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"Benjamin Schwarz`s Laments The End Of California`s Modest Dream"
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June 12, 2009, 04:59 AM
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In the new July-August Atlantic, Benjamin Schwarz reviews the latest volume of Kevin Starr`s history of California: Golden Dreams: California in the Age of Abundance: 1950-1963.. It makes me nostalgic for what once was. Schwarz is a half-decade younger than me and, I would guess from this, had a similar San Fernando Valley upbringing:
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. ... 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.

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. ...

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 ... 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 ... 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 how the Golden State — fleetingly, as it turns out — accomodated Americans` "conviction that California was the best place in the nation to seek and attain a better life." ...

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 Canada 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 (publicly 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% 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 ...

Basically, that was my quite lovely childhood in the San Fernando Valley 1958-1980: ping-pong on the screened-in porch, swimming, backyard barbecues at my relatives` houses, Yosemite, long hours at the library two blocks away, tennis at the park three blocks away, golf on municipal courses, and UCLA (for my MBA). The only minor differences from the picture Starr and Schwarz paint are that I went to Catholic grade school and high school, and away to Rice for college.

If you want to understand where I`m coming from politically, this is a good start.

That reminds me: Bill James once wrote a book about the politics of getting elected to baseball`s Hall of Fame. He wound up focusing on two statistically marginal members of the HoF: shortstop Phil Rizzuto of the New York Yankees and pitcher Don Drysdale of the Los Angeles Dodgers. James concluded that Rizzuto is in the Hall of Fame because New York in the late 1940s and early 1950s was seen as a magical place, the newly undisputed capital of the world.

I think the same argument could be made about Drysdale. LA in the early 1960s was something special, and the huge fame of Drysdale, a 6`6" blond surfer born in the San Fernando Valley in 1936, was because he was the exemplar of this national notion that life in Los Angeles was better. (One of Drysdale`s teammates at Van Nuy High School in the 1950s was Robert Redford.)