of the means of civilization, which are needed by all men whether they rise or not.”

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Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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