Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950–1963 (Americans and the California Dream) by Kevin Star
Oxford University Press, 576 pp.
ow did we manage to have it all in the years after the Second World War—car, house, health care, affordable education, Social Security, rising wages, leisure—and where did it go? If anyone knows, please tell California. Things seemed to be going so well here a half century ago: unemployment rates just above 3 percent, swimming pools in every backyard, baseball teams poached from Brooklyn, matchless public schools and universities, and swift new highways. Good jobs were available to nearly anyone who came, and nearly everyone did.
It all seems awfully remote. Today’s California—reckless spender in the booms, feckless cutter in the busts, thoughtless booster of every bubble, mindless indulger of spoiled interest groups, and senseless elector of weak public officials—looks wan and sickly. Its schools are shabby, its traffic relentless, its social services overwhelmed, its prisons disgraceful, and its bond rating comical. Once the embodiment of American possibilities, California has become the embodiment of American delusions. Only with a great recession and a budget deficit of over $24 billion has it been forced to an economic reckoning, one that will be brutal for the poor and the elderly. There’s talk of a federal bailout, which, in light of far greater sums received by AIG, seems almost defensible, especially to those of us who live here. But it’s a long shot.
Under such grim circumstances, one must welcome a book on California at its pinnacle of wealth and self-assurance, when healthier habits of living and governance prevailed. In a well-timed effort, Kevin Starr, peerless historian of the Golden State, has published a 538-page volume entitled Golden Dreams: California in an Age of Abundance, 1950–1963. Starr’s book, his eighth in the California Dream series, is painstaking and comprehensive, thorough in chronicling the names and ideas of the age. It’s an affectionate look back at the good times and a helpful reminder of the bad ones. If much was sweet about those years, much also was not.
But let’s start with what was sweet. Starr offers a 1940s snapshot of the Loeffler family—fire department engineer Leroy, his wife Joyce, and their two young daughters—who lived on Leroy’s salary of $3,000 a year, the rough equivalent of $36,000 in today’s money. Such an income allowed the Loefflers to have a washing machine, refrigerator, stove, backyard patio, and automobile. They also had a two-bedroom, two-fireplace bungalow in Glendale, purchased for $7,800 (or about $93,000 in today’s dollars), with monthly mortgage payments of $37.50. Citrus trees grew in the backyard. Trips to the beach were frequent.
The Loefflers were hardly alone in their good fortune. The postwar Californian enjoyed plentiful space and newfound leisure. Vast suburbs arose, inspiring widespread derision from intellectuals and aesthetes yet giving pleasure to the millions who settled in them. Golf came to the middle class in the form of scores of municipal courses with low fees. Public beaches were easy to reach and reliably sunny. Polynesian-themed restaurants thrived, offering generous selections of steak-based fare accompanied by cocktails served in coconuts. Bowling alleys were rarely more than a few throws away. Cars abounded.
It was an era of grand public works. As of 1950, Sacramento was funding highway construction at a rate of $100 million a year, and by 1962 the Division of Highways was spending over $600 million a year (equivalent to more than $4 billion today). In 1960, the state adopted the Master Plan for Higher Education, setting the stage for the construction of three new general campuses for the University of California system, four new general campuses for the Cal State system, and twenty-two new campuses for community colleges. And then there was water, ever scarce, always treasured, the key to transforming parched, empty valleys into cities, gardens, and agricultural abundance. In 1960, Governor Pat Brown persuaded voters to authorize a $1.75 billion bond issue to fund what was called the State Water Project, a vast assemblage of dams, pumping stations, aqueducts, and reservoirs that would bring millions of gallons of northern water to the thirsty south. Starr calls it the "most ambitious water storage and distribution system in the history of the human race."
For all the blessings of California life, however, many of them rested on rickety foundations. Much of the prosperity could be traced directly to Washington, which was briskly arming up for the Cold War. Thanks to Pentagon largesse, fully 400,000 Californians found desirable jobs at companies such as Douglas Aircraft and Lockheed. By 1963, nearly 30 percent of the Los Angeles County–Orange County economy depended on defense spending. Many Californians recognized the hazards of relying so heavily on the business of armaments, but few had the heart to do anything about it. As Starr writes, signs of thaws in U.S.-Soviet relations, such as Nikita Khrushchev’s visit in 1959, tended to throw the region into "economic panic."
Growth exacted a serious environmental price as well, and not merely in terms of air or water or furry creatures. Many Californians with older attachments to the land mourned the broader toll being taken on their surroundings by the population boom: the riot of tacky construction, the crowding, and the mindless pace of it all. Gone—or fast going—were the ranchlands of Porter Ranch, the orange groves of Orange County, and the redwoods of the redwood forests. San Francisco Bay continued to experience land "reclamation," which meant the filling in of any parts that could be filled in. An unsentimental 1959 report from the Army Corps of Engineers estimated that the process would be complete by 2020, with the bay reduced in size to a channel. Only an impassioned campaign by influential San Franciscans was able—barely—to halt such "progress."
By the early 1960s, California’s success was the source of national and international fascination but also skepticism. In 1963, Esquire held a symposium entitled "California: Too Much, Too Soon." Many in the state would have agreed. With a population of only two million in 1900, California had grown to ten million by 1950, fifteen million by 1960, and twenty million by 1970. For policymakers like Pat Brown, eager to surpass New York State on all fronts, the influx became an end in itself. As farms disappeared, freeways encouraged sprawl, which encouraged more freeways. And the State Water Project, Pat Brown’s baby, was most fateful of all. Opponents of the effort had argued that adding more water to Southern California would not only encourage overdevelopment but also generate further need for water. Their voices went unheeded. It’s crowded now in Southern California. Far from the coasts, water pipes feed homes that blanket the deserts and arid hills of the Inland Empire, and the inhabitants emerge each day to brave the heaving, crawling freeways. We are far removed from the easier rhythms of the Loefflers.
One of the more striking chapters of Starr’s book concerns race relations. No one needs to be reminded that things weren’t ideal a few decades ago, but the extent of our backwardness then is still stunning. It was not in Mississippi or Alabama but in California that eight-year-old Mexican American Sylvia Mendez could show up for an all-white public school in Orange County in 1945 and be turned away, told by administrators that only her two lighter-skinned cousins would be permitted to attend. (Sylvia was instead directed to the school for Mexican Americans.) It was in California that Dena Perez tried to marry Sylvester Scott Davis Jr. in 1947. She was Mexican American, he was black, and Los Angeles County refused to grant the couple a license, citing Section 69 of the California Civil Code, which forbade marriage between a white person (for which Perez was light enough to qualify) and a "Negro, Mulatto, Mongolian, or member of the Malay race." And it was in supposedly liberal San Francisco, in 1957, that newly arrived center fielder Willie Mays found himself turned down for a house purchase in an all-white neighborhood. For all of our troubles today, we’re not that country—or state—anymore.
Today, California has a dizzying mix of cultures and peoples. Defense contracting is no longer the backbone of Southern California. Sushi bars have replaced Tiki bars. Mulattos can marry Mongolians. The air is cleaner. Preservation and conservation are prized. Most of these changes have been very beneficial. But not all of them. The good life here has grown more elusive, with forty million Californians now jostling for a patch of green and a sliver of the abundance. Many emigrate in failure and, increasingly, do so having left behind a hulking, bank-owned villa. California will almost certainly recover and thrive again one day, but the ease with which a hopeful American once could find a new start here and prosper is unlikely to return. It was a lucky twenty years.
Kevin Starr writes engagingly, steering blessedly clear of jargon or pretension. If he betrays a certain degree of haste—some variant of "paradox" or "paradoxical" seems to show up every few pages or so, for instance—it’s a minor fault in light of the sheer scope of the undertaking. (Let those who have managed to write eight-volume histories cast the first stone.) This is a grand effort, much like the public works of the era it chronicles, and we’re lucky to have it. Now Starr will have to focus on the latest installment, the one in which California runs out of money and nearly ceases to function. I hope it has a happy, or at least bearable, ending.
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T. A. Frank is an Irvine Fellow at the New America Foundation and an editor of the Washington Monthly.