October 10, 2000 - From the October, 2000 issue

Kevin Starr Chronicles History of California's Varied Regions

In these reflections on the Regions of California: Past, Present & Future, our erudite State Librarian, Kevin Starr, guides us through Califonia's history, examining the multiple identities within our borders and teasing out the common threads in the development of our state consciousness. The Gold Rush, the modernism of post-WWII, and the Internet have all shaped the Californian mindset, which in turn has shaped our built environment. Mr. Starr concludes that California is a federation of quasi-autonomies, but also sees a nascent convergence in a moral and regional vision, where the whole is a sum of its parts, and each part a microcosm of the whole.


Kevin Starr

I want to ask you to think back to the historical continuity of our Native American past. Some 25 generations before European contact in 1769, a third of the Native Americans in the present day boundaries of the United States lived within the current boundaries of California. That's an interesting pattern, especially when some people predict that at the end of this century, California could again have close to a third of the people in the United States.

The diversity of those 78 to 80 linguistic regions-in our post-modernist ability to absorb the past and use it as a healing corrective metaphor-is not irrelevant to who we are as Californians. Today, especially our young people are absorbing a sense of the tremendous variety of the Native American past. And it anchors our sense of history as we reconcile the tragedy and trauma of the fact that by the 1870s, the Native population had been brought down to some 20 to 30,000, and even less by 1911.

While the Native American past is built on the geophysical, geological and biological diversity of this great environment, the founding fathers and mothers of Monterey in 1849 had to invent the sheer concept of "California" based on a regional choice. San Diego was chosen as the site that the sacred expedition of 1769 would land and begin the settlement of California, because the Spanish saw it as the intersection of Baja and Alta California, as the place in which the provinces of the Spanish Southwest would meet and flow into the Asian-Pacific Basin. Even today, that strategic location animates San Diego with forces, energies, patterns and regional considerations that were on the minds of Spain and Mexico as well as the American generation earlier this century.

The Spanish and Mexican view of California is very interesting--not just in terms of the ethnic, linguistic and cultural contributions to California, but in the way that the Spanish and the Mexicans settled the coast. Spanish-Mexican California was the South Coast, the Central Coast, and starting in the 1810s the San Francisco Bay Area. And I like to think of it as providing a kind of unity to California del Sur, the region of the Southland, which history and geography have shaped. San Diego, Orange County, the Inland Empire, the L.A. Basin, each with its culture and aesthetics established so powerfully in the 19th Century represent not just politically separate regions or entities, but separate states of mind.

That's really what I've devoted the majority of my work as a historian to: that intersection where land, social reality, personal needs, expectations and quality of life issues come together to create a place called California-not just as a society but as an imaginative and moral ideal.

We look for clues to those regional identities, in much the same way that we look in our own backgrounds for the forces that make us into the men and women we are today. The aesthetic or imaginative preparations involved in learning to live in a semiarid desert (in a time before air-conditioning) has been very important in our contemporary development, just as San Diego's naming itself "The Gibraltar of the Pacific" in the 1920s has affected its future growth. And each region has its own history.

California is a federation of quasi-autonomous regions. By 1906, 60% of the State's population lived in urban or suburban circumstances around the San Francisco Bay. In looking at the Gold Rush, we also see a clustering of California. The California born philosopher Josiah Royce emphasizes the great California landscape-the once massive grandeur built of heroic ambition. Yet you can see the mountains; you can always see where you are. It's not tangled and confused like the landscape of New England. The intensity of the Gold Rush left intense settlements-cities like Nevada City, Placerville, Georgetown and Sutter's Creek. Cities today where we still marvel at their successful vernacular architecture and planning and the comfortableness with which the 49ers felt that density created regional cultures-even in gold fields.

I've devoted an enormous amount of time to defining the patterns of growth in Los Angeles, the Great Gatsby of regions. But there are many Californias that evoke the deep regional nature of our State. And if we jump to the present, those Californias are compounded by the multiple identities each of us sustains.

I've always tried to write California history and think about California as an "American experiment." I think if we change the name of this state from "California" to "America," the California identity would still hold true . This California is compounded by the multiple identity-the complex and multiple states of consciousness that our people sustain. Californians could look you straight in the eye and pretend to be listening, but they are somewhere else entirely. It's always a great mystery to find out where each of these Californians is in the composite inner-multiple world that we sustain. And when you connect these multiple-states not merely psychiatric or psychoanalytic, or even moral or imaginative, but physical states to regions, California becomes a number of places at once.

You can't have the third largest Mexican city in the world, the second largest Korean City on the planet and the second or third largest Persian/Iranian without thinking of what that means to the consciousness of people living in L.A. How can we deal with metropolitan Los Angeles without thinking of its rich array of states of consciousness-not to be assimilated or sacrificed, but to be sustained and enriched while pursuing parallel identities. People get off the plane in Los Angeles and can hit the ground running because they enter a "newesphere," an intellectual world where their states of consciousness are totally appropriate not just for living or being with family, friends or religion, but for economic activity as well.

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And with other cultures Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Armenian, you can't have these multiple identities linked to a region without enriching the California mix dramatically. We have people all around us who come from one culture and are functioning in another . Now, this is not a new phenomenon, but it's important to see that linkage of cultural memory, consciousness and region. Compound this even further by the cyberculture where it was initially believed we would dilate our consciousness? Well, it didn't happen. In general, the exact opposite occurred-the more cyber we became, the more the world rushed into our minds and imaginations, intensifying our local California identities. Ask somebody 25 years ago where they came from in L.A., and they'll simply say, "L.A." Ask them where they come from today, and they'll give you a whole description. And by the time they're done, they'll have described one square block.

California is in everything except formal government-a federation of quasi-autonomie . We see this localization occurrence, and we shouldn't be surprised that it's here. It's not just a question of regions, identities or historical associations; it's a question of post-modernism itself. It's a movement of the way we're organizing reality in every way-mentally, physically, socially, architecturally. Just think of how California came into being that great year after WWII. California was tied up with a period of general abstract modernism-General Electric, General Motors and even General Mills. Things were general, large, abstract, modern-we loved buildings that looked that way; we loved islands that looked that way; we dressed that way. It was part of the sort of wonderful, existential tension of the 1950s. California came out of that with a sense of modernism and general control. The California freeway system, the master plan for higher education, the Donohue Act 1959-60--what a marvelous sense these general constructs gave us. The one thing that we didn't do was deal with growth.

In October 1899, David Star Jordan, the founding President of Stanford University wrote in the Atlantic Monthly an essay, "California and the Californians." This seminal essay is an absolute Jeremiah. It's a lament for the political condition of California. California was corrupt: Los Angeles and San Francisco were in the charge of bosses; the Southern Pacific had a stranglehold on government; the Railroad Commission was nicknamed "the literary bureau of the southern pacific." Land use was abominable, and David Star Jordan didn't see much hope.

Yet a mere six years later, a visionary group of young activists met for dinner at Levy's Café in Los Angeles and founded the Lincoln/Roosevelt League. Three years later a 37-year-old attorney who had never held office--Byron Johnson--is Governor of California. And then of course comes the marvelous legislative session of 1911-14 in which California is reformed.

And I think something like that is brewing now in the question of growth-some kind of breakthrough, some kind of ability to think statewide in the sum of our parts. It will either come that way, or it'll come through some draconian Prop 13-type of initiative which may have as many bad side effects as it has corrective impacts.

I think growth needs this kind of public/private partnership that we already see in the great set-asides and purchases of public properties-the extraordinary work that the Irvine Foundation and the Hewlitt Foundation have done. It's the third founding of California: the endowment of California not just with money and political energy, but with moral vision and a sense of our regions.

Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit theologian and anthropologist, has a phrase that Byron O'Conner uses as a title of a collection of short stories: "Everything that rises must converge." And I see a convergence, a regaining of that sense that the whole is found in the sum of its parts, and each part contains the whole. Each region, each foundation, each group that you represent has a subtle story to tell, and a much more subtle work of recovery and refoundation of California. Your groups contain the whole of our people. After all, that's part of our persistent pattern. Josiah Royce in his history says, "It's not so amazing to Californians that Americans and others misbehaved in California during the Gold Rush. The amazing thing was that they found time to behave so well-for amidst all the confusion, the churches, synagogues and schools were founded."

What holistic metaphor are we going to rediscover in the sum total of our parts, and separately? It's California as moral gold, as a social and cultural ideal-that finer California that was embodied in the law of the Indies . Even the groups who were persecuted, even the groups who were not welcome envisioned that finer California. It's that finer California that was glimpsed by our Mexican era, by our Pioneer era, by us-that haunts us still. And working together, we'll find it yet.

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