kevinstarr   12

What Does It Mean to Become Californian? – Boom California
"What does it mean to become Californian? It means being witness to an epic bender—a 169-year binge lubricated by gold, cattle, wheat, oil, suburban housing, the Cold War, and a marketing campaign of seductive power. At every stage of its history, each of the state’s exploitable ecologies has been dressed up as another paradise, pandering to the latest wave of hopelessly intoxicated newcomers. The come-on that seduced them—the elemental promises of health, wealth, and happiness in the sunshine—is the California Dream. For Joan Didion, the state’s renowned exile, there is in that dream a “dangerous dissonance…a slippage” between what we desire and who we are.1

The official story of California is told as a pageant of bonanzas, but belief in the official story requires forgetting so much. We want the story to record what had been hard won, but it’s actually full of lucky accidents. We bought the Californian sales pitch, but we became remorseful buyers afterward. We want to be Californian, but we don’t want to earn it.

These paradoxes were built into the subdivisions that absorbed thirteen million dream seekers between 1940 and 1970—the great years when California retailed to America its mix of Arcadian ease and technocratic élan. The greatest paradox is, of course, that the success in getting so much from California has been turned into so much loss. Californians tend to use the state’s compromised environment as the screen on which to project what they can no longer find in California—something missing from becoming Californian—and the suburbs, the traffic, and the presence of too many of us are said to be the cause. But perhaps what Californians can no longer find is in themselves, in what they lost by becoming Californian. We forget that the California Dream didn’t come with a moral compass.

I cannot say that the dream did not serve us. It provided the goods of a middle-class life to millions, including me. It remixed popular culture in exciting ways. It built beautiful and lasting things—and the dream still inspires. A neighbor of mine—with a tract house, two grown daughters, and a husband who is a teacher—wonders if it means anything to say that the dream is ending. “They’ve been saying that for thirty years at least. It hasn’t ended yet,” she told me.

Kevin Starr has written nine volumes of history about California and America’s feverish dream of it, and in 2009 he hadn’t yet reconciled whether California would become a “failed state” or would reinvent itself again, and if reinvention would be another arc of boom to bust to regret. Starr’s faith was in the state’s genetic and cultural rambunctiousness and the possibility that a retooled dream, suitable for a less-Anglo California, will replace the parts of the dream that served us so poorly. But Starr, like many of us, had his doubts.

***

What does it mean to become Californian? It means seeing nature without romance or despair. California has been uniquely intoxicating, but it was also a place on the national periphery in the nineteenth century and far from the familiar place where hearts might feel at home. Merchandising the state’s natural grandeur answered some of Californian longing. From William Henry Jackson in the 1870s through Ansel Adams in the 1950s to the latest coffee-table book, California has produced gorgeous and misleading environmental photography, promoting the view that sacred wildness is out there, unmarred by our presence and ready for our contemplation.

The iconic photographs make the rapturous assumption that none of us was ever here——but we were! We’re sluicing mountains into rivers to get at the gold, taking down forests to build a wood and iron technology gone before our parents were born, erecting groves of derricks over oil fields, extracting harvests from the compliant ground, and assembling communities from tract houses and strip malls. I’m tired of my own sentimentality for landscapes that are rendered either as an open wound or a throat pulled back, ready for the knife. Pity is misplaced if there is no place in it for you or me.

The choice for Californians north and south after the Gold Rush cataclysm was not between nature and its despoiled remnant, but the terms on which our encounter with nature would be framed. The environmentalist John Muir gave nature a privileged autonomy, a kind of green divinity. Frederick Law Olmsted, a builder of New York’s Central Park, concluded that nature in California would never again be sublime, despite what the photographs implied, and that nature must be enmeshed in the community of people living here. Olmsted struggled for a word to describe the tie that might bind a place and its people. He settled on “communitiveness.” It’s an awkward word for something that tries to define both loyalty to one’s neighbors and trusteeship of the land. Olmsted, as Muir and others did, sought to read a redemptive narrative—and something of the wider American experience—into the landscape of California. The Californians who were led here by their longing for the redeeming qualities Muir and Olmsted saw in California’s nature—qualities variously ennobling, consoling, and therapeutic—unalterably changed California.

***

Californians had presumed that California would always deliver whatever they deserved. Now we know California can’t. Even more self-knowledge is needed, now that our revels are ended. If we are to become brave, new Californians, we will begin to dream differently."

What does it mean to become Californian? It means finding that California is increasingly ordinary (for which I’m grateful, because the commonplace is necessarily the place where we find love and hope). But if California isn’t the “great exception,” isn’t the best or worst of places, then how do we describe California when it is not exactly “Californian” anymore, not as alluring or lurid as the clichés of the utopian or dystopian accounts said it was? California is riven—north and south, coastal and inland, urban and rural, valley and foothill—but that which unites these “islands on the land” is the question of what had been gained by becoming Californian.

For Joan Didion, becoming Californian was a prize for leaving the past behind, although the result would be brokenheartedness. For essayist Richard Rodriguez, becoming Californian meant becoming mingled, impure, heterogeneous, and discovering that your color, whatever it is, is just another shade of brown. For the novelist and playwright William Saroyan, becoming Californian was to see this place, finally, as “my native land.” For the two million or more Californians who, in the past two decades, have migrated to “greater California”—which is now located in Texas, Arizona, Washington, Oregon, and Nevada—becoming Californian meant finding some measure of inadequacy in California. Maybe becoming Californian means laboring to undo the toxic effects of what California has been: a commodity, a trophy of Anglo privilege, and a place of aching, unmet desires.

The Anglo possessors of California after 1847 took on habits that began with the first gold claim staked on the American River and continue each time a house lot changes hands today. Imagine considering those habits with a “truth and reconciliation” commission whose members are a skateboarder, a “mow and blow” gardener, a rap artist, a real estate agent, a vintner, a Gabrieleño elder, a Chinese immigrant, and someone employed in the adult entertainment industry. Maybe becoming Californian means facing a ravenous “hunger of memory”2 and having only California’s clichés to offer.

***

What does it mean to become Californian? It means locating yourself, according to environmental historian Stephanie Pincetl, in a panorama that includes Hollywood, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Big Sur, San Francisco, Disneyland, the redwoods, and Death Valley.3 She might have added Compton, Route 99 from Fresno to Bakersfield, the Silicon Valley, the San Fernando Valley, the Central Valley, and the whole of la frontera from Yuma to the Tijuana. Pincetl included in her list the seductive mirage of El Dorado, the folly that led to all of the state’s ruined paradises. An imagination so spacious as to dwell in all of these Californias requires a different kind of intelligence, attuned to many vernaculars. The alternative is living daily with the experience of estrangement, discontinuity, and forgetfulness.

Californians who need something to stand with them against these disorders might find it in Michel Foucault’s notion of “a particular, local, regional knowledge, a differential knowledge incapable of unanimity.”4 The desire to sustain “ecologies of the vernacular” and live in “habitats of memory” may be the new requirement for becoming Californian.

Foucault distantly echoes Josiah Royce’s notion of a Higher Provincialism,5 which finds the potential for moral order in a shared sense of place and in the common habits of being there. This embodied knowledge becomes “critical regionalism”6 in turning away from the comforts of nostalgia toward “interrogating the local and proximate precisely in order to demonstrate its universality, its connectedness, and its differences with the wider world.”7

California happened to the world in 1849, and in the rush to extract something from becoming Californian, the world—in the form of every race and ethnicity—met itself here.8 The meeting was chaotic, brutal, often tragic, and sometimes redemptive, and its energies are not yet spent. For all its potential to create a hybrid American (and, I believe, a better one), the collision left Californians haunted by the spirit of El Dorado—the illusion that being Californian requires being perpetually the object of someone else’s desire.

To become truly Californian, dwellers here will recover from that malign dream to “awaken the stories that sleep in … [more]
california  future  djwaldie  kevinstarr  2017  foucault  josiahroyce  universality  connectedness  difference  diversity  change  history  stephaniepincetl  joandidion  fredericklawolmstead  nature  landscape  johnmuir  goldrush  williamhenryjackson  richardrodriguez  ordinariness  inadequacy  race  ethnicity  commonplace  everyday  michelfoucault 
april 2017 by robertogreco
State of Being: Envisioning California – Boom California
"What my relatives ascertained in real time and experience is where the actual story begins—the great uncle who vanished (dead or missing, we never learned); restrictive housing covenants that dictated where you could rent or buy; circumscribed dreams. This “paradise,” by all accounts, held up only in its external natural promise—the weather, the flora, the vistas. The rest? It could be worked around.

And it was. The California I most deeply reside in is the California of personal imprint—generations of it. It’s the stuff of absorbed histories—the weight and heft of personal adaptations, language, and traditions. You brought a little of your past with you—how to string beans or devein shrimp or how to make a roux; you brought a lullaby; you brought coming-of-age rituals. You compared and shared with your neighbors because you were creating a community. All was integrated into the rhythm and space of your new environs. You brought your pride and joy along with your cleverness or itch for adventure. You brought what was road-worthy, meaningful, something worth handing down.

That ability to “make do,” or improvise, applied in many ways. “Placemaking” is the work of the mind as well as the hands. Living in California has often meant that you have to become familiar with and conversant in both the mythic place and the real place, and know where they come together—that seam where the extrapolation and the real meet."



"Since the beginning, the real California has been obscured by perception, or as historian Kevin Starr observed, “at times, it seemed to be imprisoned in a myth of itself.”4 And when so many have come to west to find themselves—or their next self—how does a place struggle out of all of that need and expectation? “The myth that has symbolized America for the rest of the world has found its true expression here,” historian Gwendolyn Wright wrote in her introduction to the 1984 reprint of The WPA Guide to California, noting little had happened in fifty years to dim that perception, “A desire for dramatic change is at the heart of California’s appeal.”5

Place then, our sense of it, is what suffers in the blind or selfish making and remaking. We build it up and tear it down. Shoehorn expectations, and in the endeavor truth takes a beating and essence becomes much more difficult to summon.

The California cities that own part of my heart—San Francisco and Los Angeles—are anything but static. The Los Angeles and Bay Area that my relatives set their sights on is long gone. Sometimes though, I happen into ghosts of it—if on a drive home, heading north toward the San Gabriels on a clear day and I see the shoulder-to-shoulder rise of land that demarks the Angeles National Forest, or the socked-in coast and wild weed and pampas grass near the Pacific just as I move out built San Francisco. I can still lose my composure in the presence of the beauty that I know both I and my forebears bore witness to, together across the bend of time. But these vignettes of paradise are flashes. If we’re lucky, we glimpse them daily on a bike ride home, or while lifting groceries out of the car. They are reminders. I suppose that’s why I’m much more interested in the paradises that Californians create for themselves than boosters’ or Hollywood’s evocations of them; the neighborhoods naturally give themselves over and find humane ways to coexist.

When I speak of “paradise,” I’m not referencing elaborate McMansions built to the very edge of property lines or elaborate six-foot-high retaining walls that obscure your (and our) collective sense of place. I’m speaking of a vision of personal beauty seeking connection/interaction—maybe it’s a folk art garden full of old baby doll heads, or shards of blue glass sunk next to broken china as part of a front-yard mosaic. Maybe it’s painting your house turquoise or maybe it’s a flock of plastic pink flamingos? It might be the Virgen de Guadalupe painted on a Quik-Mart’s tamarind walls next to floating bottles of Tide and rolls of Ariel. Maybe it’s a make-shift fortune-telling kiosk in the driveway. What does peace, freedom of expression, a chance to breathe and reevaluate look like from decade-to-decade across generations?

It’s still about “space” to my mind. Not just measurable space—those miles demarcated in freeway exits—but the room to ask and play out that What If: Who might you be if you intersected with the place that might allow you to wander that question to its logical, meaningful end.

California, the best of it, is what lives and prospers in a liminal, unnamed space—somewhere between dreams, disappointments, and recalibration. It’s harder to recognize, perhaps, because it’s messy. It might look like defeat, or it might feel unfinished—or in still in motion."



"Even with all the buzz of gentrification that has restitched parts of North Beach, I was struck by how much of the feel—and stories—remained alive in the crevices of this place. This wasn’t Italy; it was California as seen through the prism of his Italian youth. He was extending the line—possibility—himself with it. The cafe has been a meeting room for generations of artists, muckrakers, eccentrics, and tourists; but mostly, its role has been to lend support and succor to neighborhood, struggling, and/or working-class folks like Giotta, who himself had arrived from Italy with his family penniless and at loose ends. From a singing window-washer to a business owner, this cafe had saved him—and so many others. In certain ways, it is a monument to all of that—a sanctuary.

The sorrow I was feeling had settled somewhere deep. I was sorry I would miss the memorial, the arias that would be sung in his memory, the old neighborhood stories that would soar. Shelley and I lingered longer than we’d intended. I wanted to pause to take a few snapshots—details—to remember this moment, but I was at a loss. Not a cup or saucer. Not the jukebox full of arias. But what? We stopped next door at Trieste’s adjacent storefront, their coffee-roasting business, and struck up a conversation with the man behind that counter. He directed our gaze toward the window, another poster of beloved Giovanni Giotta. The whole block, it seemed, was heavy in mourning. “There’s a big thing this weekend,” he told us, his body seemed limp with grief. Then he pushed two postcards—souvenirs—across the counter toward us: a blurred multiple exposure of the Caffe Trieste’s interior—the roar of activity visible and Papa Gianni, a ghost, there again before me.

The man at the counter looked up over his glasses and into middle space, and then pronounced: “That’s all we have left of poor Papa Gianni.”

I don’t want to believe him. I can’t. Because what’s circling around us—dusty and delicate but enduring—tells me something else: Papa Gianni is in these walls, in that jukebox. He’s part of the feeling of that old North Beach. Those guys standing on the street corner, keeping the story moving, aloft; the woman with the kind smile who remembers your coffee; they’ll be ghosts too, soon enough. But this old wooden monument of risk, big love, of life and acceptance is what we have left. How would I frame this shot? This feeling? Because it’s quintessentially California. I realize now why it was so difficult to capture: because California moves through you. It is vigor and spirit. If we do it right, we leave our mark on hearts and in stories and souls."
california  lynellgeorge  placemking  place  paradise  makedo  myth  reality  liminality  between  sanfrancisco  losangeles  2017  kevinstarr  dreams  change  unfinished  betweenness  liminalspaces 
march 2017 by robertogreco
California Today: A Chronicler of the State, in His Own Words - The New York Times
"Here are just a few highlights from Mr. Starr’s prose and interviews:

On recurring natural disasters (Los Angeles Times, Oct. 31, 1993)
Southern California has used technology to materialize an imagined society of garden cities and suburbs. Now and then, it must pay a price for its reordering of the environment.

On diversity (San Diego Union-Tribune, Sept. 10, 2000):
Is there any people on the planet, any language, any religion not represented in California this very morning? ... This diversity, then, is the persistent DNA code of California.

On California’s rising Latino population (New York Times, March 31, 2001):
The Anglo hegemony was only an intermittent phase in California’s arc of identity, extending from the arrival of the Spanish.

On the Central Valley (“Coast of Dreams,” 2004):
Mesopotamia, the rice fields of China, the Po Valley: the Central Valley stood in a long line of irrigation cultures which had, in turn, given birth to civilization itself.

On California at the millennium (“California: A History,” 2005):
California had long since become one of the prisms through which the American people, for better and for worse, could glimpse their future.

On the drought (The New York Times, April 4, 2005):
Mother Nature didn’t intend for 40 million people to live here.

On the Golden Gate Bridge (“Golden Gate,” 2010):
Like the Parthenon, the Golden Gate Bridge seems Platonic in its perfection, as if the harmonies and resolutions of creation as understood by mathematics and abstract thought have been effortlessly materialized through engineering design.
"
kevinstarr  california  diversity  socal  demographics  technology  history  identity  2017  2010  2005  2004  2001  2000  1993  drought  environment  goldengatebridge  engineering  infrastructure  mesopotamia  irrigation  civilization  society  latinos  future 
january 2017 by robertogreco
What Does It Mean to Become Californian? | Boom: A Journal of California
"The habits of 19th century Californians framed what becoming Californian would mean. Bitterly for Californians today, those habits did not come with a moral compass. The California Dream had been limitless in its promise of health, wealth, and happiness in the sunshine. Today’s Californians dream differently. As California becomes less exceptional, how will we describe California when it’s not exactly “Californian” anymore? The insights of critical regionalism and Foucault’s notion of “a particular, local, regional knowledge” may provide a guide."
2016  history  california  goldrush  environment  johnmuir  josiahroyce  hybridity  richardrodriguez  fredericklawolmstead  stephaniepincetl  joandidion  lanscape  nature  anseldams  williamhenryjackson  kevinstarr  michelfoucault  foucault 
january 2017 by robertogreco
Twitter
Sorry to hear about the death of great CA historian , also a terrific prose stylist (as evident in this…
KevinStarr  from twitter_favs
january 2017 by thecosas
California Today: The Rise of a Design Capital - The New York Times
"Overseas, California as a brand is now a crucial selling point for product makers when it comes to technology, automobiles and architecture.

“If you’re able to say, ‘Hey, this is truly Californian,’ there is a real appeal to it,” said Kevin Klowden, the executive director of the Milken Institute’s California Center.

That cachet, of course, has been supercharged by Silicon Valley. Design scholars point to Apple’s devices. Even as its manufacturing moved overseas, the company added a line to its products: “Designed by Apple in California.”

But what does California design say to consumers?

Simon Sadler, a professor of design at U.C. Davis who is principally interested in architecture, talked about the Golden Gate Bridge, the Pacific Coast Highway, the open style of modern homes, as well as an intangible sense of “magic and possibility.”

“We don’t do monuments, we do nodes,” he said. “And this is how we end up with the most famous California design of modern times, which is the iPhone. You know, it’s barely there. It’s always just an interface.”

Kevin Starr, the California historian, said global enthusiasm for the Golden State was in some ways recasting landscapes well beyond the state’s borders. On the roads, cars by nearly every automaker that sell in the United States are now designed in California.

And take a look at architecture around the world, Dr. Starr added: “Places like New Zealand, Australia, Argentina — they are all beginning to increasingly look like California. It’s the internationalization of design out of California.”

Many design experts still point to New York, with its recognizable monuments, as America’s design capital. There has long been a feeling in architectural circles that New York looked down on California. But that may be changing.

“What is surely exasperating for our colleagues on the East Coast is whether or not we’re ditsy, we’re onto something,” Professor Sadler said. “And the ascent of California as a center of design has been unstoppable.”"



[and at the end]

"In the 1960s, when a new bridge bisected the largely Mexican-American neighborhood of Barrio Logan in San Diego, residents were outraged.

They responded by painting colorful murals on the bridge’s concrete columns that depicted Chicano heritage and heroes. Over time, Chicano Park, as it was named, became home to dozens of the soaring artworks along with sculptures and landscaping.

Now, a campaign is underway to designate the park as a national historic landmark.

Representative Juan Vargas, a Democrat in San Diego, introduced a bill last year that would require the secretary of the interior to assess the park’s suitability for the designation.

On Wednesday, the measure was unanimously approved by a congressional committee.

Nominees for the National Historic Landmarks program are chosen for their historical as well as aesthetic value. In California, 145 structures bear the designation, among them bridges, forts and churches.

In a statement, Mr. Vargas said Chicano Park deserved to be included, calling it “a cultural mecca that highlights the activist and artistic contributions of our local community.”"
california  design  2016  architecture  technology  apple  simonsadler  kevinstarr  iphone  cars  homes  barriologan  chicanopark  sandiego  modernism  nodes 
november 2016 by robertogreco
My Dark California Dream - The New York Times
"Confusing one’s own youth with the youth of the world is a common human affliction, but California has been changing so fast for so long that every new generation gets to experience both a fresh version of the California dream and, typically by late middle-age, its painful death."



"Kevin Starr, a professor of history at the University of Southern California and author of a seven-volume history of the California dream, told me recently that he considered the mid-1960s — 1963 specifically — the end of modernist California, that period for which it makes sense to speak of “an agreed-upon, commanding” version of the dream. In Mr. Starr’s view, around the time I was born, in 1967, California entered a postmodern phase with multiple dreams in parallel: back-to-the-landers on communes; migrant farmworkers organizing in the San Joaquin Valley; gay and lesbian life proudly out in the open; and, of course, the outdoorsy-liberal existence that my parents found in Berkeley.

Real estate was still affordable and the public schools were among the best in the nation, so it made sense for my parents to shape life around meaningful work and just enough money to enjoy all that glorious public land. Mom sold her artwork and helped start a women’s small press; Dad worked for the local branch of Legal Services and, in 1972, on a combined income of $13,000, they bought a four-bedroom Berkeley Victorian for $27,000. They joined the Sierra Club and took us backpacking and, later, rock-climbing. When my parents felt especially flush, they took us skiing near Lake Tahoe. They even considered buying a weekend home at Stinson Beach in Marin — although $10,000, the asking price, was ultimately too much.

By the time I graduated from Berkeley High School, in 1985, those Stinson Beach homes fetched more like $350,000, but even public school teachers and jazz musicians could still buy modest homes in Berkeley’s lesser neighborhoods. Families like mine were building a secular religion around cross-country skiing in winter, rafting or kayaking on the springtime melt, climbing Yosemite’s cliffs with great new safety gear, and enjoying cold-water surf courtesy of new wet suit technology. Food, too: organic produce, local oysters, California king salmon, Napa wine.

It was soft hedonism, admittedly, but a decent life that remained more or less available right through my early adulthood — as in 15 years ago. That’s when my wife and I — “arguably the last two writers ever to buy a home in San Francisco,” says Mr. Starr — bought a fixer-upper in an unfashionable neighborhood with a street gang on the corner. Even as our daughters went off to preschool, it seemed plausible that we might pass on our lifestyle to them."



"Wallace Stegner, the great 20th-century novelist and environmentalist, in a mood similar to the one I’m feeling — he hated hippies, worried they might foretell the impending collapse of Western civilization — wrote that “Like the rest of America, California is unformed, innovative, ahistorical, hedonistic, acquisitive, and energetic — only more so.” Put all those qualities together and you get a place that always belongs to somebody else, before you even know it’s for sale.

Back in my 20s, I thought I’d grown up in California too late — after all the mountains had been climbed and all the good surf breaks discovered. Right on schedule, in middle age — as the state’s population reaches 40 million — I am now tempted to think that I lived through the end of a golden era. But maybe the better way to say it is that just like every other Californian for as long as anybody can remember, I have merely witnessed a fleeting chapter in a centuries-long human story in which the lost Eden we all heard about from our parents is eternally changing into the pretty damn nice place we found — and then, much too soon for comfort, into the next bewildering mixture of good and bad that we scarcely recognize."
california  change  nostalgia  2015  danielduane  via:mattthomas  kevinstarr  history  wallacestegner 
october 2015 by robertogreco
Kevin Starr - Wikipedia
"• Americans and the California Dream, 1850–1915.
• Inventing the Dream: California through the Progressive Era (1985)
• "Sunset Magazine and the Phenomenon of the Far West". Sunset magazine: a century of Western living, 1898-1998.
• Material Dreams: Southern California through the 1920s (1990)
• Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California (1996)
• The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s (1997)
• Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940-1950 (2002)
• Coast Of Dreams: California on the Edge, 1990-2002 (2004)
• California: a history. Random House. 2005.
• Golden dreams: California in an age of abundance, 1950-1963"
kevinstarr  california  history  books  toread 
june 2013 by robertogreco

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